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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: June 17, 2021

Fresh Look at Dad

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,



**********

My father has been dead more than five years now. Our family; notably the four grandchildren, remember him very fondly and every family gathering includes the recounting of some of his adventures and misadventures, his quirky sayings and hobbies, and his relics †the hand-painted â€hobo camp†sign he made for his burn barrel, the suitcases he hung in the big pine tree he climbed across the road from our house, and his gifts of homemade airplanes and kites. There is no end of laughing, but we also recall his bravery as a prisoner of war during his combat tour in Europe during WWII and his stoic battle with the cancer that killed him.

I recently received a very special gift, which allowed me to see my father with a fresh perspective.

My dad graduated from UW Madison, courtesy of the GI bill †taxpayer money to equip soldiers for a successful transition to a civilian life in recognition of their service to our country. After graduation, he took a job teaching in a public school in tiny Orangeville, IL. I knew very little about Dad's time as a freshly educated teacher not far separated from the horrors of war and prison camp.

But fortunately for Dad, and those of us who loved him, one of the high school students in his English class was observant and intelligent. While he went on to a career in the field of microbiology as a professor, he also loved literature and writing, and it was these qualities which led him to reach out to my dad a few years before he died.

His initial letter was to let Dad know he appreciated having him as a teacher and to thank him for the inspiration that drove â€the student,†despite his science-based career choice, to continue writing and reading. In fact, he cited his writing skills as a key factor in his career success.

This kind outreach led to an ongoing correspondence, with â€the student†able to access my Dad's weekly essays in the Peshtigo Times on line, and a continued communication between them. Eventually, â€the student†and his lovely wife visited my parents, who greatly enjoyed their company.

â€The student†is now retiring himself, and as a part of cleaning out his office of 50 years, he found his file of correspondence with his former teacher. He reached out to me, and offered me the archive, which I was happy to accept.

What a revelation.

My dad was a lifelong, passionate advocate for investment in public education. What I didn't know (and perhaps, due to wishful thinking on my part,) is the ongoing struggle for adequate funding for education is NOT new. In one of the letters to his student, my dad recounts a visit to his classroom by a couple of local elected officials of some sort. They were there to assess the adequacy of instruction in â€grammar†that had become a source of taxpayer complaint. â€Kids are not being taught to write and speak properly in school.†Sound familiar? Surely did to me. They arrived during the scheduled unit on poetry, and took seats in dad's classroom with notebooks and pens to observe the class.

Dad thought the unit was going well, with good student engagement. But the grammar police watched from the back radiating disapproval. After the class they approached Dad and one asked where he had gotten his degree. â€University of Wisconsin Madison!†he said, and I am sure he said it with pride. The ranking political official then asked â€Where is that?†Mind you, Orangeville, IL is scant miles beyond the Wisconsin border and probably less than 60 miles from the well-respected university. Ah. Perhaps I see where a little of Dad's frustration with the ongoing disrespect of public schools and public school teachers came from. Grammar police politicians will do that to you. I'd argue the biggest influence on children's grammar is their home environment, as they spend the most time listening and observing, and where they are presented with a good example, or not. It is much the same with religious formation. Home is the big influencer, not the classroom, and rightly so in my opinion.

A second revelation struck me much harder. My father never talked about his personal experiences during the war while I was growing up. He was patriotic but very vocally anti-war, and I understood it was his personal experience that made him think the way he did. He influenced my opinions on the subject then, and continues to do so now. It was only very late in his life that he wrote some of his shocking wartime and prison camp experiences in the essays in the Peshtigo Times, and when I read them, I was exposed to the disturbing stories for the first time.

Clearly, he had shielded us from a lot of ugliness. I only knew him as â€dad,†adjusted to life as a social worker and family man. â€The student,†however, knew him as someone relatively fresh from war.

While my dad led a play practice after school one day, someone set off a large firecracker just outside the building. My dad threw himself flat on the floor in an instant. â€The student†wrote about this event in a letter to my father. Obviously the memory had stayed with â€the student†for decades. I just read the account a few weeks ago, and am versed in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers, as most of us now are. This story touched me in a way nothing my dad ever said to me about the war had, and I realized he had been deeply impacted in ways I never saw.

So my thanks to the student, Dr. Robert Switzer. Thanks for your outreach to my Dad in the late autumn of his life. He was so proud when he showed me your initial letter. Thanks to you and your wife for your kindness to my mom and him. Thank you for keeping the archive. Thank you for sharing it with me, and know it will make its way among my siblings and Dad's four grandchildren. You are a fine man, with a wonderful wife, and if my dad had even a tiny role in your formation, it is one more thing I am proud of.

Happy father's day in heaven, Dad; and happy father's day to my husband, our son, and all the dads, grandfathers, uncles, step-fathers and other male mentors of young people on father's day.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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