A Few Christmas Thoughts

I did not grow up in a perfect household, but then again, who does?  I remember Christmas’s with a child’s wonder, first how that little man could visit every house in the world in one night, and later how my parents could engage us for 24 hours on the 25th. of December in such a total way.  I tell my substitute teaching students about the fact that I had the principal or Superintendent to deal with after a horrific day at school.  They cannot believe that their fathers are not the closest thing to their own schoolyard stories of each day.  Mine seemed more there, if that was possible.   I also like to tell them that I can outroar any of them because I grew up with eight brothers and sisters.  I can easily out roar any of them, I tell them.  Sometimes they get to find out why I say that.

Anyway, when we were very small children our parents decided on one Christmas that the best way to give us presents was to build or sew them themselves.  So they did.  After a day in Omaha, Nebraska at our wealthier cousins house, one of us was heard to say on the ride home, “I sure can’t stand using their toys, I can’t wait until we get home with our own stuff.”  (Something like that).  It made my parent’s day, to  say the least.

My father was the youngest, at twenty-six years of age, Superintendent in Iowa.  His previous claim to fame had been to teach in Barnum, Iowa, where I was born, and take nine players on the Barnum High School baseball team, to Des Moines where Barnum outplayed every school in Iowa and won the state championship.  With just nine boys, none of whom would ever be able to sit out a bad inning because there were actually no back-up players.  He loved telling that story to his first two sons, who were kind of askance in the baseball area.  Tom and I could not  play passable baseball.  Tom was a lot better than I  was, and he let me know it.

Later, in probably our proudest moment with our father, until Lowell, he went to Chicago, actually a town right out of the famous South Side, he tackled a superintendency that was riled with problems related to civics and the relationship between whites and blacks, as we were known in those days.  We were just some kids from Iowa, and we were thrown into the depths of the debate.  One of us came out a liberal, while the other came out a conservative.  We still are those two diametrically opposite men.

My father was told that one of his schools was unbalanced as far as civil rights was concerned.  One school was one hundred percent black.  He took my younger brother Charlie, an elementary school pupil, to the Riley School in Harvey, Illinois and placed him in that school.  He was written up all over Chicago for that one.  In a very positive way, but nevertheless, written up.  Charlie was, of course, not African-American.  He was a good friend to a number of new friends, however.

Once, my best friend, who, as my grandfather from Iowa asked, “Is he Greek?”  “No, Grandpa, he is black,” was with me as we went to my house to play chess.  I was not very good, but I tried.  My friend usually beat me.  The editor of the local newspaper saw the two of us in our living room playing one another and wanted to print a story about how my parents were the “Real McCoy,” as they used to say every so often.  My father convinced him that I was just with a friend, not a white friend or a black friend.  Just a friend.  That friend and I went camping together in Iowa later that year.  In one day we caught fourteen freshwater fish.  That was our personal record.  My friend became an expert on President Herbert Hoover because we visited Hoover’s Library in West Branch, Iowa.  He had become very interested in Hoover while spending a day at the site.  He knows more about Hoover than I do.  He is still my best friend, and lives in Kentucky.  And, he is still African-American.

Anyway, on the sad day of Martin Luther King’s killing, we spent time together. We eventually became part of the groom’s party at our mutual weddings.  That was when my grandfather asked that question.  He could not understand that my best friend, other than my wife, was not white.  I loved him, he was my grandfather.  But on this, he was horribly wrong.

Later, my father would convince me that he was  the most aggressive Superintendent in Lowell’s recent history.  I have an article in the SUN that stated that my father called in the federal government over a practice in the Lowell that discriminated against the poor.  George Kouleheras had an argument over engaging the feds.  My father pointed out that, if the truth be told, the poor were more in need of the school’s services than the wealthy.  This after he had defeated his highest ranking opponent in the School Committee race by 4,621.  Bullet voting would be his Christmas present in 1975.

George Anthes recently asked me why I told stories about Paul Tsongas but not as many about Wayne Peters.  First, I guess I would have to acknowledge that I knew Wayne Peters better.  There are more stories about him to tell.  Fishing in the Midwest is a constant.  Fishing stories abound with Paul too, but I fear the audience would not have the same level of familiarity with Paul and maybe some of the stories would overlap or be redundant.  Also, the audience is probably more interested in stories about Paul than my father, and I am a storyteller.  So I do tell stories about my father.  I remember when we dedicated the LHS Library Computer Room for my father and I had many stories to tell.  It was fun.  And, I believe people liked that press for that day.  My father proved himself to be of some interest, not the least to George who ended up saying a few nice words about my father as one of the speakers.  I will intersperse my comments about Wayne Peters with my comments about Paul Tsongas.  As I have often told people, there is not a huge difference between being the son of the School Superintendent and the brother-in-law of the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.  In  both cases you have to watch what you say and who you are saying it to.  It is pretty much the same level of pressure.  The School Superintendent because he is your father and you have to do your best everyday.  The Senator because he is a family member and you, likewise, have to do your best everyday.

When Vicki and I started dating, I was not wildly popular with the Tsongas family.  But Paul did his best to accept me, and I remember many Christmas’s where he and I would sit by the dining room windows at Mansur Street and look out at the snow falling on the large yard.  Paul and I would talk, and from that would come many of my principles.  Do not hit your children was one of them, and the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have others do onto you, was another.  Paul was like a brother to me and I was in the Tsongas family since my wedding, on June 7, 1975.  A total of forty three wonderful years where I got the chance to be a member of a very influential family.  What Mr. Themo Tsongas did not see in me, Paul did.  And, he made those things count.  Christmas was a time for Niki to construct some of the best meals and parties that I had ever been to, and it was tremendous.  Niki is still one of my best friends.

So that is me on Christmas.  An Iowan who got to settle in Massachusetts and enjoy himself tremendously.  A school Superintendent’s kid who got to accompany Paul Tsongas to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. and meet the many guards who Paul would later befriend because they were good people and they protected their many Senators.  A teacher who enjoyed tremendously his teaching and his summers on Cape Cod.  There, Paul was himself and he told me a great many things about myself that could not be blown off.  I have, like Jimmy Stewart, had a wonderful life and I have enjoyed it tremendously.  And I remember well the day that I answered the Cape Cod telephone and a voice said, “Is Paul there, this is Bobby Orr.”  Life is sweet.