Joseph Rourke with his daughter, Catherine, age 2
Arizona Press Club
Best Feature Story, 2008
He looked just like any ordinary Joe, with his brown shoes and Knox fedora. Like most men of his era, he went to war, to work and to church. Unlike them, he helped Mom with the laundry. But that’s not what made him so extraordinary.
There was something about Dad that touched people’s hearts. Maybe it was the gentle calm under the warrior’s tough exterior, the radiant smile belying endless tragedy, or the surprising softness under the machismo of a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Whatever it was, everybody adored Dad, but perhaps no one more than his pig-tailed little girl who loved to snap photos of him with her Brownie Starmite camera as he banged out newsletters on his Underwood typewriter for charitable groups and causes.
Dad loved books and instilled in me a passion and respect for excellence in the written word. He was proud when I chose a journalism profession and urged me to uphold the highest standards of truth and justice without ever compromising ethics or integrity.
Dad championed my writing throughout my career and remained the sole lifetime member of my “aspiring author” fan club.
Now, forty years later, it was Father’s Day and Dad lay dying far away in a New York City hospital. That afternoon we spoke for what would be the very last time.
What do you say to your best friend when it’s time to say goodbye?
Despite wasting away on his deathbed, Dad's focus remained on his kids. His questions remained the same as they had for the last 30 years, always checking on my roller-coaster economic status as a journalist and fledging attempts to publish a book.
“How’s your financial situation?” he asked hesitantly, knowing it always led to another emergency loan.
As always, my answer remained the same as they had for the last three decades.
“Uh… well, there never seems to be quite enough to go around.”
I could feel him frown 2,340 miles away. Despite two jobs as a newspaper editor and a tuxedoed waitress, I struggled to meet the cost of living. I explained how by day I posed tough questions to city politicians; by night I asked them for their salad dressing choices.
Dad didn’t see the humor in that. Next question.
“How’s your creative writing going?” he asked, referring to every reporter’s dream of trading fact for fiction and obituaries for fantasy. My answer echoed the financial one.
“Uh… well, there never seems to be quite enough time for the book.” Time and money. Weren’t they every writer’s eternal lament?
“Never ever give up!” Dad declared. “Always remember your dreams and keep them alive. And, remember, I believe in you and will always love you.”
Dad slipped into a coma and passed away shortly afterward. The word came to me at my newsroom desk just as we were putting another paper to bed. Tears sprang to my eyes and my heart wept, but I continued silently with my work until we made deadline, just as Dad would want me to do.
I had lost my best friend and he had lost the battle against Parkinson's. Right up until his last breath, Dad died the way he had lived his life – bravely and selflessly devoted to his family. Ultimately, he had won the war by never succumbing to fear and passing that legacy of courage on to his children.
A lifetime of devotion
It all began in New York City in 1932 during the Great Depression when Dad was 12 and lost his own father in a tragic accident. That year he became a paternal figure overnight to his four younger brothers and sisters, leaving sixth grade to become the family breadwinner.
Before he was even a teen, Dad made certain his family never went hungry in an era that preceded Social Security, Medicare and life insurance policies.
He found employment as a newspaper boy, hawking headlines in Times Square in his cap and knickers. Finally, he landed a job as a Western Union messenger, delivering MoneyGrams in his uniform to Broadway showgirls who lavished him with generous tips.
Then the war came and Dad volunteered to serve, enlisting in the Army Air Force. He survived Pearl Harbor and later a severe plane crash when his B-24 bomber was shot down. In his typical style, Dad walked away wounded but with a Purple Heart for pulling his crew to safety.
“Don’t ever let things get you down,” he would tell me when I felt exasperated. “You just keep on doing everything with a smile and just let go and let God.”
The spirit of giving
And so Dad walked his talk as he raised three children of his own on a meager salary while finishing his college education at night. Whether working overtime or taking a second job, he always went the extra mile to support his family while finding time to serve his community and lend a hand to others.
Dad taught me the value of hard work, to embrace manual labor and get dirt under my nails despite all my higher education. His own story inspired me to take my first job at 14 to pay the tuition so I could attend a quality high school, continuing all the way from there through college and beyond. After returning from a year of studying abroad at Oxford, I took my first waitress job on Dad's advice to learn some street smarts instead of remaining in the Ivory Tower.
Most importantly, Dad taught me the vital lesson that, while one might be broke and short of money, the key was to never become "broken" or let financial hardship break one's spirit. He said that's when it's important to give the most.
No matter how little he had, Dad left giant tips to breakfast waitresses and shoeshine guys and would always find a spare dime for the homeless person on the corner. He taught us to give whatever we could and expect nothing in return. In Dad’s world, money had nothing to do with it and getting something back was never part of his equations.
"If you have just one slice of bread, tear it in half and always give the bigger piece to the other guy," he would say. "What you give always comes back to you in one way or another."
Best of all, he said, we could always find success and happiness if we gave back to the world in service. The more we gave, the more we would receive in the long run.
"Do all the good you can in whatever way you can," he would say, "and you will never go wrong."
I often wondered when and where he had learned that and, although I never got around to asking him, I suspect he stumbled upon it at an early age during tough times in the Great Depression.
A true millionaire
Dad wasn’t a rich man. In my eyes, he was a millionaire who bestowed to his children a vast inheritance of wisdom and unconditional love in its purest form. While he couldn’t afford to give us big allowances or expensive toys, he lavished far better gifts upon us in greater ways.
For me his generosity was the way he calmly lent a listening ear and offered his gentle advice, or the way he mediated with teachers and boyfriends on my behalf whenever I found myself in a pickle. Whether I was moving, stuck in a crisis, looking for a job, or fighting city hall, Dad never failed to come to my side, always affectionately reminding me to “keep the faith.”
Having a father who was always there for me throughout my adult life remains the most precious gift I could ever wish for and far more valuable than all the cars, clothes or college tuition he could have provided.
And there were other riches too.
Like the hilarious traits that still bring a smile to my face: his collection of Celtic plaid ties that were never quite knotted right and the way he wrestled with Christmas tree lights and tangled home movie reels.
Small details, perhaps, that seemed trite during the course of our young lives, yet years later these nostalgic memories of our fathers return to us as priceless family heirlooms.
Service and conviction
Right up until his hospitalization, Dad orchestrated fund-raisers, marched in parades, conducted blood drives, organized endless committees, joined a host of fraternal organizations, volunteered for charity events and served on his college alumni board.
He was always doing something for others and lending a helping hand. Dad would simply carry his little transistor radio around so he didn't miss a home run by his beloved Yankees.
Dad had to be resourceful and courageous to feed his family during the Depression and he taught me that truth was more critical than book learning. Following his example, I realized that the power of the press belongs to those who own one. So Dad inspired me to create one of my own even without a cent of remuneration; it was my moral responsibility as a journalist to do so.
While he died before I launched the Sedona Observer, he would have been thrilled to see these efforts to uphold Americans' First Amendment freedoms and publish vital stories for the common good that had once been censored.
One of Dad's axioms....
In fitting tribute to his life of service and courage, Dad was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Struggling to pen his eulogy, I found myself lost for words to describe this noble spirit who exemplified the very essence of paternal love and service to his fellow man.
You can take all your great heroes – your generals and your gurus, your statesmen and your saints, your popes and your prophets – and still, all dim in comparison to the humble greatness of a loving father like Joe Rourke.
Joe Rourke and his flight crew
After all these years of journalistic treatises and investigative reports, it was the greatest truth I had ever written.
The real jackpot
Fortunately, Dad wasn’t alone in his bravery.
There are many other fathers like him who tirelessly devote all their time and energy to making a better life for their families. They are simply loving, dedicated fathers – unconditionally and indefatigably.
From car crises and collect calls [remember those?] to emergency loans, how do we thank them for all those countless times when we just don’t know what we would have done without them?
One of the most unforgettable gifts Dad ever gave me arrived in a completely unexpected way.
Many years ago as a struggling freelance writer, I found myself in between assignments, down to my last dollar and too proud to call home. That day I also found a letter in my mailbox from Dad, which read:
Always keep your chin up and keep in good spirits. Expect a miracle. Keep the faith and never ever EVER give up.
Enclosed was a check for $5,000 that he had just won from a lottery ticket by playing my birthday numbers. Dad didn’t even keep a single cent for himself.
"Never EVER give up!"
Those incredible words meant even more than the cash that accompanied them. The money is long since gone, but the real jackpot was a father’s message of love and encouragement that remains in my heart forever.
In life's most difficult moments since that day, I have pulled those wonderful words to read his powerful reminder, written in his own hand. Even though both Dad and his check are but a memory, his spirit remains alive in that beautiful letter he wrote nearly 20 years ago that remains my most priceless possession as a symbol of Dad's undying love.
Believe in miracles
Dad always believed that the greatest blessings come in the disguise of our worst afflictions and that miracles lurk behind life's greatest difficulties.
Setting an example by the way he thrived in the Great Depression, survived Pearl Harbor and a subsequent combat plane crash, and then rode the wave of life's tragedies and tribulations with unrelenting optimism has served as a perennial reminder for me to remain resilient during turbulent times.
Always the optimist, Dad passed on to me the importance of embracing life's ups and downs instead of resisting circumstances. That way we learn to surf the tsunamis of life with grace and inner peace. By blessing any challenges and giving thanks for them, we can rise above them. He often reminded me that it is in the darkness that a candle can shine the brightest.
I believe if Dad was here today, he would remind us to follow his example and "weave straw into gold" as he did in some of the most extremely challenging conditions. He had mastered life in the most subtle way and learned to sing after a storm, just like the birds.
Dad bequeathed to me and my
siblings unconditional love, perseverance, generosity, faith, optimism, resilience, integrity, trust, service and an unwavering belief in miracles.
Now that’s one mighty inheritance.
What is the legacy your dad has bequeathed to you? This Father’s Day, forget all the ties, techno-gadgets and grilling gear and celebrate the gifts he has given you. Even if you never knew him or he wasn’t the world’s greatest dad, perhaps you can find some hidden treasure he bestowed upon you, such as forgiveness, compassion or strength. Look deep enough and there is always a silver lining.
Celebrate that fact on Father's Day and the sacrifices he may have unknowingly made on your behalf. If he’s still around, tell him how much you appreciate him. I was lucky to have that opportunity before our final goodbye.
The best way I can honor my dad is to live like him – fearlessly and optimistically, always striving to do the best, giving lavishly, wearing a radiant smile, lending a hand and believing in miracles.
A father’s love never dies. If he’s passed on, think of it not as the loss of a parent but as the gaining of an angel who never ceases to watch over you. Even if he did screw up now and then.
Happy Father’s Day to all you wonderful dads out there. Keep your chin up and keep in good spirits. Expect a miracle. And never ever give up.
Catherine J. Rourke is an award-winning literary journalist with more than 30 years' experience writing about socioeconomic issues, health care reform, work-life balance, truth in medicine, and the concerns of the downtrodden and forgotten people.
Her goal is to tell the Charles Dickens stories of this era to advocate social justice and societal transformation through solutions for work-life balance and positive social change. A modern-day muckraker, her mission is to expose new pathways and possibilities instead of merely exposing vice and corruption.
Catherine has written these columns since 2004 WITHOUT A SINGLE CENT OF INCOME in order to disseminate the truth about the human condition and initiate greater awareness, compassion and possible alternatives. Your donation below will help offset her time and energy and prevent her from falling over the financial cliff to write these stories.
Still, just as her Dad parachuted out of his plane to safety, she has learned to jump over the edge and grow wings on the way down to stand by her truth.
Tell us how YOUR dad has blessed your life!
This is possibly the most inspiring and touching story I have read in a newspaper in a long time! Thank you for giving us readers something positive instead of all the media's usual crime reports. I just lost my father last year and have been deeply grieving his loss, but your story helped to remind me that he is indeed watching over me now from a high place. Your story just melted all my pain away and even put a smile on my face!
Village of Oak Creek, Ariz.
I was researching Sedona papers seeking a local rental when I came upon your paper--and was stunned--and pleased to see your mission and purpose. How wonderfully refreshing--and appealing to this activist!
I'm moving there the first of July--and would love to meet you.
I'm also a writer, very attuned to and interested in social issues--and change. The kind of change within people that shifts and lifts consciousness. Individual, business, societal--and global.
Kudos to you and your courage--this is what it takes. I'll be adding your info to my own blog soon, recently started on "Change."
A beautiful tribute to your father. Beautifully and lovingly written.
It triggered my own reflections. My relationship with my dad was complicated. He was caring, yet critcal. Loving and supportive for the most part to his family--yet, critical when it hurt the most. He was a good father in that he took very good care of five kids--and was the best husband he could be to my mother--with the tools he had to work with.
Just before he went into surgery--and the last time I saw him alive--he looked into my eyes--we connected at a soul level; it was a transcendent moment--and he whispered "thank you." What he meant was so clear to me--an acknowledgement of my loving service and help to him and Mom, and my love--and my forgiveness for him, and his own way of saying he loved me. He knew he was going to die--and I did too.
On my way to the hospital in the morning, after being called and told he was in a coma and wasn't going to live, I was within two miles of hospital--and I heard his voice saying, "Don't worry about me anymore, Pat--I'm free now."
He was one of the few people who called me Pat--I knew it was him--and I knew he had died. I got to the hopsital and was told he had died just about 10 minutes prior--at about the precise time I heard him speak to me.
It was a beautiful experience--thanks for reminding me through your own story. It urged me down memory lane on this eve of Father's Day. It was a nice stroll.
Blessings to you. Thank you so much for sharing.
Prison Dogs: Hope Behind Bars
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