Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Father's days: In praise of Walter Rynkiewicz

Walter & Catie Rynkiewicz, 2010

My father Walter died this morning.

I've been spending a lot more time with Dad. The whole family has been hanging out, and we're seeing a few people we haven't seen in years. Dad had a chance to recall past exploits, and indulge in frozen custard, marching-band music and other guilty pleasures. It's a shame this all came to pass because he's been dying.

He entered hospice May 5 and I visited again just yesterday. It looks a bit like a country club: Rooms trimmed in dark wood overlooking a forest preserve. Patio doors lead out to a garden where yellow finches gather around a bird feeder. A beautiful place, but all the residents would rather be someplace else, maybe Dad especially. He kept nursing home visits brief, was uncomfortable at wakes, and resisted hospital trips — even the one that landed him in intensive care. But fate has a way of making us face our fears. He had time to come to grips with his death, and for us to come to grips with his life.

Walter was named for his dad, who owned a tailor shop and helped start a savings-and-loan. Walter Sr. worked long hours and died when his son was 28. Dad found him a bit of a mystery. I was 3 when he died, and Walter's path was potentially even more time-consuming than his father's: He was a young lawyer in hard-driving surroundings. I think he found family life just as important as career, and resolved to make sure I would find him less of a mystery in 25 years.

So I remember doing a lot of things with him. He took his children to his law office to watch the Milwaukee circus parade from the 21st floor, and we went behind the scenes at the park bandshell where he moonlighted as announcer for West Allis summer concerts. (Probably this scene comes to mind because he would be smoking Parliaments and talking about quitting.)

When we joined the Boy Scouts, Dad was one of the fathers who camped with us. We did woodworking projects together using his father's tools; he also passed on his father's Polish curses. Even in my mid-20s, he and Mom were driving to Chicago to see me in church musicals. My girlfriend Brenda was not sure what to make of it at intermission when Mom and Dad were necking.

Perhaps Dad could make time for us because he wasn't as career-driven as his peers. His clients were mostly small businesses, although some like Red Star Yeast grew into big businesses (Universal Foods, then Sensient Technologies). I've been calling his clients and peers because Dad gave me an hospital-room assignment, as the reporter in the family, to prepare his obituary. Peers and clients said he was a smart guy, but also curious about everything and everyone. In the days before consulting was a big business, his clients were picking his brain for ideas on not just their legal strategy but their entire business.

And he empathized with everyone he met. Dad could talk with anyone: Eric Schumann, owner of Merit Gear Corp., recalls a business meeting where in the course of a few minutes Walter engaged in two genial conversations, strikingly similar in tone, with a shabbily dressed woman in the hotel and with Sen. Herb Kohl. Even as a young lawyer working on car insurance claims in central Wisconsin, Walter would quiz farmers about machinery and the price of milk before getting around to taking their deposition. Throughout his career he cared about his clients, and this brought a lot of steady business without a lot of political gamesmanship.

He was good at corporate law, and led the state bar's panel on corporate practice. A large law firm was the place for him, even if he lacked the sharp elbows that seem to go with the territory. Without prompting, fellow lawyers told me about his ethics, as if ethics were unusual among attorneys.

He also took on his share of nonprofit work, notably setting up the Layton art-school scholarships and lectures. And he was able to mix business with pleasure — I recall sailing in central Wisconsin with a client's family. An even keel was Dad's career course, and he could picture himself happily working as a corporate lawyer in a small town. Fortunately I think, Mom couldn't.

No environment could have been stress-free for Dad. He could obsess over not only his work, but also the crowds on the beach, or our safety running the lawnmower. In the past few years when he spent winters in Arizona, I would take him out to the ballgame, but he never really would take to the crowd. Mom told friends about an excursion to Sedona when their tour bus had a flat tire, and he spent the rest of the trip curled in his seat, concerned that the spare might not get him home.

He'd relax talking about his high school and college days, and wrote about them before his cancer was spotted four years ago: Dad presented me and my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews with three-ring binders. They held an 88 page autobiography, and an assignment: "READ THIS." I used to ask Dad questions about his father that he could never quite answer, and didn't want us in the same position. Not to worry: The stories were already familiar, particularly all the jobs he worked through high school and college.

Who could keep them straight if they weren't written down? Paper boy, messenger, window washer. Clearing catch basins for the City of West Allis, with a municipal snow shovel in my brother Paul's garage as proof. Coaching baseball two summers at Jefferson School, not bad for someone who cooled his heels in right field. Manning the counter at Mechenich's pharmacy, which on occasion filled a doctor's prescription for the drug placebo. Playing trombone in 3rd Ward Milwaukee street parades, scenes out of "Godfather III" with fireworks and dollar bills pinned to a Virgin Mary statue. Tutoring geometry, checking mortgage paperwork. Selling women's shoes and men's ties. Shooting Polaroids at the Auto Show. Cleaning up at the florist before Valentine's Day. Laborer on construction sites, for the mason who poured the patio on his dream house. A third-shift foundry job, oiling cranes and hoists, followed by a class in Elizabethan Literature alongside early rising nuns. With no time to shower.

Dad has been retelling a lot of the stories, especially how he met my mother: in American Literature class at Marquette. Dad says it was love at first sight, and he had to move up four rows for her to take notice. However, the details vary in the telling. The saying in Chicago newsrooms is, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." She did, and she does, but I'm still trying to nail down their courtship story. One version is that a few months earlier in 1951 Walter was producing a TV show for Channel 4. (I like it that my father worked in new media.) He was recruiting panelists for a game show, and someone pointed out Katie in a crowd. Dad did not follow up on that lead. Maybe it was love at second sight. In the Rynkiewicz line, good ideas take awhile to percolate. As Dad tells it, being rejected would have broken his heart, and I would have felt the same way if Brenda had spurned my advances.

It was strange to write an obit and run the results past the subject. (I should have run the obit past a spell checker first: Dad's a precise editor.) But it pleased me to learn that his good clients were still good friends in retirement. And I enjoyed how he chatted with everyone at the hospital, even knowing the banter was tiring him. A volunteer who distributed communion at the hospital told Mom he was a better person for having talked to him.

When father's days were numbered, he faced them bravely. He wasn't quite quoting Ecclesiastes, but he'd say this is just another phase of his life. Knowing it was the final phase brought the family closer. That's an outcome he wanted, in the same way he would plan for and relish family gatherings on the Fourth of July, his birthday.

I've been reading scripture to plan a memorial service, and although the family bible has no bookmarks in the Book of Wisdom I think he aspired to be a just soul. He taught his sons and daughters that service and work well done were their own reward. St. Paul says each of us shall give an account of himself. Dad left very comfortable with how his story turned out.