Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Wisdom of Our Fathers by Tim Russert








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Tim Russert received over 60,000 letters and e-mail responses to his earlier book, Big Russ and Me. He selected some of those messages from sons and daughters about their fathers and assembled them with some structure and introductory and reflective comments in a new book, Wisdom of Our Fathers. Somewhere on these pages, you’ll read what a son or daughter had to say about a father, and you’ll get teary. I know I did. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “The Character,” pp. 63-70:


Reading through the letters that came in, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of sons and daughters who wrote candidly—and often lovingly—about unusual, eccentric, or deeply flawed fathers, men who might best be described as real characters. They include a man who played golf without ever buying a ball, a father who gave his daughter wildly inappropriate gifts that may not have been acquired in conventional or legal ways, an engineer who operated on the fam­ily cat (successfully), and a man who, when complimented on his two fine sons, liked to say, “They were raised by wolves.” Another father told his new son-in-law on the day of his wedding, “You love Annie and never hurt her. If you ever do, I will kick your ass. Have a nice honeymoon.”

And then there was my father-in-law, a man I never had the plea­sure of knowing because he died before I met Maureen. Karl Orth had been a college football legend in his day. During the 1930s, he played for the St. Mary’s Galloping Gaels under their legendary coach Slip Madigan, who had played under Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Karl was a big man: six feet four, two hundred and thirty pounds, which was very big for that era. He was also very religious and was known to risk a delay-of-game penalty because he sometimes insisted on praying in the huddle. He had many friends, most of whom he kept close, which may explain why his favorite expression was, “Save six for pallbearers.”

Karl used to frequent Molloy’s, a tavern in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco, which has been around since 1864. Molloy’s is near the local cemetery, and Karl and his friends would end up there after a funeral. One day at Molloy’s, a man in the bar began making disparaging comments about the Galloping Gaels. Karl asked him to stop, but the inebriated customer continued his attacks. Fi­nally, the story goes, Karl made the sign of the cross, said a Hail Mary, blessed himself again, and proceeded to dispose of the heckler with a single punch, prompting a member of the beer hall congrega­tion to mutter, “Well, I guess God willed it.”




This is one of my favorites—especially the last line. There’s a big laugh here, although (or maybe because) the subject is so serious.



Mother let me into the small apartment. When I asked her how Dad was doing she simply rolled her eyes, pointed to the living room, then darted into the kitchen.

Dad sat in his favorite chair. He was listening to Al Jolson singing

“You Made Me Love You.”

As I entered the room he raised his finger to his lips and pointed to the ancient phonograph. I was pleased by the old man’s appearance. He still had all his hair—a great shock of thick white curls that framed his large, ruddy, handsome face. His light-blue eyes looked clear. Dad looked robust and full of good health, not like someone dying of cancer.

I sat on the couch across from him and listened to the song. Dad was enjoying it so much that for the moment I forgot I had come to

New York on a somber mission.

The song ended. He turned off the phonograph and pumped my hand hello.

“Dad, how are you feeling?”

“Great, couldn’t be better.”

“I spoke to Dr. Grudin a couple of days ago. He told me you have a problem.”

“I had a problem. Its name was Grudin.”

“Dad, be sensible. Your problem isn’t Grudin.”

“I’m not going back to him. End of problem!”

“Your prostate needs to come out.”

“It’s not coming out. It’s a great prostate! Been with me for three quarters of a century. That’s reliability!”

“It’s cancerous. You know that.”

“Oh, cut the crap, Don. I’m seventy-five years old. I feel great. I haven’t an ounce of fat on me.”

“Dad, you’re not making any sense.”

Grudin is an alarmist. I’ll outlive him, Don. Bet on it!”

“The operation is routine. Your prostate has to come out. Why put yourself and Mom through this?”

He sighed. “I appreciate your concern. I promise you this: The first time I can’t pee I’ll race back to Grudin and let him have my prostate.”

“You know you won’t tell a soul until it’s too late. Surely this oper­ation doesn’t have you scared. Tell me the truth. Why aren’t you hav­ing it?”

“Son, Grudin doesn’t know my body like I do. He’s wrong!”

“Dr. Roth told you it’s prostate cancer. It took Mom two years to get you to Sloan-Kettering, and now the diagnosis is confirmed. Dr. Grudin says your prostate is the size of a grapefruit, and before long you won’t be able to urinate. Your kidneys will stop functioning and that will lead to uremic poisoning. This thing can kill you, Dad! Your prostate needs to come out!”

He twisted uncomfortably in his chair. We looked at each other for a long time; then he breathed deeply.

“Son, it goes against my insides to talk about such things with you.” The apartment was still except for the clinking sounds from the kitchen. “Did Grudin tell you the possible side effects of this opera­tion?”

“No, what?”

“Impotence. The big ‘I.’ It’s not only my prostate he’s after. Even if it goes well and they get all the cancer, there’s still a fifty-fifty chance of nerve damage, and that means no more sex.”


The sound of clinking dishes stopped. Mother walked into the liv­ing room. She didn’t look at either of us. “I have to run to the store for a few things. I’ll be right back.”

When the apartment door closed, Dad got out of his chair and walked over to me. “Don, if I can’t make love to your mother anymore, I don’t want to live. It’s as simple as that. I’m not interested in peeing into infinity. I’m interested in making love to your mother till the day I die. And if I can’t make love anymore, I’d rather die.”

“Did you talk to Dr. Grudin about this?”

“No. He’s an organic chemistry guy who probably never read Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins. He wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about. He wants to keep me peeing while I want to keep on loving. Understand?”

“I understand. Remember, it was you who introduced me to Thomas and Hopkins. Though it’s tough to admit, I do agree with you.”

“God bless you, Don!”

He bounded out of his chair, flipped over the Jolson record, and turned the phonograph on.

I walked to the bathroom in the rear of the apartment to the sound of Jolson’s rich full voice singing “Anniversary Waltz.” As I closed the bathroom door, I heard Dad’s voice join Jolson’s.

“The world was in bloom,

There were stars in the skies”

My father never had his prostate removed. He lived and loved an­other eighteen years after Dr. Grudin’s diagnosis.

Dr. Grudin did not fare as well. He died of a massive stroke eight months after he diagnosed my father’s cancer. Dad sent me a copy of his obituary from The New York Times with a note that read, Grudin pees no more. Love, Dad.


—DONALD SCHEER, Boynton Beach, FL, retired foreign service officer, son of Saul Scheer, printer (1905—1998)




The first sentence of this letter was unique among all the submissions. Her father may have been a bad man, but he still taught her something.


My father was a bad man. He was a gambler, a pool hustler, an un­faithful husband, and a coal miner who believed that anyone who crossed a picket line deserved to pay the price.

I knew all this, but I loved that little man. He stood about five feet three inches, with jet-black hair, thick dark eyebrows, and deep brown eyes. I loved him even after he offered me a bribe to dump my fiancé so I could spend more time taking care of him after my mother died.

We lived in a small Pennsylvania coal town where not everybody loved my dad the way I did. One who didn’t was the Very Rev. William J. Frawley, pastor extraordinaire of St. Valentine’s R.C. Church. Father Frawley, a former marine chaplain, stood six feet tall. He had bushy eyebrows, piercing eyes, and a baritone voice, which he used to good effect in the confessional. You didn’t want Father Frawley to hear your confession unless you didn’t have anything to confess.

Dad and Father Frawley clashed often over the years. There was the Catholic Men’s poker game, which my dad was winning quite handily when Father Frawley came over and asked Dad in front of the others why he wasn’t donating more of his winnings to the church. Dad’s response: “Well, what’s a priest doing running a poker game?”

Then there was the time he and my mother got into a battle over Dad’s purchase of a cemetery plot in a non-Catholic cemetery. She didn’t think Father Frawley would approve, and she’d end up buried in unblessed ground, which meant she’d never get to heaven.

She called Father Frawley when Dad was three sheets to the wind and put Dad on the phone.

“Father Frawley? Fred Brown here   Yeah, we’re fine, Father. Fa­ther, I bought—yeah, I’ve been to mass, you just didn’t see me; I’m easy to miss—I bought a cemetery plot over at Jefferson Ceme­tery.. . . Yeah, I know it’s not a Catholic cemetery, but what my mis­sus wants to know is, will you bless the ground? They didn’t have any room in the Catholic cemetery. . . . I don’t want to talk about it. Will you bless the ground)    m not coming over there. Just tell me, will you?. . . Oh, go to hell.” And he slammed the phone down.

But even Father Frawley had to bend with the wind because land was running out. Mom died and was buried in blessed ground.

When my dad died five years later, I worried that Father Frawley wouldn’t bury him. Dad knew he was dying and wanted “the exact same funeral your mother had.” But we really weren’t members of that church anymore. I’d been away at college, and Dad—well ... the last recorded activity centering around our family was the day my mother was buried.

Father Frawley met with my brother and me in a small office that was just big enough for three hard-backed chairs and his desk. On top of the desk was an enormously large book. When opened, it took up the entire surface.

We went over the details of Dad’s death. Then he took a ruler and ran down the columns of names.

“I don’t see a Fred Brown listed here.”

“Really? I can’t imagine why.”

“I see an Ann Brown.”

“Yes, that’s my mother.”

“But this is five years old.”

“Yes, it’s been about five years since she died.”

Then he turned to me and looked at me with those piercing, dark, unforgiving eyes that darted out from underneath his eyebrows.

“Did your father go to church every Sunday?”

I wasn’t afraid. I met his gaze straight on. Priest or no priest, I was ready to lie.

“Yes, Father. Every Sunday.”

“Then why isn’t he listed as a contributor? There’s not one contri­bution mentioned.”

“Dad preferred to be anonymous and put the cash into the basket when it came around.”

He stared at me a long time. There was dead silence in the room.

I could hear my brother breathing, or maybe not. Maybe he’d stopped breathing just for those few moments.

But I never looked away. If my dad taught me one thing in this life, it was how to bluff.

Father Frawley slammed the book shut.

“Funeral will be Wednesday morning, nine A.M. And I expect to see a contribution envelope in the basket from you from now on, young lady.”

“Yes, Father.”

And so Dad had a great funeral and he lies next to my mother in peaceful sleep—I hope.


—SUSAN TISCHLER, Cape May, NJ, reporter, retailer, daughter of Fred W. Brown, coal miner (1905—1977)


Each reader will find a description of a father on these pages that lines up pretty well with one’s own father. Every father who reads this book will find some selection that he wishes would be said about him by his own children. Wisdom of Our Fathers is sappy and teary, and well worth reading.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the October 2006 issue of Executive Times


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