Leave of Absence
My father-in-law passed away on December 2. I've been away from my e-mail since November 30 and do not know when I will return to it. I'm still making occasional minimal website updates. His obituary is here, an acknowledgment from the Virginia YMCA is here, a link to a single on which he played guitar in his youth is here, and the eulogy I gave at his funeral is below.
My father-in-law was many things to many people. Coach, teacher, shipmate, friend, husband, father. All of these things are true, and your presence here today is a testament to that. I wanted to talk a little bit about my own experiences with him in life, and then talk a bit on behalf of his wife and daughters, who have asked me to speak for them.
I first met Mr. Noel in high school, when he attempted to recruit me for what was then the “ACE Team” in 9th grade, now called the Scholastic Bowl team. I had been a member in middle school, but decided to take a break in 9th grade. In 10th grade, I did join the team, and for the next three years, I spent many evenings after school practicing in his classroom in the annex building. He was always willing to stay after school, sometimes a solid Monday through Thursday in a single week, in order to make sure we were ready for competitions. He knew the right balance of helping us out and letting us manage things on our own, and we all had a lot of fun in practice while simultaneously becoming a winning team.
In 11th grade, in addition to being the coach, he became my dual enrollment college history teacher. This continued in 12th grade, when he became my political science teacher. He was a very talented teacher, having the ability to hold attention and teach effectively. He taught the value of historical knowledge, the function of government, and of involvement in the political process. Among specific things I remember from his classes, he required writing a research paper that had to be conducted with scholarly sources outside the school library to teach key research skills for college; he required each of his students attend a local government meeting of some sort and write a paper on it, thus teaching the value of the local government operations, how to find them, and how it all works; and he taught the value of carefully studying and analyzing the opinions of those with which you might disagree or be unfamiliar to critically analyze your own thoughts and assumptions, particularly through reading and writing essays on the writings of Howard Zinn. Even though he was a conservative and I am… not, we could hold calm conversations on controversial topics because he understood and taught the value of understanding the opinions of others, and I know he was pleased to be able to impress upon so many the value of listening in an age of shouting.
Through high school, Mr. Noel was one of the teachers I got to know best and he was among those for whom I had the greatest respect. He worked tirelessly for the students; as an example, I requested and received letters of recommendation from him to include with my college applications, on top of all the other things he did for so many that I’ve mentioned previously, but including things I’ve not mentioned like sponsoring the guitar club, playing the guitar in the jazz band, and after I graduated, sponsoring the model general assembly.
One of the greatest ironies in all of this is how I introduced him at the beginning of this speech. He was my father-in-law. In fact, I met him before I met his daughter Elizabeth. When I did ultimately start dating her, which was not until more than a year after I graduated college, as it turns out, there was no scary “meeting of the father” because I already knew him as well as I knew her. I know many of you found out about his passing on Facebook; his profile picture for the past three and a half years has been a picture of him with Elizabeth at our wedding, which was a very small event held in the back yard of our home in Alexandria, and I remember him beaming as he walked Elizabeth around from the side of the house onto our deck.
As a father-in-law, he has been fantastic. He always sought to let us all know how important we were to him, even while he did so much for so many others. He let us know how proud he was of our accomplishments; I work for the FCC in the bureaucracy he loved to discuss in his classes; my wife Elizabeth works for the embassy of Canada in a position where she facilitates cooperation between the militaries of the US and Canada; and my sister-in-law Sarah works for an intellectual property law firm, helping file patents for large companies. He was always excited to visit our work places as we moved from position to position or place to place because he was so pleased with how far all of us had gone, and knew that we had so much further that we would continue to go.
But I think even if none of that were true and we hadn’t gone so far, he would still be just as proud. He loved us all so much, and I can think of no better example than last week. Throughout his illness, he had lost weight and become progressively more frail. Right after Thanksgiving, we had an appointment with a new doctor to try to get him new treatment in order to, if nothing else, prolong his life. While he was in Alexandria with us for that appointment and the followups, I agreed to wrap the gifts he wanted to order for the girls for Christmas this year, since he wasn’t well enough to wrap them on his own. There was, of course, the unstated possibility that he was ordering gifts that he wouldn’t get to see them open. But he wanted, so badly, for them to have a nice Christmas, regardless of whether he was there or not, and some time in the next two weeks, I will be wrapping those gifts on his behalf. I think it speaks to who he was and why he will be so badly missed by so many.
And I couldn’t do him justice without noting that even his pets knew how wonderful he was. If you were his friend on Facebook, then you frequently saw pictures of the cats. There was very little he could do without at least one of the cats nearby. During his illness, we would sometimes wake up in the morning and come into the living room where we had set up the bed for him, only to find all of the cats on the bed with him. Earlier this week, when we finally returned from Alexandria without him, I got the impression they were wondering where he was and when he would return. I know that they, too, will miss him.
I feel somewhat bad that I didn’t know him earlier in his life; as much as I’ve said about him here, he has a long history in the Navy that I have heard his stories about but otherwise have little knowledge of. I do not feel right discussing it in depth when I have so little first-hand knowledge, but I can say he served in the Navy for 23 years as a linguist speaking Russian, Vietnamese, and some Tagalog and Japanese. His service took him around the world, spending time in submarines, in Vietnam, in the Philippines, in Japan, in the United Kingdom, and many other places in and out of the United States. Among his Navy friends, he has the nickname “Tovs”, which is short for “tovarishch” meaning “comrade” or “friend”, and that would most certainly describe my father-in-law. And even after what amounts to a full career with the Navy, he retired and then spent another 25 years teaching, first in Amelia, and then at Randolph-Henry. He was a man committed to serving others and doing so with a smile, as has been evident by comments from his Navy friends on Facebook this week.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge those outside his family who were important to him and that he was important to. First and foremost, to the teachers and staff he worked with for so many years. I know he loved working with all of you just as much as you enjoyed working with him. Thank you for being his friends; I know he appreciated all of you. Second, to his students, who he loved teaching and helping and being friends with all along. Third, to the church community. I know you hadn’t seen him much lately, but he enjoyed attending and seeing you all, and I know he missed attending as he was less able to do so. Fourth, to his Navy friends, if any are in attendance; I know you shaped his life as much as he shaped yours. Finally, to his friends; whether you fit into one or more of the other categories, or are simply someone who knew him. Thank you for making his life special, as I’m sure he contributed to your own.
His wife Carol and daughters Sarah and Elizabeth, will not be speaking today; they feel they will be unable to. I offered to speak on their behalf.
When I asked his wife, my mother-in-law, Carol, what she wanted me to say for her, she said she wanted to be surprised. So I will make a statement for her that is short and to the point, as she so often is. She said this week that, and I’m paraphrasing, “we loved each other, but more importantly, we liked each other.” From seeing them together, I can understand why they’ve been married more than 30 years and were friends for more than a decade before that. And, of course, being friends is key to staying married. I know that she will miss him dearly, and I know she wishes they’d had more years together in retirement before this time came.
My sister-in-law Sarah says he was the best of us. No matter how many questions she asked, how many things she complained about, whatever useless fact or story she had heard that day, he would listen with an open mind and an open heart. He never judged and never complained--much. She says her dad was her guiding light, the one person she went to for advice on things that went wrong at work or a difficult life decision. He listened and offered what solace and advice he could. He was also her biggest source of entertainment. They talked about aliens, naval stories, her random questions, and world news. He enjoyed and encouraged her curiosity. She got her love of learning, history, and music from him, as well as his appreciation of expression through the arts, for which she is eternally grateful. She knows he had more to share and more to teach, but that he's just giving her the opportunity to branch out and seek out the answers in her own way and in order to teach others. Her dad taught her that kindness, courage, curiosity, strength, and faith can take you far and she feels so lucky to have him as a father. She says that he is not gone; rather, he is everywhere.
My wife Elizabeth asked me to share her appreciation for her father for the things he taught her, as she was concerned she’d be too overcome with emotion today to do so herself. One, to always put others first. Two, to work hard and do the right thing, even if it’s not the easy thing. Three, to be kind, compassionate, open-minded, and a good listener. Four, to appreciate good food, good music, and good people. And five, to stay curious and always keep learning. These are the qualities Elizabeth seeks to emulate the most, and in doing so, she has been described as taking after her father many times. In her opinion and mine, that is the highest compliment a person can receive.
Before I bring this to a close, I wanted to say one more thing. Elizabeth told me before we got married that I would be number two in her life, behind her father, and that if I wasn’t okay with that, that I shouldn’t marry her. Knowing her father, I couldn’t argue with that, and didn’t even have to think it over. I asked her father’s permission to marry her, which he gladly gave, and the rest, as they say, is history. A few days ago, she told me that I had moved to the top of the list now. I told her that wasn’t true; he had just moved up and out of a numbered place, being no longer eligible for a numbered spot. As far as I’m concerned, he’s still at the top of the page, where he belongs—in the instructions on what kind of person to be.
I intend to do my best to support my wife and my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law as much as he did, and as I promised him I would in the months, weeks, days, and hours before his passing. But more than that, I know that you will, too. He surrounded himself with wonderful people, both family and friends, and so too did his family, and he passed on in peace, knowing that he didn’t have to worry. Thank you so much for coming and showing how much he was loved and appreciated—I know it would make him smile. Thank you so much for all your support for us in this time. And thank you so much for listening. That, I think, he would have appreciated most of all. Thank you.