I have admired only a few men in my life and distrusted the vast majority I have met. Yet there were three men I admired profoundly when I was a child, and these three men serve to this day as models of the man I strive to be.
As I mentioned in a recent essay, I never knew my father. He died rather tragically at the age of 33, only two months after I was born. I was born on September 6, and he departed from this world on November 17. My two older brothers and mom, of course, have fond and loving memories of him. To me, though, he is an absence, something void rather than something real. Indeed, the only physical touch I remember having with him is the cold touch of his rather handsome gravestone in Great Bend, Kansas. I had a step-father for 24 years of my life, beginning in 1970, but, sadly, he was no exemplar of fatherhood or even of manhood. From him, I only learned what not to do.
While I’m sure there are psychological ways to explain life without a father, I can state with certainty (though not with psychological knowledge) that I both admired a few men in my life and distrusted the vast majority I met. I especially distrusted male authority figures. Not too surprisingly, when I took the mandatory psychological examination to enter Roman Catholic seminary, my test results strongly suggested that I would do “anything and everything possible to undermine male authority.” Trust me, no seminary wants that guy!
And yet, after 53 years of life, there’s always another “and yet.” I’ve worked very hard in my professional life to avoid falling into the trap of thinking my superiors my moral inferiors, untrustworthy prigs and charlatans. Still, such thoughts and tendencies still cloud my judgments of past events and past persons I knew, maybe judgments I would remake, could I possibly have a re-do. Certainly, charity would demand some re-imagining of my past views. Even my first encounter with a police officer was a bad one. Some friends and I—with permission—were given access to the school photocopying machines so that we could exchange debate evidence. Somehow, we set off the silent alarm, triggering the arrival of the police. When the officer arrived and saw the four of us, he said to us, “You fools. I could rape anyone of you if I wanted.” Needless to write, we four were rather shaken up, though all ended in the officer leaving us alone and turning off the alarm. (Please note: I have met excellent police officers in my adult life, and I personally no longer think of all police as totalitarians. Indeed, I’m rather pro-police, especially after the horrors of 2020).
Things were not much better in my education. As I look back over my formal education—despite the fact that I became a full-time academic—I had almost no respect for my junior high, high school, or graduate school teachers. Let me make a few caveats here. I adored my college professors (even the scary ones), and I adored (to this day) my graduate school advisors. But other graduate school professors… not at all. For better or worse, I rather loathed them. I especially hated how they favored the conformist, sycophantic graduate students who seemed to me to be little more than willing slaves. And the high school teachers and the graduate school professors I liked least were those who—perhaps, very coincidentally—held 1960’s authoritarian politically correct views. They weren’t even interesting views, for they were all more or less tapioca in their banal conformity, and they certainly did not encourage freedom of thought, expression, or speech. They weren’t as bad as the would-be rapist cop, but they were in the same ballpark. Just less blunt.
And yet (yep, you know there had to be at least one more “and yet” in this essay), there were three men I admired profoundly when I was a child.
The first man was Jack Clouse. Jack served in World War II (he had been threatened with punishment for his openly anti-Soviet views during the war), and then served as our hometown’s post master until he turned age 55. At 55, he and his wife, Cleo, retired. They were two of the finest persons I have ever known. One day, when Jack’s house was being built across the street, I as a young boy fully explored the house on a weekend. Suddenly, a booming voice told me I was in deep trouble. When I turned to see, for the first time ever, Jack Clouse, he just laughed and laughed. I was only seven or so, but he sat down with me, and we talked about life that day. It was one of the best talks of my life. Jack has since passed away, but, while he was alive, we never did stop talking. He took me out for cokes, for pizza, for Amish meals, and we never stopped talking. We talked about politics, history, World War II, community (Jack seemed to have belonged to every fraternal order in town and knew everybody), and everything else that mattered. Despite the age difference, Jack always treated me as an equal, and I love him for it.
The second man was Joe O’Sullivan, the father of my best friend, Tim O’Sullivan. Joe (though I always called him “Mr. O’Sullivan”) was the most manly man I knew. He was our county prosecutor, and I’ll never forget when he would get a call at the house. He would grin, put on his holster, and tell us “I’m off to get the bad guys.” Joe loved going on arrests and raids. I also knew Joe as a faithful member of our Catholic parish, Holy Cross. Like Jack, Joe always took me seriously, but he also knew when to have fun. One blizzardy Saturday morning I remember quite well—Tim and I were hanging at his house—and Joe told us to get our coats on and head out to the family station wagon. We did, and Joe drove us to the parking lot of our sports arena. There, that wonderful Saturday morning, he taught us how to drive on sheets of ice and make donuts. To this day, I have confidence in my winter driving because of Joe.
The third man was Don Haskard. The father of my extremely close friend, Joel, Don had been a philosophy major in college and then an engineer with the local railroad. Due to some unfortunate physical problems—which occurred on the job—Don had taken early retirement. In almost every way, Don was simply “cool”—from his attitudes on life (he was Prohibitionist!), to his love of motorcycles, and to his deep knowledge of Kansas ecology. Like Jack and Joe, Don always took me seriously, and he, Joel, and I had some of the best conversations of my entire life. We talked about everything—from politics and philosophy to movies to the reclusive habits of bobcats.
These three men not only saved me from myself (believe me, childhood was rough in our house), but they served—to this day—as models of the man I strive to be. If I possess even part of Jack’s good will, Joe’s tenacity, and Don’s intelligence, I can be more than proud.
Yes, exemplars matter. Profoundly. Thank you, God, for such men in my life. May I never take such a gift for granted, and may I always live up to their example.
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The featured image is a photograph of three men reading on a bench, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Canada (1908) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.