NOTIONS: This Father's Day, leave some advice in writing

June 9, 2008

Father's Day is Sunday. It also will be my dad's 75th birthday. I've not decided what to give him. I do know what gift he's giving us.

Last year, my dad bought a laptop computer. One day, he sat down and began writing to his grandkids.

"This is a long letter to you about one life, lived so far from 1933 to 2008, to acquaint you with what that life was like for the person who lived it," he began. Many months and 124 single-spaced pages later, he finished and asked me to edit it.

What I found is a rich, colorful retrospective-part family album, history book, parenting guide, career counsel, travelogue and love story.

Early on, my dad introduces each member of his family, starting with his dad, and shares lessons learned from each.

In celebration of Father's Day, here's a little insight from my dad's dad.

Alta Clyde Hetrick was born in Clinton County in 1893. He didn't like the name Alta, so folks called him "Het."

As a kid, my grandfather used mules and chains to help his father clear virgin Hoosier forest and create a family farm near Mulberry. At 17, he headed off to become a railroad telegrapher, a profession he'd work until he retired in 1959.

My grandpa worked long, late hours at the Lafayette train station.

"I'm sure that cut into how well we were able to know each other," my dad writes. "But Depressionera kids seemed to have had lower expectancies of how things should be. I can never recall any feelings of disappointment. He had to work. That's all I knew."

And what did my dad learn from his dad? Some excerpts:

Accept people for who they are. On those infrequent times when he could get away for an hour, my dad brought people home from the station. We never knew if the person would be the stationmaster, a baggage handler, a section crew worker, a porter, an engineer or just someone passing through town. They were all treated the same and dined as part of the family.

Do your job and a little more. I can never remember my dad getting to work fewer than 15 minutes early or leaving immediately when his shift was over. When one of the other operators was sick, the two remaining operators filled in by working 12-hour shifts.

Pay your bills. On Dad's payday, my parents would get out the old 1934 Pontiac and head to downtown Lafayette where they would go to every creditor and pay every bill with cash. With what was left, a little went into savings and then they were off to the grocery.

Be careful where you put your money. One miserable, hot summer morning, Dad and I were working on the garage roof. I was a teen-ager by then and we were tearing off the old, rusting metal roof and getting ready to install a new wood-and-shingle roof.

As I tore off a strip of tin, I found a coffee can stuck between the sidewall and the roof. I picked it up, peeked inside and found that it was full of money.

I called out to Dad that I'd found a treasure. He said to bring it down.

"It's your college education," Dad said.

I learned that during the Depression, the bank where Dad had kept his life savings had gone under and he'd lost everything. He decided that he'd never trust a bank again with anything important to him. There had never been a college graduate in our family and no bank failure was going to stop his boy from being one.

Do what you really want while you can. As long as I can remember, my dad talked about Denver Colorado. Denver was a magic place for him. Perhaps he'd talked to people who'd been there. Perhaps he'd seen pictures of the Rockies on railroad literature. Whatever the case, he always talked about the day he'd go and see Denver.

On Father's Day of his 79th year, I talked him into going to the hospital because he'd been lying on the couch for three days and looked awfully gray. That same night, he died of a heart attack.

He never saw Denver. Never saw the Rockies. Never felt the cool, crisp mountain air. Never saw the trains heading west through the pass.

He had a mortgage-free home. He'd learned to trust banks again. He had money saved. Had vacation time. Had years of retirement. Had a lifetime railroad pass in his wallet that would take him and my mom anywhere in the country for almost nothing.

But he never went to Denver.

I wish he had.

As I write this, your grandma and I have been in every state in the contiguous United States, plus Hawaii. We have only Alaska to go. Perhaps "Het" is the reason why.

Perhaps "Het" is the reason you should realize your dream, too.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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