Remembering my father, and a subtle but lasting lesson

Sometimes the most powerful messages are the quiet ones.

Sometimes the most powerful messages are the quiet ones.

My sophomore year at college was not a good time for me. I went downhill academically and in other ways that were sometimes described as “the sophomore slump.” At one point I got in trouble for breaking a rule that seemed silly — so silly that it’s not even worth repeating now.

But Willamette University took its rules — and its quasi-parental responsibilities — very seriously back then. I was called before the Dean of Men and informed that I was on disciplinary probation. If I got into any more trouble, the university would send me home for the rest of the semester.

The Dean told me he was going to write my father and tell him all this. I tried to act contrite, and I went about my business.

There are many ways a father could react to getting such a letter from a university. My own father’s response had two parts. First, he put that letter into an envelope and mailed it to me, without comment. I think that was his way of telling me that the ball (represented by the letter) was in my court, not his.

The second thing he did was wait 25 years, long after I had graduated and the incident was, if anything, a long-forgotten memo collecting dust in a moldy basement, to bring up the subject and ask me what had happened. We had a hearty laugh, finally.

My dad passed away in 1996, but his gentle approach to life taught me a lot of valuable lessons. In this case, sometimes you don’t have to solve every problem that’s put in front of you. Sometimes, you just let things play out.


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