Monday, January 12, 2009

Life and Death of Joe Pittsburgh, 1927-2004

Few are the monuments we construct to the most monumental people in our lives. My father died five years ago today.


So I’m taking the easy way out -- twice in one week! -- today and posting the Pittsburgh Magazine story I did about him in 2004. Editors there flattered me by headlining the piece, “The Life and Death of Joe Pittsburgh.”


I could think of no finer monument to the man who was so well loved by so many. He loved Pittsburgh and for editors of the city’s namesake magazine to think he epitomized it so well would have left him euphoric, a not uncommon condition for a joyful man.


Spend your life calling a man like him Dad and everyday forever more is Father’s Day.






The Life and Death of Joe Pittsburgh


Four weeks before he was found dead on the cushioned comfort of his living room couch, I became convinced my father was going to die a violent, potentially lucrative death. The thought filled me with titillating shivers of shame.

He died as he'd lived, right on the razor's edge of insolvency. He had $219 in his savings account; $312 in checking. He left his loved ones not a dime of life insurance. The red pin on the fuel gauge of his leased Dodge Neon was hard on empty.

His idea of an extravagant gift was paying for his own funeral, a gesture rendered less poignant when the funeral director told us he'd not even paid enough to settle the cost of his desired cremation. The surprise news left his grieving sons the choice of coming up with the money for visitation and cremation or having a do-it-yourself immolation somewhere fitting, say, perhaps a Pittsburgh Steeler tailgate party. He was a beer-lover who would have enjoyed the raucous send-off, but my brother Eric and I decided it would spark a scandal from the people who didn't know him the way we did, so we started signing the papers. Today, we're each paying off more than $4,700 in funeral expenses for the man who'd for years assured us our grief would be assuaged by his prescient benevolence. Paul Russell Rodell, the only man I know who'd voted for Richard M. Nixon for president three times, died wrong again.

A brutal, newsworthy death could have changed all that. Twice in the month prior to his death, he'd told me harrowing stories of how he'd narrowly avoided a violent end and I began to steel myself for the phone call that would inform me of his sudden demise.

He'd been tooling down a one-way street near his Scott Township home when he came within scant feet of a head-on collision with a menacing teenager. The youth stormed out of his Chevy Blazer and berated my slight, gentle father with profane threats. "He seemed high on something," Dad said. "I really thought he was going to kill me." Dad was driving down the wrong way of a one-way street, one he'd driven correctly thousands of times. This time he'd simply forgotten.

Even worse was the cruel December day when we'd scheduled a pre-holiday meal with him and Mom. The bitter weather led him to cancel. He didn't want his guests driving in such conditions. Yet, later that day, he called to tell me the need for an essential item forced him to venture out in the treacherous elements, a mission that nearly cost him his life.

He told me he'd braved the bitter snows and taken a trolley downtown. He'd walked tentatively on weakened, arthritic knees down steep, unshoveled and icy sidewalks to retrieve the single item he'd felt compelled to obtain.

"The way down convinced me I'd made a terrible mistake, but there was no turning back," he said, his voice still quaking with fearful recollection. "I got off the trolley on the way home and was looking down at my feet so I wouldn't fall and break a hip. But I was so careful about watching my feet, I wasn't watching where I was going. I walked right onto the tracks and nearly got run down by the trolley. The driver was shaking his fist at me and yelling to watch where I was going. Made me feel like a stupid old man."

His sad acknowledgment made me wish I could have been there to give him a reassuring hug. But what was so important that he had to leave the house on this fearsome day?

"I had to get some batteries for my nose hair trimmer."

Instead of a lawsuit-inspiring death resulting from a fatal clash with a deep-pocket defendant, Dad died quietly alone at home. They told us it was an aortic embolism. He'd awakened the night before with a sharp pain in his lower back. He thought it was a pulled muscle. Later he began dry heaving, blaming a corresponding telltale symptom on spoiled buttermilk. He spent his last day on earth with Rachel, his wife of 45 years, and his beloved granddaughter, Josie, 3, watching "Finding Nemo," not a bad story to go out on, and certainly better than if it had been a year ago when his last mortal movie would have starred a big, purple dinosaur and treacly songs about washing your hands. My Mom had left him for the 40 minutes it took to return Josie to her mother. When she got back, Dad was dead. To our everlasting surprise, we were all about to learn how much fun the death of a father could be.

My brother Eric, his first-born son, flew home from Nashville. We wept and talked about how Dad feared growing old and becoming a burden to his family, a fear we shared for selfish reasons. My mother wondered if she'd been too ignorant of his warning signs -- neither of which, incidentally, was on the refrigerator article headlined: "The Nine Warning Signs You Should Never Ignore." Eric and I concluded that his death was entirely in character with his life. In fact, we reasoned that, had one been present, a medical professional might have warned, "Look, this is serious. You should go to the emergency room where they will conduct tests, draw blood and subject your aging and battered body to numerous indignities. Sure, you can stay here, but you might be dead before nightfall. So what's it going to be?" We agreed Dad would have said, "Hand me the remote."

Paul Rodell was a blood descendant of Homer Simpson. He was born September 4, 1927, in East Liverpool, Ohio, a town that still commemorates its decades-old heyday as the world's leading manufacturer of ceramic door knobs. He was the son of Ethel May Simpson Rodell and the grandson of a man named, by God, Homer Simpson. His father was Archibald Rodell, who died in a Pittsburgh veteran's hospital in 1938 as a latent result of being gassed by the Kaiser's henchmen in World War I. He spent the last years of his life gazing longingly from the windows of a sterile tuberculosis ward and writing achingly beautiful poetry about the 10-year-old boy waving up from the lawn on the other side of the glass. We've long wondered how the poignant death of his own father shaped his life, and any profound conclusions have thus far eluded us. All we know is how he lived.

The letters R.I.P. applied to our father long before his January 12 death. Paul Rodell was Really Into Parties. After the initial cloudburst of tears, my mother asked Eric if he wanted anything to drink. He asked for a beer. "Well," she fretted, "I'll see if we have any."

"Mom, he's only been dead for four hours." The death of our father had turned my brother into a wise-cracking Bob Hope. His straight-faced one liners at the funeral would provoke awkward bursts of laughter from people who'd come prepared only to weep. I will gratefully remember the funeral as Dad's last, best party. In the background, Frank Sinatra's "My Way" played over and over, as he'd requested. Many of the walls were festooned with pictures of Dad on the golf course wearing the kaleidoscopic kind of attention-grabbing pants melon-smashing prop comics consider tasteless. And the rooms rang with stories and laughter. One guest later wrote, "Paul's was the first 'feel-good' funeral I ever attended."

Mysterious forces would contribute their own shares of hilarity. When the funeral director asked Eric to confirm our father's occupation for the death notice, the director declared the wrong profession. Eric spelled it out: "O-P-T-I-C-I-A-N, the poorly paid guy who fixes your crooked glasses." He spelled it again and had the guy repeat it letter for letter. Sure enough, when the news ran in the local paper the next day, it read, "Paul Rodell, a local obstetrician for 40 years in the Pittsburgh area . . ."

"You think you know a guy," Eric said. Another woman was heard to remark near the open casket, "Paul was a great guy, but I'm glad he delivered my glasses, and not my babies." Of course, the error meant the $75 death notice would be free, news my brother put squarely into perspective during the eulogy.

"We all remember the recent passing of Green Bay Packer Brett Favre's dad," he said. "The death launched a remarkable run that took Favre and his team deep into the NFL playoffs. Many people believe the spirit of his father watching from heaven had a guiding hand in the upset victories . . . Brett Favre's dad dies and he leads his son to playoff glory on the gridiron. Our Dad died and he fooled with the newspaper so his sons wouldn't have to pay for the $75 death notice. I'm sure he went to heaven thinking, 'Now my work is done here.'"

Dad would have enjoyed being an obstetrician, and he would have made a good one. You may not think about it, but someone is the best at every job, no matter how minor or seemingly inconsequential. Somewhere there is a man pushing a broom or a woman scrubbing a bathroom stall and they're doing it as cheerfully and ably as a maestro conducting a magnificent symphony. There is more human dignity to exalt in the execution of those humble duties than that exhibited by any number of pampered professional athletes who are paid millions to perform before throngs of screaming fans. Dad was the greatest optician who ever lived. If they ever construct a Mt. Rushmore for opticians, Paul Rodell will be immortalized in granite between . . . between . . . between, well, three other opticians. It's a skill many people can master, but he was the best because he took the time to pleasantly converse with everyone who stepped up to his stool complaining of nerdy glasses sliding down their noses. His customers walked away with the confident strut of "Top Gun" Tom Cruise in his Ray-Bans heading for the cockpit of his fighter jet.

"I was in another room and never got to see him work, but all the patients would come in and say, 'Where did you find that wonderful man?'" said his last boss, Dr. Daniel J. Nadler. "They'd go on and on about what a great guy he was. I'd hear little things like someone said they were leaving for vacation and Paul went out of his way to drive the glasses up to their homes so they could have them before they'd leave. He was just a wonderfully kind man."

At the funeral we met many of the strangers with whom he was with when none of us could ever find him. We were always losing him. We'd be waiting for him on the first tee and we'd find him chatting amiably with the old man in the pro shop. We'd be waiting to leave the restaurant and we'd find him out back talking baseball with the busboy. He could go into a mini-mart to pay for gas and come out 10 minutes later with the phone numbers of two new friends with whom he was going to swap history books, something we learned he'd been doing with William Johnson, the CEO of H.J. Heinz Co. We learned, too, at the funeral that Steeler Hall of Famer Jack Ham was saddened by the passing of our father. They'd become chums over a period of friendly eyeglass appointments. George Miles, the man who signs my checks for Pittsburgh Magazine, called to say he was so sorry that smiling man is gone forever.

The revelations of distraught strangers explained a lot of the missing times when he'd disappear down a black hole leaving his loved ones to search high and low for the chatty man in the garish pants.

He was always suggesting to me, the family writer, article-worthy subjects he'd meet in unlikely places. "You should meet this guy," he'd say. "He'd be great for Reader's Digest and the column about the most unforgettable character you've ever met." He'd never understand that he, my own father, was the most unforgettable character I'd ever met.

I finally sat down to write about him last fall. The article was headlined, "Sins of Our Fathers" and ran in a national golf magazine. It was about how he'd raised his sons to cheat at golf and other endearing aspects of his generally low character. My wife dropped it off to him the day he died. Our last conversation was me telling him it was in there and what it was about. He was thrilled. He loved attention.

We don't think he ever got to read it. Maybe he did, but we'll never know. I don't think so. He would have called. My brother said it would have been funny if he'd have been found with an agonized look of betrayal on his face and the article torn in jagged shreds at his feet. I'm glad it didn't happen that way.

I once got into an argument with some very good friends, men who fiercely loved my father, about whether or not I respected him. Of course not, I said. He has too many character flaws. He tells petty lies, disdains work, lacks ambition, and has never considered growing up.

(I later realized I'd described myself exactly. And during the eulogy, my brother read from a list of New Year's resolutions the old man had written just 11 days prior to his passing. Under the heading "Spiritual Goals," he'd written, "Read Bible, Pray, Attend Church." Under "Mental Goals," he penned just two words: "Grow Up." He was 76 years old.)

"How could you not respect your own father?" one thundered at me. That's when I told them about the time he put the house up for sale and moved his entire family and belongings to North Carolina for two weeks. I was 6 years old and still remember the heaving sobs and full faucet tears I produced as we drove away from the only home I'd ever known. He'd met an eye doctor on a golf course and the gentleman told him he was starting a promising optical shop in Pinehurst, N.C., a place renown not coincidentally for great golf. Dad asked if he needed an able optician, and just like that we were Dixie bound.

He enrolled his sons in an alien school district where children talked with funny accents and looked at me like Scotty'd just beamed me down from a Romulan galaxy. It is among my most painful and vivid childhood memories. Two weeks later, he surprised us with another indelibly vivid action. I remember him barging into the classroom right in the middle of the teacher's lesson and saying, "C'mon, son, we're going home to Pittsburgh." And away we went.

The capricious move almost led to a divorce from our Mom and started us down the path of financial calamity from which, I guess, we never fully recovered. Years later as adult responsibilities began to dawn on me, I asked Dad about why we left North Carolina just two weeks after the momentous and costly move.

"I asked the boss where I could find a cold beer after work," Dad recalled sheepishly. "He said if he knew I was a beer drinker he never would have hired me. I said if I knew he felt that way about beer drinkers I never would have taken the job."

That won me the argument about whether or not I ought to respect my father. But to me that was way beside the point. So many of our family relationships are cluttered by the judgmental reproach of each other's minor human failings. You can respect an armed police officer or an angry dog inside a low fence, but you don't need to respect or admire a father to love him.

You need only to love him. I knew that long before our Dad died. His death did serve to forever inform us he'd lived a wonderful life, touched hundreds of people and will be missed and celebrated as long as men and women tell stories about good-hearted people who live lives untouched by fame or fortune. I asked Eric how he thought Dad would have been different if he'd have somehow lucked into a profession, say obstetrics, that would have rewarded him with the affluence he craved and never attained. Eric thought about this for a moment before saying, "He would have been a lot more fun."

One well-meaning Christian, as Christians are wont to do during these passionate times, used the passing of our father to evangelize about how precious and tenuous our lives are, and how important it is to live this life fully in anticipation of the next one. Had he, she wanted to know, made his peace with God?

I paraphrased Henry David Thoreau, who was asked that same question on his death bed. Thoreau's sublime response: "I was not aware we'd quarreled."

She persisted. It's not enough for someone to be good and kind to get into heaven. A person needs to be saved. Was your father saved?

"He was too busy helping others to ever worry about saving himself."

She shook her head sadly, I'm sure convinced that right then, even as we were grieving over his open casket, my father's soul was being exposed to the very torments of hell. "Well," she said. "I am sorry you lost your father."

Wrong again. We didn't lose him. In fact, for the first time ever we all know exactly where he is. He's in heaven, right where he's always belonged.

He's the one with the exquisitely groomed nose hairs.

2 comments:

kimmirich said...

Awesome post, Chris. Thank you for sharing.

Rodell said...

Oh, thank you for reading. That man was a lot of fun and we all miss him dearly. Being his son was me hitting the genetic jackpot.

Chris