Lessons from Dad

As I reflect on my father’s life, and can’t help but be struck by what a powerful influence he was on me.  I fear that while my adolescent rebellion against him was mild, it was long lived.  It took me a long time to see my father clearly.  I regret not seeing my father for the man he was earlier in my life, and I regret not spending more time with him when I had the chance.  I don’t recall my dad giving me many words of advise, but his life, his example, spoke volumes.

Loyalty & Family

Family was of supreme importance to my dad.  Even when his wife divorced him to marry his best friend, he never spoke a harsh word about either of them to me.  He supported their decisions in my sister and my  lives.  It was clear that he wanted my sister and I to have a good family experience with our mother and step father, and would do nothing to undermine that experience.  I think it was extremely important to him to be supportive of his children.  While my dad could be critical, he was always supportive of me as a person.  He made it clear that my sister and I should be committed to the other, and always look out for each other.  He was overjoyed to be a grandparent.  In an age where families drift apart, he worked hard to stay close not only with his sister and children, but with his nieces and nephews as well.


My dad loved simplicity in all things.  The first place you could observe simplicity was his lifestyle.  Unlike many people, he always lived well within his means.  He didn’t feel compelled to upgrade, update, or otherwise “keep up with the Jones”.  If the clock radio purchased in 1972 continued to provide the time and had a functioning alarm,  there was no reason to replace it.  He never seemed to worry about brands or status symbols, he was just concerned that “the job would get done”.

Dad also looked for simplicity in his professional life.  I think he believed that if a solution, device, principle, etc wasn’t simple enough to be explained on one or two napkins, then you had the wrong approach and were making things too complex.  He was always suspicious of people who tried to attack difficult problems with extremely complex solutions.

Love Nature

My finest times with my dad were in the outdoors.  He loved to hike, backpack, fish, and canoe.  He loved watching animals in the wild, especially birds.  Dad could sit for hours watching birds.  I remember him telling me of a series of meetings he had at Xerox PARC.  Almost nothing was initially accomplished because the conference room looked out over a field where there were a number of hawks soaring and hunting.  He just couldn’t tear his attention away from the hawks and focus on the physics at hand, and didn’t regret this at all.

My father had a deep respect for the natural world.  He found time to enjoy the world God has created, and spent time learning about the wonders of creation.  He took the time to read the works of great naturalists and spent time in the wild observing and learning with his own senses.  I think he had a great sense of wonder, and loved to discover and explore.  This continues even after his first stroke with naturalist lead trips.

The Beauty and Value of Science

My dad was an scientist and an experimentalist. Why speculate when you could give it a try, measure the results, and then draw your conclussions from real data. While I am naturally more comfortable in the world of mystery and mysticism, my dad taught me to value the concrete. To look at real data. To run experiments and look at the results rather than relying exclussively on intuition.

Humble Service

My dad was a brilliant man… evident from an early age.  He never finished high school because he was selected by a Ford Foundation for a special scholarship program and sent to Yale.  He continued on to Rochester, and then to University of Colorado to finish his PhD.  He was working in the field of integrated optics before people knew it was a field. His rapid wit was recognized by anyone who spend more than a few minutes with him.  Yet he was never arrogant.  He had a sense that his intellect and abilities were a gift, something that should used, not bragged about.

Respect for Others

I never saw Carl put other people down.  That’s not to say that he couldn’t be blunt, but that he addressed real issues he thought could or should be fixed. He didn’t snipe at people are make statements for the purpose of hurting others. You didn’t have to wonder if he was trying to manipulate you or hide things. What you saw was what you got. Carl was forthright when speaking to others. 

Carl was quick to hear other people out, and liked to bring the best out of others. He loved collaborating with others, and had no problem letting others take the lead in areas where they were stronger than he was. He also was happy to give people a chance, even if they hadn’t proven themselves yet. Just after I had gotten my drivers license he some family to visit just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. Some of my best friends had just moved to Pittsburgh to attend CMU… I hoped to visit them.  So off we went. Once we got to the cousins home my dad gave me the keys, told be when to be back, and sent me on my way. This doesn’t sounds like a big deal… but I had a brand new license and had spent all my time in an automatic transmission car. He was giving me his brand new stick car to drive when I had less than 1 hour of time driving a stick where the streets were flat, while Pittsburgh is notoriously hilly. Somehow I got to CMU and back on time without crashing his car… but I wasn’t confident that this would be the outcome… but Carl thought it was worth the risk.


I grew up knowing that charity was important.  I saw my father’s example, giving time and money to charities that he thought were worthy.  At an early age I was encouraged to donate portion of the money I received for my birthday and holidays to an appropriate charity. 

Emotional Honestly & Communication

Alas, this was a lesson that I mostly learned through a negative example.  Like many men of my father’s generation, he has a very hard time telling people how he felt.  It was extremely difficult for him to say “I love you”, or “I am proud of you”.  These are words that I longed to hear, and never heard directly from his lips.  While it was hard for him to be honest about his feelings with the person in question, he was able to be honest with others.  So while he might have a hard time telling my sister how much he respected my sister’s commitment to her kids, he was able to tell me and his wife.

Watching my dad struggle with expressing emotions taught be the importance on learning to be emotionally honest with people, especially the people who are most important to me.  I don’t want people to long for an encouraging or affirming word from me, which I desire to give, but find myself unable to speak.

A Rolex… a touchstone?!

One of my most prized possessions is a Rolex watch that was my dad’s. Now if you knew my dad or you read the above text you would likely say “Carl owned a Rolex?”  Indeed, for as long as I can remember, dad only wore the most basic analog (he was and optics guy) Timex that most likely cost $10. So how does a Rolex fit in? It was a gift that he received when one of his students completed his PhD. Did dad switch to this fancy new watch? Nope. He kept wearing his Timex because it got the job done. Did he ever wear the Rolex? Yes, when his wife or friends requested that he wear a nicer watch when going to formal events. Why do a love this watch? Because it represents for me his commitment to quality, his profession, and to his students, and that fact that he would have never purchased the Rolex for himself. You can tell when I am really missing my dad. My $15 digital (I am a computer guy) Timex is replaced for a day or two with the Rolex.

Facts and Figures

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *