>> Monday, July 12, 2010
Relax Max said: I wish you would write more about your father sometime. What little you have written is very inspiring and interesting.
Technically, he said this on Rocket Scientist, but this is where I answer questions (and the like) so I'm going to use it. I've spoken before on how he was to me as a father. Given the context, I think Relax Max was interested in the work my father did, so that's what I'll talk about.
My father was a slow, plodding learner with a great facility for logical thinking. He wasn't quick with a lightning fast recall. He wasn't witty or particularly imaginative, not prone to flights of fantasy or even rampant speculation. He was deliberate and grounded. When he learned something, it was forever. More importantly, he could take diverse and disparate information and fathom out the meaning, learn from it and take it to the logical conclusion.
He had a master's degree in plant physiology (a souped up botanist) and loved plants and growing things. In many ways, I think he'd have been happiest on a farm or engineering flowers and other plant products in one of the many plant labs in Hawaii. But he got his degree at a time when jobs for botanists were at an ebb. Debilitated by the mold he was studying for his first job (which took root in his lungs), he was laid off just a couple years after graduating and spent three years out of work.
Not entirely out of work. My father's mind was only part of who he was. When it came to work, no one had a stronger or better developed work ethic. Whatever it took, whatever work was available, he did for his young family (four children at that point). He was the eldest of twelve and he knew about responsibility.
Finally, he got a job with EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency). As my father always revered nature, it wasn't a stretch. It was entirely in keeping with his moral sense. And, when it came to ethics, he was unshakable.
He had to take an medical transfer to Las Vegas (where they had a fine lab) because it was move to the desert or his lungs were going to die. But four years in the searing dry heat had done wonders for his health and he craved plants, craved a world of green not brown. So, we moved to Oklahoma in 1984 and he moved from working with plants to becoming a soil specialist, particularly how toxins and contaminants infiltrated soils and aquifers.
Over the next two decades, he waded through every toxic sludge from one end of the country to another, often on the road for months. He helped develop an environmentally friendly vehicle that could wander into the wilder portions of our country without destroying it. Sometimes, he would take the lead on an unpopular environmental issue, promoting change. Sometimes, he thought things were going too far or were politically motivated. But he never decided until he had done the research and knew the facts. Not the prevailing attitudes or the political expedience - what did the data say and what were the repercussions. And he wouldn't budge from from what he felt was right. He was always incorruptible.
It was a job and my father took work seriously. But that's not why he did so much. It was about making the world better, keeping the water clean, keeping food crops from becoming contaminated. Knowing what was out there and figuring out how to clean it up.
He wasn't ambitious and wouldn't pander so, though he made good friends who appreciated his work, there were always those who wanted to make him quiet or step aside. He wouldn't. He never got famous or became "important." But he was respected by all those people he came in contact who cared about making the world better for his dedication and his honesty. I strive to do the same where I am.
Many of the compounds he stumbled across were carcinogenic and, in the end, that's what killed him. Cancer, even though there's no history of cancer anywhere previous in our family, took him out in about a year. A healthy man who walked miles every day, his mind as clear as when he was in his teens, struck down by what he was trying to protect us from.
Am I proud of the work he did? Damn straight.
Do I care about making the world better, speaking out for what I believe is right? Hell yes.