Friday, January 6, 2012

Words and Deeds: A Tribute to My Dad

‘If you don’t stop jumping on that bed, young man, I’m going to come over and swat you!’ exclaimed the young father, tired from a long day’s drive in middle America.

‘You do, you die!’ replied the three-year-old boy, as he continued to jump happily up and down on the rollaway bed in the hot motel room. A stunned silence descended over the room, followed by peals of laughter from the boy’s older siblings. Soon his harried parents joined the kids in their mirth, the long day’s drive and the temperature of the seedy motel room forgotten as unimportant details.

As it turns out, I, Jason Lockwood, was the young boy and the tired father was none other than George J. Lockwood, now 80 years young. This minor event in an anonymous motel room more than four decades ago highlights an immutable fact about Dad: he raised his children to be independent adults. Never mind that sometimes that independence manifested itself at inopportune moments, like bedtime after a gruelling drive across the fruited plains of my country of birth.

When I was seven years old, my little friend Christopher from two doors down and I decided it would be fun to set fire to a broom on a neighbours’ back porch. We thought we could contain the fire, but when the entire thing broke into a raging blaze, Christopher’s father took notice from next door and leapt the fence that separated the two properties. He dragged me home to report to Dad what I had done and you can bet there was hell to pay that muggy summer’s night. Dad gave me a spanking the likes of which I’d never experienced and grounded me for a full two weeks!

This second memory from my childhood serves to remind me that Dad was serious about raising his kids properly. He wanted us to understand the consequences of our actions. Therefore, if we misbehaved, the resulting punishment fit the deed. I roundly deserved the spanking and grounding, in other words.

Despite these lessons learnt the hard way, Dad was a fair man. Both he and my mother always ensured we sat down to a proper family dinner every night of the week. We ate what my mother cooked and we discussed the ideas of the day around the dinner table. Sometimes the ideas were serious and other times more light hearted, but Dad, sitting at the head of the table, served as unofficial moderator for the evening’s discussion, while Mom ensured that we spoke in turn. As a child of the 1970s and early 1980s, our discussions often ran to political events of the day. Civility was key, and we were all required to remain respectful of our parents’ and siblings’ viewpoints.

Dad enjoyed a lifelong career in journalism, working at the Milwaukee Journal from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. He was a conservative at a notoriously liberal news organisation, but despite his divergence with the editorial views of the newspaper, he thrived in his many roles over the years. He would frequently give me tours of the newsroom and the print floor with the big, noisy contraptions that spat out newspapers at lightning speed. He would always introduce me to a new employee, bring me to have a chat with the editor of the Journal, Dick Leonard, or show off the latest technology that would make producing the newspaper quicker and more efficient. To this day, I attribute my love for language and technology to those visits to Dad’s office.

Throughout my childhood, Dad repeated his “roots and wings” speech to us time and again. It consisted of explaining to us that he and Mom gave us a foundation of ideas and love and from which we would take flight as independent, well adjusted adults. The most important lesson from the speech, however, was that I must always think for myself. Only I was the master of my own mind and I should never surrender it to anyone for any reason. With Dad, facts mattered. Facts were king. Without facts, no argument could or should hold sway. In his career, he was a ruthless editor, excising any words from a news article containing inflammatory or biased language.

Soon after entering high school, I declared to both my parents that I wanted to study abroad on the AFS program. Dad, always the realist, insisted that I carefully consider what a big step this entailed. I would be required to live far away from home, attend a strange school and learn another language. It was not enough, in Dad’s eyes, to want something. I had to earn my way in the world, which left no room for passive star gazing. Rather, any goal, however immediate or long term, must be followed up with a plan of execution. Only then, according to Dad, would I meet success in any endeavour I undertook in life.

I did finally realise my dream of living overseas on a high school exchange program, but found that Dad was right: the goal required careful planning. It also meant that however laudable the desire, sometimes one’s plans did not always play out as expected. Another of Dad’s lessons to me was always to have a plan B - or even plan C, D, E or F!

As I entered adulthood, Dad’s lessons and advice became less frequent, but no less strident. After my first experience living overseas in Belgium at 18, I went on to study and later teach overseas, too. Dad always supported me in my decisions, with the ongoing proviso that I think carefully through each choice I made and only undertake a new adventure with the full knowledge that it was right for me. I cannot stress this last point enough. Dad never demanded that my siblings and I follow in his footsteps. We were to make our own choices, bearing in mind the enormous responsibility independence of thought and action required of us.

Upon my return from teaching English in Slovakia in 1993, I was at a loss for what I would do next with my life. Still in my 20s, I had not yet decided upon a career. I thought it made sense to return to university to study for a master’s degree. I considered history or economics as possible areas of study. I was certain Dad would approve. After all, education was held in the highest regard in my family. Also, Dad held a master’s in journalism himself.

I recall vividly the telephone conversation with Dad:

‘I have decided to study for a master’s degree’.

‘In what?’ Dad asked.

‘I was thinking history or maybe economics,’ I replied, somewhat surprised by his curt retort.

‘Where are you going to get the money to pay for this?’ Dad questioned, taking me utterly by surprise.

I stammered a reply I no longer recall, but Dad’s message was clear: don’t go back to study unless it was going to advance my actual career opportunities and only if the cost was within my reach.

I never got the master’s degree. Instead, I studied both subjects on my own, spending money on the books, but not the exorbitant university fees. Once again, Dad had provided his unique brand of parenting, even to his grown up son. His message was not that further education was wrong, but that it should be the right decision to make in the context of the rest of my life’s goals. I eventually took a beginning computer programming course for a few hundred dollars at a local college in Milwaukee. That one course moved me to pursue a career in software. 16 years later I am still in the field, happy for the dressing down Dad gave me in the summer of 1993. Without it, I might have made a costly error and gone into debt to boot.

At the age of 41, I announced to my family that I had accepted a permanent position with my company in Sydney. This time, instead of admonishing me, Dad asked: ‘When can your mother and I come visit?’ You could have knocked me over with a feather! Upon reflection, however, his reaction made complete sense. After many years of instilling in me firm roots, I had finally graduated to taking flight with my own wings. Dad could safely assume that my decision was rational, that my choice of uprooting myself once again would enhance my life and career. It has, in spades.

I realise as I write this paean to Dad that it is not so much about him as it as about my relationship to him. As I pause to consider Dad’s quiet heroism - as journalist, husband, father and friend to many over his eight glorious decades - I am almost moved to a silent prayer of reverence. I say almost because I am not literally religious, but prayer is the right word in this context because it conveys the kind of high regard the religious hold for the concept of a God.

Dad has certainly suffered setbacks and disappointments in his long life. Over the past decade, cancer, diabetes and heart attacks have nearly bested him. Dad is a slugger, though. He possesses an indomitable spirit that cuts through all disease and discomfort. To this day, I watch in awe as he and Mom continue on with their lives as if nothing can stop them. I know that no-one lives forever and Dad is no exception to that immutable law of the universe. But, and this is a big but, the spirit that is George Lockwood will live on. As he is still before us - still passionate and still feisty - I will continue to revel in his deep commitment to his values here on earth.

I salute you and I love you, Dad.


  1. A very moving piece.

    I'm glad to have known you during our middle/high school years.

    Looking back on those years, the lessons you got from your parents are the best you could ever get. I chose to ignore some of those and it did get me into a bit of a situation and it was tough on me to admit to my family that I was taking drastic action but after a year of that ....I'm a much better person and now realize that those lessons were meant to be taken into heart.

  2. Hey J.,

    This is a great tribute. What I remember was our 1977 trip out west, and we ended up at a flea bag hotel in Flagstaff, AZ. After a long long drive through the desert, us kids were cooped up and ready for action by the time we went into the hotel room. As I recall it, Cary, Noah and I started jumping on the bed, and actually broke the bed, and it crashed to the ground. I can't remember if we got punished or not, but it was a Lockwood moment. That and Dad coming in with a bottle of liquor and my Dad saying, "How about a drinkie poo?" to my Mom. They were both just wiped out from the raucus Lockwood children causing trouble in the back of the car all day! -Audrey

  3. P.S. So who broke the bed? And were you part of the bed jumpers Jason? -- Audrey

  4. P.S.S. I do remember you saying "you do you die" and we all laughted our heads off. (In Flagstaff???) And who can forget the classic Jason statement in the midst of a huge Lockwood argument, "Time to undermine and denegrate," which to me is THE personal Jason quote favorite of all time! -Audrey

  5. Thanks for a great tribute to a great man! I also appreciate George’s genuine interest in young people and what they are doing. I had the privilege of receiving his enthusiastic attention starting when I was a college student. The older I get, the more I understand how rare and wonderful this trait is.

  6. Jason, your dad sounds like he has the same type of character as mine had. You've written a beautiful tribute. It makes me want to know him.

    Maybe you should give your dad a tribute party next time you visit, like the one I gave to my dad. Invite all his living friends from as far back in his life as possible up to the present to celebrate his life. My dad had a blast, even though he was confined to his bed.

    I very much enjoy knowing of men like your father. I salute him.

    1. Thanks so much for the wonderful comment. We were all together at Christmas and it was a wonderful occasion to spend quality time together.