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Enormous Debt

2005-11-29 00:00

  There was no one quite like my father —— in our town of Victor. When any other man in town had an extra dollar, he bought a drink; when Father had an extra dollar, he bought a book. Other people had pictures on their walls, or at least a calendar; we had books, 3000 of them, lining every vertical surface of our little four - room house, on every subject from astronomy to zoology.

  Father was the most persistent scholar I ever knew. Every summer he took a month or so off to attend classes in Denver or Omaha or Chicago. Twice a week, a neighbor recently arrived from Germany came over to converse with him in German because he hoped some day to study with the great professors of medicine in Vienna. Eventually, he earned seven degrees, attended 11 different colleges and universities, and in 1951, when he was 82 sent us a cheerful little note from England to say that he had just enrolled for a graduate course in Elizabethan literature at Oxford.

  My sister, Pherbia, and I were the immediate beneficiaries of Father's insatiable hunger to lean. Every spring, carrying his geologist's hammer, he would take us hiking through the mountains to study mineral formations and search for rocks and wildflowers for his specimen collections. We were expected to identify all specimens without hesitation. On winter nights, when the skies were especially clear from our, 10,000-foot vantage point in the Rockies, he would set up a telescope and wake us to come view the stars, which he then named with the affectionate familiarity of a local tour guide. For the rest of my life, wherever I traveled around this earth, the stars remained my friends.

  Plain, distinct speech was a particular concern of my father and he was constantly drilling me in the art of elocution. Before I was three, he was reading aloud to me from the Bible, Shakespeare and Mark Twain. Thereafter, I read aloud to him so he could work on my diction. By the time I was in the fifth grade, I could recite from a whole range of classical literature and poetry —— and had to be prepared to do so at a moment's notice. Once, when we happened to meet near the church, he swept me inside, stood me up in the pulpit and said, Go ahead. It was a familiar signal. I promptly launched into a recitation while, from a rear pew, Father kept coaching, Aspirate your H's! Louder! And put more fire into it!

  Of course, here have been times as a young man, when I got tired of study and devoted my time to playing. Then Father would admonish me succinctly by quoting a saying from Shakespeare, If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work.

  Obviously, his efforts were not entirely in vain, for my voice has enabled me to earn a fair livelihood. But that fact doesn't begin to define the enormous debt I owe my father.

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