Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Heroes are hard to come by

My fitness focus continues. I’m entering the 14th week since June, when after being disenchanted with my excess weight, and deteriorating physical state, decided to do something about it. I’m now down 39 pounds. Even better, I think I’m in the best shape I’ve been since high school. This new me, committed to riding my bike, lifting weights, and on off days, hitting the treadmill hard is scaring me. I’ve been taken over by the spirit of Jack Lalanne!

Shortly after deciding to shed excess pounds, I was at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Auburn when The Dempsey Challenge was mentioned, and registration packets handed out. Not giving much thought to it at the time, I stuck this in with the assortment of other materials they bombard you with at these kinds of events. Later, going through these at the kitchen table, I mentioned it in passing to Mary. She seemed much more interested in it than I was. She actually when online to the site and got the idea that we should form a team and participate. Since we were already both biking, I figured I could do the 25-mile ride slated for October 4, and even mix in some fundraising.

Since June, I’ve sent out appeals to friends, family, and a handful of business associates, and other colleagues. My fundraising has been a fraction of Mary’s. While I’ve raised slightly more than $250, she’s near $1,000, and I have no doubt she’ll surpass that total.

I’m participating in this ride for The Patrick Dempsey (yes the actor) Center for Cancer Hope & Healing at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. The Dempsey Center provides free support, education and wellness services to cancer patients, families and caregivers.

I’ll be participating as part of Team Tarazzmatazz, in memory of my late father-in-law, Joe Tarazewich, who lost his battle with cancer, 10 years ago this summer.

My father-in-law was a heroic individual. Our team name is one part his last name, and also part “razzmatazz,” which indicates a play to confuse, or dazzle an opponent. Joe was a former football player at Drake University , and he loved to compete, and in particular, demolish an opponent.

[Joe T. at a Drake practice, 1949]

When I first started dating Mary, and visiting her house, Joe intimidated the shit out of me, and I’ve never been easily intimated, probably less so then, when I was full of blather, and not much else. Maybe that’s why he seemed so imposing.

It wasn’t just his physical presence, which filled the room. It was his penetrating blue eyes, and his questioning nature that always managed to get at the crux of any matter.

A man that was fully engaged in his world, Joe might reference Emerson or Thoreau, while commenting on an article on business from the Wall Street Journal. This would be while he had one eye on "All Creatures Great and Small," on PBS, simultaneously working on the crossword puzzle from the Portland Press Herald, a daily ritual of his. He was the first intellectual I’d encountered that wasn’t an academic egghead.

Not only was he erudite on most subjects, he also managed to maintain his 100 acre property, work on a dry stone wall from rocks lying around his property, run his own business, and also find time to do accounting work on the side.

I was stricken by his daughter, so I continued to come back and endure his questions, and began coming back with a few answers. One time he sent me home with a book of Emerson’s essays. When I came back and could hold a semi-literate discussion with him, I thought I caught a twinkle in those deep blue Polish eyes that may even have contained a trace of respect for something he saw in me.

Years later, while in my mid-20s and now married to his daughter, and the father of his grandson, he offered to support our young family if I thought I wanted to pursue a professional baseball career. He had read about an independent league in the Midwest and thought I had the talent to see if I could reconnect with a baseball career derailed by injuries initially, at the University of Maine, and then sidetracked by fundamentalist religion.

He had seen me pitch in a league now long defunct, and dominate hitters with a combination of fastballs, guile, and feistiness that has never desserted me.

At that stage of my life, I knew that baseball was a pipe dream, but I’ve never forgotten that offer, or the fact that he may have been the first person to see my potential, fifteen years before I began to finally harness it, as I approached the age of 40. By that time, Joe had passed away, and it’s one of the regrets of my life that he never saw me publish my first book, or get to see the work I’m currently doing helping people find their own pathways to success in the workplace.

I often think of Joe, as I continue to learn new things, have several books going at once, and never tire of increasing my intellectual capacity.

There is the tendency to romanticize individuals after they pass away. Death can make us overlook people’s shortcomings, and airbrush away their defects. Like any other human being, Joe had his flaws. He could be cantankerous (particularly when he knew he was right), overly opinionated, and even downright difficult to tolerate, especially when we were living with Joe and Joan for 14 months, while beginning construction on our own house. Possibly the reason Joe and I butted heads as often as we did was that in many ways, we had similarities in that we both held on vigorously to our opinions.

Family gatherings have never been the same for me since Joe passed away. Oh did he and I love to argue on any subject—religion, politics, sports—it didn’t matter. We’d get into very heated debates, causing the rest of the family to move outside of our sphere of argument. We both loved it, however, and rarely missed an opportunity to verbally spar and parry.

The measure of a man’s life is often summed up by what others say or write about you after you die. This is particularly telling when it comes from people with no vested interest in enhancing your legacy.

Rex Rhoades has been the executive editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal for well over a decade. On the morning of July 18, 1999, he penned a fitting tribute to my late father-in-law, a man he had never met, until reading his obituary.

Rhoades was struck by all the things Joe had done in his life, and I think by those rare qualities of a true renaissance man.

He wrote,

Roll the highlight film. A boy, born to immigrant parents in Saco, Maine, in 1925, industrious and studious, he learns English and begs to go to school. Service in World War II aboard a submarine, the USS Piper, in the Pacific. Returns, attends Drake University where he quarterback the football team. Wins the “Salad Bowl” against Arizona in 1950.

Graduates with a business degree, majoring in accounting and economics. Teaches and coaches at St. Louis High School and Thornton Academy (his alma mater). Works as an accountant and controller for several businesses, and is president of Building Materials, Inc. in Lisbon Falls.

Town manager in Greene and Wayne, he eventually becomes administrative assistant to the Durham selectmen—plus plumbing inspector, assessor, and code enforcement officer as well.

Built his home, enjoyed building stone walls and using computers (before they became the norm), and the study of philosophy. He stood up for things that he believed in, like education.

“He will be remembered for standing up at the 1998 Durham town meeting and declaring, ‘I’m through being a cheapskate,’ and leading a vote to pass a school music program,” said his obituary.

Rhoades went on with his touching tribute to Joe, which captured the man so well.

My father-in-law was a hero and he is an inspiration to me today to keep doing what I do, not always receiving accolades and the spotlight, but working diligently for what is right and good.

I’m honored to be riding in his memory, October 4. There may be readers that aren't already supporting a rider, walker, or cyclist that would like to support my efforts and help support a great cause. If so, you can make a donation by following this link to my online fundraising page.

[Drake football, circa 1950, Veterans Stadium, Wichita, KS; Joe is #36. All-American, Johnny Bright, is directly behind Joe.]


Mark said...

good post. you did the man right.
it was nice to see you today.

Joann said...

Thank you for your post on Grandpa Joe. I never saw that team photo before. Good luck on Sunday. Enjoy the moment.