Meet my Dad, Leonard Simpson Donnelly. Turned 90 on St. Valentine’s Day. This photo was taken in 1976, when he bought me my first SLR, seeing I liked photography and had a talent for it. You see, he should know, he was a commercial photography his entire adult life.
Fun photo, he is about my current age at the time. The photo gives you hint at a great sense of humor and wacky taste in his fashion sense, but it was the 70’s, polyester and platform shoes and the like, ouch. My Dad, at 90, is still lucid and overall good health; I pray I can be as fortunate. If you a boomer you probably know the outline of your parents life from that era. Grow up in Great Depression, fight the Big War to save humanity from evil when fighting a war had real costs for everyone, enjoy the post war boom and struggle with the world turned on its head in the sixties, hassle us over our hair length and lifestyle and morals. Eventually most will learn to email and maybe god forbid tweeter. There is a reason they have been called the greatest generation. Now we applaud that “kids” can stay on our health insurance until they are 26. Times have changed.
Let me give you a few more details about my Dad’s story. Born in rural Illinois in 1922. Loses his father to a heart attack before he is six. His mother has to sell the farm they had, woman didn’t typically get many breaks in property ownership and financial dealings in those days. Don’t think she made any or little money on the deal. Move to Racine, WI, my grandmother works at Horlick’s Malted Milk Factory, working hard and getting paid little. My dad, his brother and his mom move in with her father, my dad’s grandfather. A real bastard; his rules or the highway; children are to be seen not heard. And my father gets sick, real sick. Has an injury that exposes some bone and gets osteomyelitis and will spend months and then years of time in hospitals over his childhood years. The doctors don’t even know how to treat it except crudely back then.
Somewhere during this ordeal a doctor will tell my Dad he won’t live to see thirty. Sorry doc you were a tad off. Also he gets seen by a newly arrived German immigrant physician and he gives my dad something new called antibotics that he is experimenting with and well it probably saves him from an early grave. Dad is classified 4F, physically unfit for service and doesn’t go to combat, but many of his classmates do and many do not survive the ordeal. WWII was real personal and a real sacrifice compared to what we call wars today. This is a war where 50,000 young Americans died in training to be pilots or support crew in airplanes because the first bombers and war planes were so poorly designed and untested. He does go to visit a classmate stationed with the Army in the Aleutian Islands on the sly, where they are doing work with a new technology called infrared film. This is a whole story of its own, but in short he sees death of Japanese prisoner up close. His brother fights the war in the Pacific as a radio operator and returns alive.
During the War he works full time and attends college for a time until he has a nervous breakdown from the stress of too much to do and too little time to do it. Gives up on getting a college degree and takes his hobby of photography and joins another gentleman with a commercial studio. Marries and has my brother in the early Fifties, works with an owner of commercial photo studio and builds a nice business and lifestyle. Has a purchase order on a new home and has another child on the way. Except his wife, Alice gets infected with polio, and within less than a week of discovering it, is dead. No second child, now a single parent and widower. My brother develops a bad cold that same week Alice dies and my Dad fears my brother too has polio, but the cough turns out not to be neither polio nor fatal. Through the help of some friends he gets out of the house contract and pulls his life together.
In 1957, remarries my Mom and have me the next year. He continues to do well with his business but desires to be equal owner with his partner and eventually buy it out from him. His partner can never pull the trigger and my Dad decides in the seventies to start his own business and build his own building. He was in commercial photography, shooting products for a variety of manufacturers. Working in advertising world of the Mad Man era, drinking at lunch was commonplace and not typically one or two drinks. In the first year of college, I find out that my Dad has been hiding a secret. He is a binge drinker and every so often drinks to excess and takes “sick” time. We have an intervention and he very reluctantly goes to a halfway house for treatment. It lasted a week, a real long week. But again he beats the odds and doesn’t have a relapse.
Giving up smoking in the mid sixties and stopping the alcohol abuse, he eats healthy and keeps active for the past few decades. More reasons we can celebrate his ninetieth birthday this week.
My later memories of my Dad is the undying support he gives me. My own career and personal life has been less than successful or at least not what I envisioned, yet he never has never stopped believing in me or encouraging me. How often he tells me on the telephone how proud he is of me. Part of me gets angry. Doesn’t he see my life hasn’t been “successful”; how angry and unhappy I am at times. How can he say that? But another part of me is uplifted. He won’t quit on me, I mean ever; he really is proud of me and my talents and yes my successes. And I know that to be true with a capital T. He makes me see the good things, the positives in my life when I could easily ignore them.
So in a nutshell my Dad and his life. Is he perfect? Not anymore than you and me. He didn’t want to make a big deal of his 90th birthday. I am sure it’s not easy. Most of his peers are gone, many days he has chronic pain. Can’t go out and hit and then swear at a golf ball. But he still has his wife Mary, my mother, his partner of over 50 years. Will say she is the reason he’s here today, and I can’t argue too much against that. But your courage and strength to meet and overcome pain and sorrow and issues most of use can’t imagine, well I think that is a reason as well. Wow, ninety, not a big deal, but a BFD.
And to the doctor who said you wouldn’t live to be thirty, damn I am glad you were wrong. And to my Dad, I just want to say how proud I am of you. And that I love you.
Happy Birthday. Thanks for making it to 90.