By Tim Hayes

My college career wasn’t two days old, when I saw this girl.  A knockout.  She was part of a group of girls from the same floor of a dorm where a friend of mine from high school lived.  I was actually meeting that friend at a hypnotist show during Freshman Orientation, when I spotted this other girl.  You know, the knockout.

We talked and talked and soon were inseparable.  It’s 35 years later, 31 of them as husband and wife, and we’re still inseparable.  And she still knocks me out.

But back to those early days on campus.  It didn’t take long for her to want me to meet her family, so a Sunday afternoon visit got planned, to be followed by dinner at her Grandmother’s house not far from the college.

She and I met and, holding hands, started to walk across a central part of campus where stately oak trees by the dozen provided scenery and atmosphere.  Far across this two-acre expanse stood her family.  I spotted her Mom, her brother, her sister – and then her Dad.

The closer I got, the more I could sense his presence.  He stood six-foot and change.  Quite a bit of change.  He sported a buzz-top crew cut for a little extra intimidation.  He had clear blue eyes that I believed could cut steel like a laser.  And, as the piece de resistance to this little tableau, he held in his hand a steel-chain leash, and at the end stood an enormous black dog.

Slowly, I let go of the knockout’s hand.  No sense rushing things here.  Right, Sir?

Yet it soon became clear that this man was a gentle giant who loved his daughter enough to trust her, and who came to treat me as another son.  Over the years, I’ve watched him work diligently at a job that brought him little joy, but he never complained and maintained a near-perfect attendance record.  I’ve watched him make sacrifices – some that entailed significant personal and financial resources – to make sure his kids were safe and healthy and happy.  When the grandkids came, that went double.

I’ve seen examples of great exhilaration and great sadness, each handled with a unique kind of gruff grace.  He found it difficult to talk about feelings, or express his love verbally.  But that never clouded the definite understanding that he carried a deep love for his family inside.  He preferred to show, not tell.  And that was always fine with everybody.

He never officially joined in when we’d play a board game like Trivial Pursuit, but that didn’t stop him from shouting out the answers from behind his newspaper while sitting in his favorite chair across the room.  He would work like a rented mule to get his backyard in-ground pool in shape for the summer months, but I may have actually seen him in the water once.  Maybe.  But that made perfect sense.  It was his gift to want to give, so that we could enjoy things.  And he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, on top of it all.

But the one area where he truly stood head-and-shoulders above any one I’ve ever known was in his love for the University of Notre Dame.  He never attended there.  He never even set foot there until well into his 50s.  But from the time he was a little boy, Notre Dame remained his ideal.  He even called it “The Holy Land,” and once he traveled there, there was no slowing him down.

He suffered his first of two strokes one year ago.  He rallied back pretty well for a time, where we could hold a conversation with him.  Most of what he said couldn’t be understood very well, but every now and then a sentence would pop through, clear as a bell.  “Turn that damn thing off!”  “Ah, what the hell.”  And, of course, “Go Irish!”

This week, he slipped away, holding hands with his wife of nearly 60 years.  The best exit possible, all things considered.  Today, he’s talking Knute Rockne’s ear off, up in heaven somewhere.

The gentle giant rests, at last.  Love you, Dad.  I’ll take good care of the knockout.  Save me a spot up there, will you?  And thanks for everything.

Copyright 2013 Tim Hayes Consulting