(wk. of Jun 20-19, 16)
“I didn't always like my father, but I respected him.”
Remembering my father
FAMILY | The man whose job was not to tell you how smart you are—but how smart you aren't
John R. Erickson
I was 2 years old in 1945 when my father returned from military service in World War II. He was anxious to see the son he knew only through photos and letters. Mother said that when he walked into the house, sporting a beard and wearing his Army uniform, I ran screaming from the room and hid in a closet.
He was furious. Joseph Erickson and I got off to a rocky start.
When I was growing up, the third of three children, my father was an independent businessman (insurance and real estate) in a small West Texas town. He kept an office on Main Street and had to cultivate a public personality that allowed him to function in the world of commerce.
His customers and associates in the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce saw him as open, honest, intelligent, and witty—and indeed he was. But he was also a very private man, skilled at controlling the access to his deepest thoughts.
His work and civic duties kept him away from home much of the time. He also served as organist at the First Baptist Church. He had to be at his instrument for Sunday morning and evening services, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and every night of the week when we had revivals. He was often called upon to play at weddings and funerals, and spent Saturday afternoons practicing the organ, alone in the empty sanctuary.
My father and I were not “pals.” Joe Erickson was an adult's adult and didn't particularly enjoy the company of children—his or anyone else's. He seldom played with me when I was young. He cared nothing about football or other sports, hunting, fishing, or camping. When he was around the house, he enjoyed reading, listening to classical music, and playing the piano.
The truth is, he knew very little about being a child. During the Depression, he and his three brothers worked long hours in the family grocery store. They had no time for sports or extracurricular activities at school. They learned to work at an early age, and that's all they knew.
He and Mother had a clear division of labor. He went out every day, battled the world, and made a living. She ran the home and raised the children. Joe was a strict disciplinarian and enforced a regime of biblical justice. His discipline was seldom loud or angry, always swift and fair. He kept his paddle in a large walk-in closet, and when he said, “Come wiss me to zee Casbah,” I received swats.
The line about the Casbah came from an old movie, set in Morocco, as I recall. I never saw the movie, but I heard the line many times and deserved every swat I received.
When I was in the ninth or 10th grade, we had a tense episode. I was feeling my oats and had outgrown Mother's fly-swatter discipline. One day I mouthed off to her. Joe heard it, came thundering into the room, escorted me into the Casbah, and closed the door. Between clenched teeth, he said that if I was too old to spank, we could work it out with our fists, but one way or another, I was never to treat my mother that way again.
I had gotten my growth, was playing football, and working weekends on a ranch. For a few hard-eyed seconds, I wondered if I could whip him. But it was a question I didn't want to answer. I humbled myself and said, “Yes sir,” and stopped tormenting my poor little mother. That was the end of it.
I didn't always like my father, but I respected him. If you believe that a father should be a buddy to his children, he came up short, but he gave me a model of a strong, godly man who was faithful to his family and honest in his dealings with the public: kind, wise, and generous.“I didn't always like my father, but I respected him.”
When I went off to college, I never dreamed I might return to my hometown. I wasn't interested in getting involved in my father's business and had big cities on my mind. But eight years later, things had changed. I was married and wanted to write. My wife Kris and I were living in Austin, and by the spring of 1970, the sleepy provincial capital we had known during the 1960s had entered into a period of explosive growth. We didn't like the city Austin was becoming.
We packed up our worldly possessions and drove 550 miles north to Perryton. We weren't sure where we were going but planned to spend a few days visiting my parents. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed getting acquainted with them as an adult. We lingered. I began going out to the tool shed behind the house to write for two hours in the cool of morning, a pattern I had been following for several years, and did some fix-up jobs around the house.
The weeks slipped by. One day Joe announced he had located a small rental house that would fit us pretty well. It even had an old garage that I could turn into a writing office. He said we might as well stick around for a while, until we had a better plan.
We moved into the rental house, I found a job working on a ranch, and we never got around to leaving. That was 46 years ago.
Joe began revealing more of himself when, in the spring of 1977, my mother died suddenly during a heart bypass operation. She was 65. That was the only time I ever saw him cry. He grieved for months. Embedded in his grief was the sudden realization that his status as a strong, independent man had owed a great deal to the quiet strength of a wife who stayed in the background and didn't say much.
Mother's personality covered many of his flaws and jagged edges. He had a tendency to be stubborn, blunt, solitary, outspoken, and fiercely independent, and it fell to Anna Beth to provide backroom diplomacy.
I think he was shocked on discovering how much and how deeply he had come to depend on her. For several months after her death, he seemed lost, and I even wondered if he would survive. (It's not unusual for “strong independent men” to crumble on the death of a mate.) But his church and circle of friends rallied around him, and he decided he wasn't ready to check out. Kris and I called him often, and usually shared a meal with him at least once a week. I will always be grateful that all three of our children had the opportunity to know him.
When I started Maverick Books in 1982, I became the third generation of Ericksons to be smitten by that most-American of impulses: the desire to be my own boss, start my own business, and prosper from my own hard work and good management. My grandfather Erickson, an immigrant from Sweden, was an independent grocer in Missouri. During the Depression, he owned several stores, but he extended too much credit to his customers, went broke, and had to start all over again from nothing.
Growing up, I showed little interest in my father's entrepreneurial skills. Typical of middle-class kids of my generation, I enjoyed a comfortable standard of living and never bothered to notice where it came from, or to develop a proper respect for the man who had made it possible. Six years of living around universities fed my belief that “anyone” could start and operate a small business. That's what you did if you weren't smart enough to go to college.
I'm sad to say I viewed my father as a “Babbitt,” a shallow character in a novel of the same name by Sinclair Lewis. Rebellious students of my generation used the term to dismiss the accomplishments of our fathers, to identify them as members of a narrow-minded, provincial bourgeoisie who practiced an unenlightened form of Christianity, grubbed for money in small businesses, and filled their time with the hollow rituals of ticky-tacky little towns.
But once I had launched my publishing business, my perspective began to change. Sleepless nights and days filled with anxiety about cash flow forced me to recognize that my old man had knowledge I not only did not possess but also never even dreamed existed.
Thus began a daily ritual. At the end of a workday, I would drive over to Joe's house on Indiana Street (after Mother's death, he lived alone) and we would spend an hour or two talking. He would mix himself a Scotch and water, I would tell him what I was doing in my new business, and he would offer his opinions, whether I wanted to hear them or not.
I didn't always want to hear his opinions, because he had a maddening habit of telling the truth—truth delivered like a bucket of cold water on a winter day, with an ice-blue Scandinavian glare that frosted every window in the house. In giving advice to his offspring, he could be fearless and brutal.“I didn't always want to hear his opinions, because he had a maddening habit of telling the truth”
Sometimes I became so angry, my eyes filled with tears and my voice trembled: “Well, what do you expect of me? I'm not perfect!”
He would soften his tone, but not the bite in his eyes. “Listen, kid,” he'd tell me, “everyone in this world will tell you how smart you are. It's my job to tell you how smart you aren't .”
He was a tough old bird, and getting hosed down by him wasn't a pleasant experience, but we never crossed any fatal lines. After sulking for a few days, I licked my wounds and went back. At a time when I needed toughening, he was there to do it, and I'm very grateful. Babbitt might have described Sinclair Lewis' father, but not mine.
I'm not sure he ever understood my passion to be a writer. Writing was not something anyone in my family, on either side, had ever done, or had even thought about doing. While I was in college, I showed him some of my short stories, but instead of giving me the praise I thought I deserved, he eviscerated me with two words: “So what?” I was furious and didn't show him another piece of writing for years.
He was right, of course. My stories from that period were rubbish, exactly the kind of hopeless, depressing existential postmodern flapdoodle that was being praised in literary circles and college English departments, but Joe was a wise man and asked the right question: “So what?”
In thoughtful moments, he must have wondered, “What is going to become of this kid?” In his place, I would have wondered too—wondered and worried and prayed for some kind of miracle that would lead John into a respectable profession that a father could explain to his friends.
His circle of friends had watched me grow up, leave home, walk away from a master's degree, move back home, work as a cowboy, and now I was doing what ? Writing books and publishing them myself?
My poor father didn't have much encouraging news to pass along to his friends, whose children were doing all the things they were supposed to be doing in their 30s. But, incredibly, he trusted my judgment. I'm sure he drew comfort in knowing that there was a God who watched after sparrows, drunks, fools, and self-published authors … and that I had married an extraordinarily fine woman.
Joe spent time preparing me for his death, for the time when I would have to stand alone, without him around to vet my decisions. This wasn't easy for me, but he did it with uncommon grace. He didn't fear death or consider it something foreign or unjust. Death was part of God's plan and it should be part of our plan too.
He died on Dec. 31, 1989. One of his friends observed that by dying on the last day of the year, he denied the Internal Revenue Service the pleasure of extracting a 1990 tax return from him. It was exactly the sort of thing he might have done by design.
My father was a patriot, a loyal American who had served in the Pacific during World War II, but he feared and loathed the IRS and often talked about its power to make cowards of otherwise brave and productive citizens: “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”
He left no instructions about the kind of funeral service he wanted, but I was pretty sure if he'd been around to do the planning, he would have hired the best organist in town and told her to blow the birds' nests out of the pipes.
During the 1950s, when he served as organist at the church, he often grumbled about the Hammond electric organ he had to play. He compared it to the organ at Furr's Cafeteria in Amarillo, whose quivering tremolo drove him nuts. Eventually, he talked the board of deacons into buying him a pipe organ, a bold move for Southern Baptists at that time and place. It wasn't a huge organ, but a big step up from the Hammond.
That was Perryton's first pipe organ. We now have three.
He had a jolly time with that instrument, playing full-organ postludes that rattled the stained glass windows. Some of the elderly ladies complained that he was shorting out their hearing aids, and Mrs. Grigsby infuriated him by saying, “Joe, that stuff you play is nice, but why don't you ever play ‘The Old Rugged Cross'?”“He had a jolly time with that instrument, playing full-organ postludes that rattled the stained glass windows.”
That “stuff” he'd played was probably a piece by J.S. Bach. He loved Bach, even if Mrs. Grigsby didn't, and he loved his Bach loud .
We held his funeral service at the Methodist church, whose sanctuary held the biggest and best pipe organ in town. The organist at the church had known and admired Joe all her life, and she played several of his favorite numbers, including Widor's “Toccata” and Bach's magnificent “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
There were no tears shed at his service. He'd had a good long life and had done just about everything he wanted to do. We sent him off with a roar of pipe organ music that would have melted the wires in Mrs. Grigsby's hearing aid. He would have loved it.
During Joe's last illness, the doctor told the family his time was near and we needed to say our last words. I went into his room and we were alone. He had a breathing tube in his mouth and couldn't talk. I'd had time to think of my last words, one sentence that would sum up a lifetime. I took his hand and said, “You gave me what I needed to be strong, and I will take good care of your name.” His blue eyes smiled and he gave his head a nod.
In the years since, I have done my best to honor that pledge to my father—in my home, in my community, and on every page of every book I write.
“One magazine welcomed an article from me but suggested that I change a sentence about a person who ‘needs Christ' to ‘needs religion.' I responded, ‘No way.'"
Whose darling?Marvin Olasky
For 20 months during 1995 and 1996 I had something in common with Eliza Doolittle, the central character in My Fair Lady . She went from Cockney expressions to royal balls. I, an essentially shy guy who grew up in a home where we rarely had dinner table conversation, never had visitors, and watched every penny, suddenly entered a world of U.S. senators, media stars, and $10,000- to $50,000-per-plate dinners.
The impetus was new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's discovery of a book I had written five years before, The Tragedy of American Compassion . Gingrich had led the way to the first GOP majority in the House of Representatives in four decades. Now he praised the book in speech after speech at a time when the eyes of the political world focused on him.
According to Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, my compassionate conservative concept "hit the conservative movement like a thunderbolt." I was showing that Republicans for decades had been upside down in their critique of welfare. The real problem with the welfare state was not that it wasted money. The real problem was its stinginess with what people in trouble need most: time, love, challenge, personal involvement.
Purportedly compassionate liberalism, I argued, treated the poor as pets: Put some food in their bowls and let them lie around, as long as they don't chew up the cushions. Compassionate conservatism also opposed Social Darwinist conservatism, the idea that the poor were losers in the struggle for survival who deserved no help. God's reality is that He makes every human being in His image, with inherent dignity.
That thinking led to an emphasis on faith-based poverty-fighting groups, particularly Christian ones. Government could supply material needs, but historically successful programs offered the spiritual change that turns defeatism into optimism. Big organizations with little knowledge of individual needs and goals almost always gave too little too late or too much too soon. That's why compassionate conservatism in the 1990s emphasized decentralization and argued that government should be smaller and civil society larger.
Gingrich had strong political reasons (as Karl Rove later had) for supporting such an idea: He thought such a message could bring about welfare reform and stomp Democrats. I wanted compassionate conservatism to get national attention, so I took a leave of absence from the University of Texas in January 1995 and agreed to spend every other week in Washington under the auspices of a close-to-Newt nonprofit dubbed the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
Reporters who enjoy man-bites-dog stories relished my lineage. As one reporter wrote, "The Grand Old Party was roused to action by a former Marxist quoting scripture and demanding that they show some compassion." The headline in the Los Angeles Times was typical: "A Hippie's Bad Dream: Communist Goes GOP." The Wall Street Journal 's front-page feature proclaimed, "A Texas Professor's History of Poverty Programs has made him the Darling of the Conservative Elite." But I didn't want to be a darling-or did I?
Thus began a time of testing: Ego-stroking media attention came via CBS, NBC, Time , and every major newspaper. The profiles from liberal publications were surprisingly positive: I represented "compassion." One reporter asked about the media attention and quoted me as saying, "It's been weird. I'm a writer, not a policy-maker." But did I want to step into "the Inner Ring," to use C.S. Lewis' term? What would I sacrifice to gain entry?
Ego-stroking power dinners had their appeal: "Olasky has been treated like a star since Gingrich discovered him. Olasky was a featured attraction at a $50,000-a-plate fund-raiser for the National Empowerment Network, a conservative TV service. 'This is so weird,' the 44-year-old professor said." Weird was becoming my favorite word, it seemed, but it fit my presence at a dinner with fine wine and fat cats inside the Hay-Adams Hotel across from the White House, while protesters outside wore piggy masks and shouted, "Two, four, six, eight-$50,000 a plate!"
A quarter-century earlier I would have been wearing a piggy mask. Now, each donor took away as a party favor a copy of The Tragedy of American Compassion . Gingrich introduced me to a conservative Inner Ring, and I saw segments of the other side's as well. At a time when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and other liberals spoke of going to any length to keep the GOP majority from cutting welfare expenditures, I met with him and five other Democratic senators to suggest a grand compromise: No cuts, but decentralization so that local leaders and taxpayers would have more influence. Their response: No way.
Some Republicans also were not as they appeared. After one late-night meeting in March 1995, I sat in a restaurant with Gingrich and asked at the end of a personal conversation how I could pray for him. He said he needed help with "the physical things." By that I thought he meant his 20-hour-a-day work schedule, with reporters ready to magnify any mangled words into scandal-but he might have been referring to the affair he had commenced that would lead to his second divorce.
Lots of personalities: Arianna Huffington, going through a mid-'90s conservative phase, had me speak about replacing the welfare state at "brown bag lunches" (beef stroganoff and baby carrots served on blue-rimmed Limoges china) and dinners that mixed three distinct Beltway species: the blonde, the bland, the ideologically blind. Network on-air talent had money but intellectual insecurity. Rich but dull benefactors wanted media recognition. New Republic writers had influence but went home to tiny apartments.
Such dinners quickly got old. I learned more from the front-line helpers like Marsh Ward, a leftist-turned-realist who ran Clean and Sober Streets in Washington. He said he at first saw homeless men trapped in unemployment, as if surrounded by a brick wall-but over the years he learned that "it's a paper wall, and you can punch right through." What would give them the energy to punch? I learned from pastors at the Gospel Mission who told the materially destitute that they could be givers and not just takers because Christ had already given so much for them.
Arianna came with me one evening to the Gospel Mission. She listened to stories, took notes on a pad of paper that she placed over her massive diamond ring, and exuded sympathy. She funded the establishment of a Center for Effective Compassion and asked if I wanted to make a long-term move to Washington. On a day when Arianna and I headed in her limousine to a meeting at Bill Bennett's suburban home, I was thinking about whether to say yes. The chauffeur took a wrong turn and soon (pre-GPS days) was lost. As Arianna berated him, I remembered: Don't become dependent on a patron, lest you become a Jane Austen-style clergyman.
Arianna soon moved on to other interests. But the temptation to cut theological corners and play up to media prejudices was a constant. One magazine welcomed an article from me but suggested that I change a sentence about a person who "needs Christ" to "needs religion." I responded, "No way: Religion can be a bad thing or a good thing. When the ex-addicts I'm reporting on say 'Jesus Christ set me free,' I can say no less, both in terms of what I believe and in terms of accurate reporting." The magazine ran the piece as I had written it-but the editors never asked me to write another one.
Did my refusal to play nicely in Washington sandboxes come from my taciturn tendencies or a bond with Christ? Was it a product of weakness or strength? Only God knows, but it was clear that by the middle of 1995 my attempts to minimize the negative-welfare payments that created decades of dependence-had done as much as they could. While Republicans had the votes, could we do something to accentuate the positive by bulwarking decentralized help for the poor?
Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, one of the rare non-preening politicians, had the right idea. He introduced a bill that would offer taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for contributions to local anti-poverty groups: Less money going to Washington, more directly to neighborhood healers. Another Coats proposal offered tax credits for those opening their homes to needy individuals. None of those measures advanced. Democrats wanted more government. Too many Republicans cared more about pork than helping the poor.
In 1971 I had bicycled across the country as a Marxist, looking for an America that I was too ideologically warped to prize. A quarter-century later I crisscrossed the country giving Johnny Appleseed speeches for compassionate conservatism in state after state. The Washington spotlight grew my ego. Visits to the little-known folks in "flyover territory"-saints who poured out their lives for others-grabbed my heart.
The travel gave me new policy ideas as well. After visiting Christian inner-city health clinics like the Voice of Calvary Family Health Center in Jackson, Miss., I proposed giving doctors and nurses tax credits equivalent to 10 percent of their salaries if they volunteered four hours a week at medical clinics for those without insurance. If that had become common practice and those clinics had flourished, one of the prime arguments for nationalized health insurance would have shriveled. Democrats sneered and few Republicans were interested.
People who receive cheers from speechifying can come home with self-disease. God provided three antidotes. Susan and our four sons popped my bubbles. Editing WORLD every week reminded me not to put my hope in political princes. The ministries I witnessed around the country reminded me of how Christ changes lives as He had changed mine.
One day I drove 70 miles south from Austin to the Alamo, where 300 white-, black-, and brown-skinned men and women walked back and forth with signs proclaiming "Because of Jesus I Am No Longer a Burden to Texas Taxpayers" and "Thank You, Jesus, for Saving Me From Addiction." They were demonstrating against an attempt by TCADA, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, to pull a substance abuse treatment license from Teen Challenge of South Texas.
Teen Challenge's crime was not hiding its belief that "man's separation from God" leads to "compulsive deviant behavior engaged in to fill the void of meaninglessness in life." TCADA saw substance abuse as a medical problem, but one grizzled man helped by Teen Challenge offered his testimony in front of the Alamo: "I was a junkie for 13 years. I was a thief. I went to the government programs. They didn't work. Jesus set me free."
I was never an alcoholic or a drug addict. I had been addicted to the self-enthronement that is atheism and its major political manifestation, Communism. Jesus had set me free. I wrote about the demonstration in The Wall Street Journal and in WORLD, asking readers to send cards and letters to new Texas Governor George W. Bush. Soon a call came my way from the governor's mansion: What's going on? What must we do to be saved from this onslaught?
As we talked, Bush got it right away, helped by his own experience in leaving behind sometimes-heavy drinking. He instructed his state bureaucracy to help rather than hinder faith-based community service groups. He established a task force to recommend legislative changes. He did not seem ashamed of the gospel. He spoke of how Jesus had changed his life.
Plenty of political heartbreak was yet to come: The vicious campaign of 2000. The tragic twisting of compassionate conservatism in the Bush White House. More grant-making centralization instead of more individual liberty. Washington pork instead of frugality. The Republican Congress' wasting of opportunities to create new alternatives in healthcare and other domains.
But in August 1996, George W. Bush was embracing compassionate conservatism. Bill Clinton, under political campaign pressure, signed into law welfare reform. My 20 months of academic leave concluded with a sense of satisfaction that, through God's grace, I had worked hard and helped to accomplish something-without walking away from Christ to whom I owed everything. Susan and I had 20 years of marriage and our children were thriving. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“...the world is full of work to do, and not all can be kings but some must be kings' tailors, tasters, and jesters."
The work of our hands
VOCATION | We all can't be kings—some need to be cleaners of their porcelain thronesAndrée Seu Peterson
In my new job as a “ custodial assistant ,” I discovered that when you bend down far enough with the sponge to see the brand name of the equipment you're cleaning, you get to wondering about history: How did Mr. Kohler get into the toilet manufacturing business? And Mr. Crane? And Mr. American Standard? I presume no one simply stumbles onto the vocation of porcelain human-waste disposal without there being a pretty good story behind it. Ask any kindergartener what he wants to be when he grows up, and dollars to doughnuts it won't be a water closet maker.
There is a classroom scene in the 1977 Woody Allen film Annie Hall , where in response to the character Alvy's nostalgic musings, children of his 1942 school days take turns standing by their desks and say where they are now: “I run a profitable dress company.” “I'm president of the Pinkus Plumbing Company.” “I sell tallises.” “I used to be a heroin addict and now I'm a methadone addict.” “I'm into leather.”
The road is long with many a winding turn, as the Hollies sang in 1969. And few people today are where they thought they would end up. It may be that Shakespeare's Malvolio is right and “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” But it is also true that “time and chance happen to them all” ( Ecclesiastes 9:11 ). And from yet another perspective, Proverbs indicates that it takes baby steps of willful choices to reach a destination. God knows the mix of all thereof.“The road is long with many a winding turn, as the Hollies sang in 1969. And few people today are where they thought they would end up.”
Back to the point of useful appliances: An entrepreneur once told me that the name of the game is to look for a need—to find value, or to create it. Finding value I could understand more readily than creating it, so I requested examples of the latter. “Cell phones, tablets,” he said. So Misters Kohler and the long line of forebears in his noble profession were doubtless men of vision who turned the most obsolescence-resistant of human needs into profit. Like undertakers.
Now Tom Sawyer, he would be one who created value rather than finding it. He saw no value in whitewashing the old picket fence but a burdensome bother from Aunt Polly. Nevertheless, he knew how to call into existence the things that are not, on a minor creaturely scale, and managed to persuade Ben Rogers of the inestimable pleasure and privilege of taking a paintbrush to wooden slats in a rhythmic up-and-down motion. The modest charge: an apple.
And so the world is full of work to do, and not all can be kings but some must be kings' tailors, tasters, and jesters. “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” ( 1 Corinthians 12:15-17 )
To truly believe this saying is to gain wisdom and contentment. I have always read Psalm 90 as a dour prayer, with its emphasis on the ephemeral and transitory nature of life's doings under the sun: “We bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (verses 9-10).
But this time my attention is arrested by the ending verse that bespeaks a happy permanence in all we do for Him: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!”
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