Much to the chagrin of those I work with, I don’t follow scripts. But once I figured out what I wanted to say at my dad’s service today, I wrote it down.
I am Paul’s son Jeff.
I feel compelled to start with a joke. If you were around my dad at all — if you were a patient in his dentist’s chair or a member of his Sunday School class or Sertoma club or Men’s Prayer Breakfast group or bridge or tennis group, you heard a joke. And if you were a member of his family, at his dinner table and in the car on long vacation drives, you heard *all* the jokes.
Some of you know that before my dad was a dentist, he was a Marine pilot in World War II. What I don’t think he told anybody but me was that he was once called on for a top-secret mission to fly a special delegation across country for an important meeting. He had four passengers: the President of the United States, the country’s richest man, the smartest man in the world, and the greatest evangelist of that time.
As sometimes happens in stories like this, Dad’s plane had a problem: the fuel line leaked, and they were running quickly out of gas far from any safe landing spot. Dad put the plane on autopilot (this was a technologically advanced plane for the time) and went back to the cabin and said “Sirs, I regret to inform you that we have two problems. The first is that we are going to crash. The second is that we have only four parachutes for the five of us.”
Well, the President reacted quickly, saying “Gentlemen, in this dark time of war our nation needs me more than ever. Were I to perish, the spirit of our country would be shaken and our ability to win this war would be in jeopardy. I must survive.” And he took a parachute and jumped out the hatch to safety.
Immediately after, the country’s richest man said “Our economy is only now climbing out of the long Depression. Were I to die, the stock market would be shaken, businesses would collapse, and millions would be thrown back into unemployment. I must survive.” And he grabbed a parachute and out he went.
Right after that, the world’s smartest man said “I have in my mind an idea that will bring peace and prosperity, not only to our country but to the entire world. I must survive to bring that idea to reality.” And he followed the other two out the hatch.
The great evangelist looked at dad and said “Son, I have lived a good life. I know our Maker and I am not afraid to meet Him. Take the last parachute. I’m ready to die.”
And dad said, “Actually, we still have two parachutes.” The evangelist said “It’s a miracle! like the loaves and fishes!”
And dad said “No, the world’s smartest man grabbed my backpack by mistake.”
Dad told that joke years ago, but I had forgotten it until my daughter told it to me last summer. So whether this is comforting or disturbing, know that dad’s humor has been handed down to future generations.
But I tell that particular joke because I see a lot of Dad in its characters.
Dad wasn’t the President of the United States. But to be President, you have to deeply love your country, and dad was a great patriot. He really was a Marine pilot in the war, and he really did have a secret mission, which thankfully he never had to execute. While most of the stories I heard of his time in the Pacific were fun and games with his fellow pilots, toward the end of the war they were training for a mission to dive bomb Tokyo, which would have likely killed thousands and almost certainly cost them their lives. Fortunately for us, their plans were suddenly changed, and they were pulled back from their forward position without explanation. Days later, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, they understood why their lives had been spared. But long before he met any of us, dad was prepared to give his life for his country. He continued to serve our nation in the Navy as a dentist, and even after retiring from the military after more than twenty years of service, dad remained an active citizen and student of policy and politics. My dad wasn’t the president of the United States, but he loved our country.
Dad wasn’t the richest man in the country, although he was a great provider for his family. But to be the rich you have to know how to invest wisely and take some risks, and dad did that in what counts. He wasn’t rich in money, but he was rich in relationships. He invested his whole heart in his family and friends, and was rich in love for it. And in terms of taking risks…I’m 46, and I’m still two years younger than dad was when he and mom adopted me as an infant. I realize more and more what a risk, what an act of optimism that was. Dad wasn’t the country’s richest man in money, but he invested his heart wisely, and I’m glad he took some risks with it.
Dad wasn’t the smartest man in the world, although he was awfully bright. It takes not only a quick wit but a clarity of thought to be truly smart, and dad had that. Kristin mentioned some examples of his wit, but the best example of his clarity of thinking was this: in his early twenties, as the war ended, he realized he needed to decide what to do with his life. So he sat down with a sheet of paper and listed out what he liked to do, what he was good at, and what we wanted out of life, and he decided that being a dentist was the best choice for him. He raced through school, taking chemistry courses out of sequence but acing them anyway, which shows he was smart. But the fact that 60 years after making tht decision he was *still* practicing dentistry, because he enjoyed it more than any hobby, is what has always impressed me. People spend thousands of dollars trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and some of us never figure it out. Dad just needed a sheet of paper and a sharp pencil. He wasn’t the smartest man in the world, but he was a clear thinker.
Dad wasn’t the greatest evangelist of his day. To evangelize, you have to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Dad was a devoted member of Ortega and he and mom made sure we went to church, and he always prayed at dinner and at family occasions, but other than that, I don’t remember him talking about his faith too much. But when I was in Vacation Bible School here as a kid I remember learning a dippy little song about the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which another Paul, the apostle, listed in Galatians 5:22-23, which I have always used to discern how well I was allowing God to work in my life. I won’t sing the song, but listen to the list:
Francis of Assisi was said to have told his followers “Preach the good news at all times. Use words when necessary.” Dad may not have been the greatest evangelist, but he preached the good news with the way he lived his life. He didn’t need words.
A central part of that good news is that death does not get the last say and that love wins out. We know that dad lives in each of us who were changed for the better for knowing him, and we have faith that he lives eternally in God’s love. One of the downsides of living to 94 is that many of your friends beat you through heaven’s door. So while we know there are many familiar faces in heaven’s welcoming party, it’s a comfort to our family to have so many friends of his and of ours here today to celebrate his life. Thank you for coming.