Eulogy For My Father

Note: my friend Dean Arnold just posted an article about his Dad on Facebook, and it got me to thinking I should honor my own Dad online as well.  So here is the eulogy I said at his funeral some 16 years ago now.  I still miss him.

We are gathered here today to honor the life of Joseph Lee Haley, Jr., born June 16, 1926, died October 14, 2001.

In writing his eulogy I found it surprisingly simple to characterize his life: not because he was a simple man, or a famous one, or even because he was my father, but because the fruits of his life’s work and passion are so openly evident for anyone to see. Humanitarian, environmentalist, engineer, hobbyist, historian, husband, father, church-going Christian, good neighbor, best friend; he was all of that and more, and he didn’t believe in an arm chair ideology of a purely intellectual variety. Rather, he actually strove to live his life according to his deep-seated convictions, and the evidence of his success in those endeavors was easy for me to find.

His early life of humble origins helps us to identify him as a kind of Horatio Alger who rose from relative obscurity to become one of the top engineers in his field. Born in La Fayette County, Mississippi, his mother died when was only two, but his family was close enough that I never heard him refer to his younger siblings or new mom as “step” anything: they were just mothers, brothers, and sisters to Dad, and he loved them dearly. He spent most of his early life helping out on the family farm, doing the chores, working the harvest, tilling the soil, with the occasional trip into the big city of Oxford. He was also a role model for his kin.

One of the memories I cherish the most from my childhood were the many times Dad would tell me a bed time story, most of which revolved around his own childhood. There’s one story in particular that I remember which helps to illustrate the kind of man he eventually became. I’ve long since forgotten some of the details but the gist of the tale was this: his father was busy on the farm, or otherwise seriously engaged, so he told Joe to go into town to sell a good part of the cotton crop. This was a big responsibility for a young boy, and I can only imagine how proud and excited he must have felt to be entrusted with so important a task. He dutifully sold the produce at a fair price but on his way out of town he fell prey to one of the oldest hustles in the books, a con man playing a shell game. I think you can guess what happened. Dad was swindled of all his money and had to be expecting the worst when he told his father what he’d done. But when Papa Joe (as his grandchildren liked to call him) heard the woeful saga, he merely asked, “Did you learn anything?” to which my father responded “Yes, sir”, and that was the end of that. Except, I think for many of us, being cheated by a louse at such an early age might make us cynical, distrustful, or hard-hearted. Not Joe Haley. He believed that deep down inside (maybe very deep in some cases) all of us are made in the image of God and so of course we’re all good people at our core. Knowing Dad, he probably thought that if he could just find that crook from his childhood, he could change him and make him a better, more honest man. And he spent his life that way: making those around him better, believing in them, or helping them to believe in themselves. Whether a friend or relative struggling with a money or marital issue, a moral dilemma, or even running from the law or in jail; whether stuck with an engineering problem, struggling with family, or just needing a favor, there was Joe Haley, the wise counselor, the handy man, the sounding board, the lender of last resort, the guy at the end of the rope who said, “I believe in you. Just hang on. We’ll get through this together.” And he’d mean it, and say it with a smile, and do it. And whenever he leant people money, or gave to one of a thousand charities (and I’ve got a stack of junk mail to sort through every day for him), or helped a floundering friend, I believe truly that he grew and became a better man for it. By helping other people, he helped himself. There’s a lesson for all of us in that.

His time on the farm was punctuated by a rudimentary education in a one-room schoolhouse. That an unexceptional student, a product of the Blackjack County Public Education System, could rise to become one of the preeminent engineers in his field, is a triumph of will power, grit, determination, intelligence, and a can do optimism that flies in the face of the odds. It’s also the great American success story. Dad had always been attracted to all things mechanical, even going so far as to construct a miniature log hauler to mimic the action of the real thing on his father’’ timber operation. So it was natural that when the war ended he enrolled in Mississippi State University’s engineering program on the GI bill. You may not know that he failed initially and had to drop out. You may be surprised to hear me mention a failure in the context of a eulogy, but I think it’s inspirational (and so typical of him) that he was able to dust himself off, pick himself up by his own bootstraps, and climb back up that steep academic hill. Schoolwork didn’t come easy for Dad, but there’s a plaque in his office that summarizes his optimism: “He who really wants to do something finds a way: He who doesn’t finds an excuse.” Dad found a way, going on to an industrious career in aerospace engineering that included stints at Lockheed-Martin, Chance-Vought, Flight Safety Foundation, and United States Army Aviation Aeromedical Research Laboratory. I’ll leave the details of his professional career to others more knowlegeable than I, but suffice it to say that his crowning achievement, co-authorship of the “Crash Survival Handbook”, is still considered to be the bible for crashworthiness design.

Like so many others of the greatest generation, Dad was a patriotic guy. Though essentially a pacifist, he recognized the need for America’s WW II involvement and enlisted in the US Navy in 1944. He proudly served in the China-Burma-India campaign. As in so many other things, Dad didn’t just talk politics; he understood the issues both nationally and locally and contributed to candidates. He was proud that he worked with the soldiers, doctors, and engineers at Fort Rucker. He loved America and he loved Enterprise. I remember after seeing more of the bigger world outside of Alabama I would in my know-it-all way tell Dad how poor Enterprise was, how lacking in entertainment and employment options, and just generally running it down. He’d just smile that smile of his (you all know what I mean) and say something like “Enterprise has 25,000 people now. They’ve even opened up a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Besides, I’ve got good friends and neighbors here. This is home”. Home. Friends. Neighbors. That was what was important to Joe Haley. It’s taken me a lot longer than him to figure it out, but, as in most things, Dad was right.

Family was important to him. He married Mary Jane Jones in 1954 and subsequently had three children with her. He left a promising career in Atlanta to move to a small company in Tempe, Arizona because his youngest child, Pat, suffered from asthma and needed a change of climate. He made sure we all did our homework, went to church, and loved each other. He was the Scoutmaster of our Boy Scout Troop and helped Joe and I to become Eagle Scouts. One of his great joys was his grandson, Jonathan, and one of the few times I ever really saw him down for more than a few minutes was the death of his youngest son, Pat in 1989. It’s our turn for sorrow, now, Dad.

There’s a thousand things I could tell you about Dad, of the time he stopped a pick-pocket, of that great smile he always wore, of his kindness to animals and his love for his pet dogs Bridget and Oscar, of his corny sense of humor and his never ending home improvement projects (done almost literally on a shoestring), of his love of automobiles both as rolling treasures of Americana and as family icons, of his thirst for knowledge in a wide array of fields as diverse as geneology, history, literature, science, and medicine that lasted literally until the last few weeks.

But in the final analysis I think that people who knew Dad knew him most for his zest for life and boundless optimism. Only a year ago we rented some mountain bikes to ride down an extremely rough mountain trail. I was worried about him making it. I shouldn’t have. I had a hard time keeping up with him. He fell down twice, but he never gave up. He just kept getting back up on that bike and made it down that steep mountain grade. He never gave up on anything. He didn’t want to die because he loved life so much. He wanted to meet new friends, have more grandchildren, and help more people. He loved us all, and we loved him well. If, as the Bible says, “love never fails”, then his life was a spectacular success. The world is a far better place because of the lives you touched, Dad. We will surely miss you. I already do. God bless you. Goodbye.

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