Eleven years ago I was the head coach at Rhode Island College and the Providence Friars were in Anaheim playing in the Wooden Classic Tournament over Thanksgiving. My father used to watch all of our games when I was an assistant at Providence and still liked to follow the Friars. So on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I texted him to remind him that PC was playing in the finals of the tournament that night, and the game was on TV. My father would never get that text.
Today I’m back on the staff at Providence, and we are in Anaheim for the Wooden Classic. Exactly where the Friars were 11 years ago when I sent my father that text. The Tampa police got that text when they picked up my father’s phone. Since it was the last text he had received, they called me.
Eleven years ago, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, I was getting ready to head down to practice at RIC when my cell phone rang. At RIC my office was in the Recreation Center, across campus from the Murray Center where we practiced and played, so we had to actually get into our cars and drive down to the Murray Center for practice. As I walked out of the Rec Center towards my car, I looked at my phone. It was my Dad calling.
It was odd that my Dad would call at that time, because he knew we practiced late in the afternoon. I had a lot going on getting ready for practice, so I let the call go. I’d give him a call back after practice. I got in my car and started driving down the Rec Center, and my phone rang again. It was my Dad calling again. I figured maybe he just had to ask me a question about something so I picked it up.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when your caller ID says “Dad” yet the voice you hear when you say hello is one you don’t recognize. My insides felt hollow. I was sitting at a stop sign waiting to make a right turn when I heard “Detective with the Tampa Police department.” My father had recently bought his retirement home in Tampa. “I’m very sorry to inform you…” My father had been found by his cleaning lady, dead of a heart attack. He was 63 years old. I was too stunned to know how to feel.
I drove down to the Murray Center, parked in the parking lot, and called my brother. I got his wife, who said he was not feeling well and was sleeping. I told her he had to wake him up. When he came to the phone I just said “I just got a call from the Tampa Police department. Dad’s dead.” They had picked up my Dad’s cell phone and looked at his text messages. I had texted him the day before to let him know Providence College was in Anaheim in a tournament, and their game was on TV if he wanted to watch it. He never got the text. The Tampa Police did.
I went inside the Murray Center, totally stunned, and told my AD. I went into the gym and gathered my players who were warming up before practice, and told them. It seemed weird that I told my team before I told anyone else in my family, but I had to let them know I wasn’t going to be at practice. I called my girlfriend – now my wife – and can still hear the shock in her voice.
I went home and called my brother again, and we started calling family and close friends. The feeling is hard to describe, it’s like being in a daze. I was shocked, stunned, empty, yet there was a lot of work to do. We had to let people know, to start thinking about arrangements. Throughout all of it, as bad as I felt, I remember thinking about how lucky I was. I had a great relationship with my father, and I just felt lucky to have had the relationship I did with him for 36 years. I still feel that way to this day. As stunned as I was, I just kept thinking about how lucky I was, and I guess that helped me get through that day somehow.
My father was very successful. He grew up in Parkchester in the Bronx and had to work hard to get to college. He attended Iona College just North of the City, joining the Marine Reserves to help pay for school, and started a career in business upon graduation. He took a job out of school with KPMG, one of the big accounting firms in New York City, and ended up spending 38 years with the company. By the time he retired he was a senior partner with a big office on Park Avenue. He was very actively involved at Iona College, his alma mater, as the President of their Goal Club, as well as their Alumni Association. He joined a golf club in Westchester and served a stint as the President there. He served on a number of different Boards of Directors.
My father’s wake was a few days later on Castle Hill Avenue in the Bronx, the neighborhood where he grew up. He was still a working class kid from the Bronx, but he had worked his way into being very well off and connecting with some very successful people. It was overwhelming to see so many people show up to pay their respects. Whenever your in the situation where someone close to you has a death in the family and you feel like your not sure what to do, just show up. That’s what you do. It really helped to see so many people.
The wake was a who’s who of powerful people. College President’s, executive VPs, high-powered attorneys, wall street brokers. It made my brother and I feel very good to see so many of my Dad’s friends and associates. The line was long and it took a couple of hours to see everyone.
Towards the end of the night a man walked in who looked a little out of place. He was wearing a baseball cap and a pair of khakis with a golf shirt and a rumpled jacket. He had a work ID badge hanging around his neck. I noticed him as soon as he walked in, and I didn’t recognize him. He didn’t talk to anyone, he just waited on line and made his way up to our family to pay respects. He shook my hand and simply said “I’m so sorry for your loss. Your father was a great friend to me.” After he got through the line, he went and sat in the back in a chair by himself. I noticed he said a few words to a few of the people from my Dad’s office. Then he got up slowly, put his cap back on, and started to walk out.
I wanted to talk to him before he left, but I hesitated because I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable. I didn’t want him to think that I was stopping him because I didn’t know who he was. I watched him walk out the door of the funeral home and head back down Castle Hill Avenue – past a number of car service Town Cars ready to take some of the attendees back into Manhattan. He was walking back to the 6 train.
This man was on my mind all night. Before everyone left, I asked one of my father’s work associates if they knew who he was. I thought I had seen him talking briefly with some of the people from my Dad’s office. It turns out he did work in my Dad’s office – in the mailroom. He delivered the mail to my Dad’s floor of his Park Avenue office building, and my Dad had asked him what his name was, befriended him, developed a relationship with him. He asked him about his family. He found out he had two young kids in catholic school. He’d buy them Christmas gifts so they had toys under the tree. At different times when things were a struggle, my Dad had helped out paying his kids tuition so they could stay in the Catholic grammar school in their neighborhood.
When I learned about this, I couldn’t hold back the tears. This man had gotten on the 6 train in Midtown Manhattan and taken a one hour subway ride to Castle Hill, then walked the six blocks to pay his respects, to say “I’m sorry for your loss” to two sons he had never met. I have thought about him every day since my father passed. I can still see him putting his hat back on and slowly walking up Castle Hill Avenue to the Subway station. I didn’t even know who he was, nor did my brother. We would have had no idea if he didn’t show up. But he made the trip anyway.
I am very lucky to have had the relationship I did with my father, to spend the time with him that I did. I’m also very proud of the way my Dad lived his life. He made a lot of money and travelled in circles of very successful people. But he was always the same person, the kid who had worked his way out of the Bronx. He had no sense of entitlement about him. I learned so much from him, simply from the way he lived his life and how he treated people. He treated everyone with dignity and respect and went out of his way to help people in need.
That night, that moment, that man who showed up to pay his respects for my father really made me think about how I live my own life. I think about him every day. Do I treat everyone with the same respect? Am I genuine to everyone I meet, regardless of their circumstances and what they can do for me? How do I treat the people in my “mail room?” We all have people in the mail room in our life. How do we interact with those people? How sincere are we with them?
What am I doing every day to make sure – when it’s my time – that the guy in my mail room is going to show up for me?
That was the last lesson my father ever taught me.