My Father, the Snob

Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Saturday, March 3, 2012, under the headline “Santorum thinks my dad is a snob.”  A link to the essay is provided below.

In the spring of 1957, near the end of my junior year at Messmer High in Milwaukee,  my father took me for an evening drive along the city’s Lake Drive. The purpose of the drive was motivation. My grades were neither good nor bad, whereas my sister, a Messmer Senior, had excellent grades. The difference doubtless weighed heavily on my father as he drove north so the big houses built on the bluff above the lake we’re visible on my right. As they rolled by my father said, “If you study hard you can have all this.” Looking back I invariably notice two things about that statement. First, the statement is a false. You can study hard and still end up in a shack outside Fallon, Nevada. But, second, the statement gave me options. I could choose the things exemplified by those houses or not.

There was no choice embedded in another thing my father said that evening. He said, “You’re going to college.”

According to Rick Santorum, that makes my father a snob, a notion so far from the truth that it’s laughable. My father was an immigrant and, except for a 16-year foray into small business ownership, worked at blue collar jobs until he died of a heart attack a little more than two years after our drive that evening.

I chose Marquette University because I could live at home and ride the #30 bus to and from campus. An event called the Freshman Mixer launched my first year. A band played music to which I didn’t dance while I wandered around. I stopped to talk to another freshman who didn’t look like someone from Milwaukee. During our conversation I remember him saying, “How can I tell my grandfather who looks through the barbed wire at the land he once farmed that he can never go back?” I also remember him saying the words Palestine and Israel and then I moved on. Back then, I would probably have had a hard time telling you where exactly those places were. But I know now that my education at Marquette began with that statement.

The object of going to college, the point President Obama was doubtless making when he expressed a desire that all students should have access to a college education, has less to do with attending classes than it does with beginning an exploration of the infinite possibilities life offers, some planned for and some, the best of the lot, that arrive by surprise while you’re just wandering around while listening to the band.

At Marquette the Jesuits gave me a strong sense of social justice, a trait that seems almost quixotic today, but one for which I have been grateful ever since. Also at Marquette, ROTC gave me opportunities that led to my flying for the Navy. In Vietnam, the two combined in troublesome ways I now find more interesting than they were then worrisome.

Had my father lived long enough for me to take him for an evening drive along the lake in Milwaukee I wouldn’t mention the houses I still find ridiculous. But I would thank him for insisting on college and add, “This Republican candidate, Rick Santorum, thinks you’re a snob because of that.” I’d have a hard time explaining that to him. He’d come a long way from his native Germany and successfully earned the right to stand confidently on every rung he’d climbed to. But he was not a snob.

He simply wished more for me. My college education became his wish fulfilled. I realize now that when it came to the subject of college my father had a broader view than Rick Santorum because he wasn’t pro-choice.


Link to essay in the Wisconsin State Journal:

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