On the day before starting college, my parents and I were quietly picnicking in a lonely corner of campus. Pop, a small-town boy, had wandered away to explore the first university grounds he ever had seen.
A son of the Depression, he had to quit junior high school and go to work to help support the family that included his prematurely retired father, mother and four younger siblings.
Pop practiced moral behavior, honesty and linguistic purity every day of his 94 years. By inference rather than overtly, he passed these values to his seven children. I learned a work ethic, unstinting honesty and loyalty from my father.
Although he did not verbally instruct us how to live, he was verbose at all other times. There were no strangers in his universe. His four favorite words everywhere he went were, “Hi, I’m Dick Noonan.”
I knew he loved me. I sensed it. But he never said the words,
He kept so much inside.
Laughter did not come naturally to Pop. Conversely, I never saw him cry, even when Mom died after two years with cancer.
I learned one Noonan family rule early: Neither Pop nor his four siblings would brook a critical comment about their father — especially about Grandpa Noonan’s early disappearance from the work force.
Family lore holds that in the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan rode into the small Midwestern community where Grandpa was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.
The KKK – historically anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant — demanded that Grandpa, who was religious, leave teaching immediately.
Frightened for the safety of his young family, Grandpa obeyed and retreated. Whether Grandpa ever worked again, despite having small children, has been a family secret for the last 95 years.
But the incident may have inspired Pop’s work ethic.
My father probably is the only man I have known who never cursed.
Oh, he had a temper. And he displayed it. As the oldest, I was a target.
Whenever we were leaving home for a local or out-of-town trip, I would be last to reach the car. I had to go to the bathroom.
When I climbed into the car, Pop would be annoyed. “Boy, if you don’t change,” he would say, “you will go to h.e.l.l.” He always spelled it. He never uttered a cussword aloud.
When he became angry with me, he would swear this way: “Boy, I am going to tan your hide.” He did.
Down to the basement he and I would go – into my early teenage years. Pop would reach for a paddle and smack a few memories into me.
He loved cars. Typically, his cars were 10 years old because that was what he could afford.
A blue-collar worker all of his days, he loved dressing up in his only suit and shined shoes, Pop took the same kind of pride in his automobiles. He would wash his car as often as he would bathe.
When Pop’s jobs dried up, he would hit the sidewalks immediately to find work. Within two or three days, he would be hired.
Because he worked so hard, Pop would be fatigued when he arrived home in workshirt and jeans, empty thermos and lunchbox in hand.
After supper, Pop would reach for our hometown newspaper and head for his favorite living room chair. Within minutes, though, his eyes would close, leaving the paper to fall from his lap.
My father was frugal.
About twice a year, gingerly, he would approach Mom when (almost) nobody was around. In an undertone, he would ask if she thought they could afford for him to purchase a 5-cent Payday candy bar the following day. Mom never disappointed him.
While Pop was candid at all times, Mom was diplomatic. One of her main roles was smoothing over Pop’s rough edges, which she did quietly and firmly.
Mom died a few weeks after their 43rd wedding anniversary.
Since her stepmother and Pop’s mother were sisters, my parents knew each other nearly all of their lives. He called her “Hon.” She called him “Dick.” They had their rituals. Every Tuesday night, they shared one beer and homemade popcorn in our living room.
Meanwhile, Back on Campus
On the late summer afternoon my parents and I first picnicked on my college campus, I was planning to be a world-class journalist. I told Mom my goal was to be much more successful than Pop. “If you are half as successful, we will be proud of you,” she said.