Those Who Went Before

My father and mother sit astride his tractor on the family farm in Oroville, Calif.
My father and mother sit astride his tractor on the family farm in Oroville, Calif.

It’s been 20 years since my father passed away, but I still dream about him. I can read all kinds of Freudian interpretation into that fact, such as my mind seeing his image as a manifestation of my own manhood. But the fact still remains that he is still in my thoughts.

My relationship with my father was complicated. He was an intelligent, self-educated man who was strongly opinionated on pretty much everything. He wasn’t much for arguing, or even talking, especially about stuff like feelings. But he was a guiding force in my life. When I was a little shaver, he taught me phonics and got me started reading at the age of 3. When I would come incessantly to him with questions about the world, he would tell me to go look it up, and direct me to the most valuable thing we owned in our living room: a set of encyclopedias. I spent hours flipping through those pages, and later spent even more hours at the city library, often getting into trouble from my mom because I wouldn’t come home. My father had expectations for me, but they lay in the field of science. He wanted me to be a scientist, even though my aptitude lay more in creative areas. He never quite understood that. In the long run, we agreed to disagree, but I know without his prodding and challenging me I would not have come as far as I have in my life and my career. One of the best bits of advice–and one of the last–that he gave to me was that my first priority was ALWAYS to take care of my family. I’ve never forgotten that.

Shirley Burton
Shirley Burton

My first real job out of college was working as managing editor of the Pacific Union Recorder, an eight-page weekly newspaper that was mailed to 50,000 Seventh-day Adventists throughout the western U.S. I worked at that job from 1975 to 1980. And if it were not for one woman, Shirley Burton, I might never have gotten a first job. I was a VERY ROUGH diamond that she saw some promise in. In 1975 it was hard to find a break in journalism. She tells of pondering over a large stack of applications for the managing editor position, and then somehow being directed to pick me. “Him?” she thought to herself, surprised. But the message continued to come to her. She gave me a chance, first with a three-month trial, then later for five years. When I left there in 1980, I knew that I had a good start on a great career. Shirley went on to be director of communication for SDAs throughout North America. She was another one who was opinionated, spoke her mind, and her job was her life. I miss her, just as I know many others who miss her.

But all during the time I spent with my father and later with Shirley Burton, in the back of my mind I knew that I wanted to be a creative writer. My first real mentor in that area came in the form of a tall, thin, unassuming Englishman named Arthur Milward. Art wrote short stories that were published in Redbook, Reader’s Digest and other high profile, mainstream magazines. All of his stories were true, but were often classified as fiction, simply because they were so hard to believe. He grew up in a noble family in England, served as a missionary in Africa where a son died of disease, and suffered through divorce. He used to tell me that when we wrote a short story, he had the whole thing written out in his head, word for word, before he put it on paper. He also told me that a successful writer always had a yard that suffered from neglect.

These three people–and there are many more–had an important part in making me the writer, the professor, and the husband and father that I am today. I owe them a debt of gratitude. But all three of them have passed on. And so once again I follow my father’s advice. When he and my mother helped Shelly and I out more than once, and we talked about repaying them, he simply said, “Pay it forward.” That’s what I am trying to do today. The greatest reward I have as a teacher is seeing the light come on in my student’s eyes and being able to see that my words and my actions helped them succeed. This goes double for students interested in writing.

I know that I will not always be around, but what I do today might live on beyond my time here on earth. I hope it does.

2 thoughts on “Those Who Went Before

  1. my mom died 4 years ago and i would dream about her from time to time shortly after her death, but not so much now.. i’m glad your father impacted your life in a positive way. unfortunately, my mother taught me more of ‘what NOT to do’…

  2. Well I think you are certainly paying it forward. All the time that you’ve spent instructing me on my writing – both for class work and for my personal writing – has meant the world to me. I came to college thinking it was impossible for me to succeed as a writer, but you have given me hope that I can actually succeed.

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