Do you know someone who is full of life? Someone who is full of vitality and vigor? Someone that makes you feel better by just being with them? Someone who exudes love, laughter, and friendship?
I had the privilege of living with someone like that for nearly 18 years. He was my dad. He died 36 years ago on May 2, 1978 from a malignant brain tumor. He was 53 years old. I was a senior in high school and one month away from my 18th birthday on that sunny May day. Though, his years were cut short, he did not short change himself life from those years. My dad knew how to live life to its fullest.
What follows are lessons I learned from him about living life – lessons learned from personal experience and observations of his life. As Yogi Berra says. “You can observe a lot just from watching”. I hope you find something from his story that will enable you to live your life to its fullest.
First, the lessons.
My dad didn’t have the longest life, but he lived the life he had to its fullest. And, that’s all any of us can do. Here’s how.
- Make friends throughout life. Hang onto them. Value them!
- In the end, the only thing we control is our attitudes. We choose our attitude. Choose to be optimistic!
- Celebrate life. You only get one life on this earth. Enjoy it!
- Express your feelings with your words, but more importantly show them through your actions. Actions say everything! Love others and it will be returned.
- Be passionate and enthusiastic. Find something that excites you and then pour your heart, mind, and soul into it!
- Work on yourself. We attract that which we are. Attract the best by becoming the “best you” you can become.
- Serve and help others! Be there for others and bring out the best in them. You’ll be better for it.
- You never know who you might touch or influence – be mindful of your words and actions at all times.
And, now his story.
It’s impossible to live life to its fullest without having others to share life with. Friends enrich our lives. You really cannot have enough of them.
My dad loved people and literally had hundreds of friends evidenced by the massive crowd that attended his funeral. He had unique abilities that I have only seen in very few others.
First, was his ability to make you feel good about yourself. He was a master at that. It was the main reason people gravitated towards him. He knew what to say and how to say it.
He always had a kind or encouraging word to say and spoke poorly of no one. He saw the good in everyone and could see what others could be in better circumstances even if they could not see it for themselves. He tried to understand people from their perspective. He respected and valued them for who they were. He got you to believe in yourself. Who would not want to be around someone like that?
He was that person you felt like you knew your entire life even though you may have just met him for the first time. It was not uncommon for such first encounters to end with a friendly hug or pat on the back from him.
Meeting people to him was a chance to make more friends and add to his “collection”. And, once a friend you were always his friend (even those who wronged him).
Optimism is an absolute must to live life to its fullest.
He was eternally optimistic. He didn’t give up and always saw the bright side of even the most challenging circumstances. The sun “shined” each day to him. I do not recall ever hearing him complain.
The closest he came to complaining was shortly after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor he looked out my parent’s bedroom window and then looked at my mom and simply said, “why me”? We all asked that question, though. “Why him?” But, he never uttered a word about his cancer.
It was rare to see him without a smile. And, just as rare to see him upset. He always had an encouraging word to lift your spirits. Each day was a new day with new opportunities – he didn’t waste any days. He didn’t tell jokes per se, but was extremely funny with a very witty sense of humor. He saw some humor in nearly everything.
He could tell a good story without being a BSer. I loved hanging around my parents and their friends just to hear the stories. They say the party doesn’t end until the laughter stops. The laughter never stopped with my dad.
Take time to celebrate – big and small moments – to live life to its fullest.
He loved to celebrate and have fun. I have a large extended family. With 25 cousins it seemed every few months someone was making their First Communion, graduating from high school, getting married, celebrating a special birthday or anniversary, not to mention the family gatherings for the holidays. My childhood was pretty much an ongoing celebration it seemed.
And, my dad just seemed to be at the center of many of those events. He did not try to be the “life of the party” but always seemed to draw a crowd at such events. My cousins loved to talk and kid around with him. They shared with him things they would not say to my aunts or uncles. They sought and he gave them his advice.
He could relate to kids and teenagers of all ages. I think it was because he never forgot what it was like to be a kid. He was young at heart without being irresponsible (childish) as a parent.
But, he did not need a party to have fun. He knew how to enjoy the immediate moment regardless of where he was or who he was with. “I’m here. You’re here. Let’s make it fun. Let’s make it special. Let’s make it memorable.” That was his attitude. Time lost its meaning when he was enjoying himself which was most of the time.
Hugs, Kisses, and Winks
To get the most from life don’t be afraid to show your feelings. If you want to be loved, love someone first. My dad was loved by many because he loved first.
He was most affectionate and passionate. And, both of those are contagious. He was not shy to show his affection. He came from a kissing family. He hugged and kissed nearly everyone as did my grandma and aunts. No one was spared – not even first timers (girlfriends and boyfriends) to a family gathering. But the affection he exuded was heartfelt and genuine.
Each day we were fed a minimum daily dose of three hugs and kisses from dad. In the morning when he left for work, when he returned home from work, and in evening when it was time to say “good night”. Some days there were more. Each kiss and hug a constant reminder that you were loved. That alone makes you feel good. The hugs and kisses didn’t stop until he died.
First, my thoughts on winking. I find winking the most fascinating gesture. Even the name is fascinating. If a wink wasn’t a “wink” what would you call it?
I think one could write entire books on winking. The History of Winking. The Cultural Differences and Meanings of Winking. Flirtatious Winking. Winking 101. Advanced Winking. How to Wink Your Way to the Top. And, so on.
You can avoid a kiss or hug if you want to. But you can’t avoid a wink, can you? A wink is inescapable. It stares you right in the face. It captures you like a snapshot.
Many hugs and kisses are planned, but rarely the wink. The wink is spontaneous. It’s a reflex. It’s an instinct.
I think a wink is more genuine than a hug or kiss. It’s more private, too. Others may see you hug and kiss. But, the wink – if properly executed – is only seen by the person it’s intended for, even if it’s flashed from across the room.
And, winking just may be the best pick up line. And, have you ever not liked a wink? A kiss or a hug, maybe. But, not a wink. I think winking would end most arguments. Can you be mad at someone who just gave you a wink? Anyway…..
Dad had an awesome wink. Of all his expressions of affection the wink was the one I relished the most. Hugs and kisses he gave freely. Those you received for simply being in his presence. The wink was different. The wink was special. It conferred unique status if you received one.
It was a universal wink. It could mean different things depending on the circumstances. It might mean “I love you”. It might mean “that a boy”. It might mean “that makes me proud” or “that really makes me laugh”. But, it always meant you reached or tickled his heart. The winks you had to work for. You had to earn a wink. I could not get enough winks. When I think of him I see him flashing a smile and a wink 😉
Passion and Enthusiasm
Nothing of significance happens without passion behind it. But, it takes more than passion to live a full life. It takes enthusiasm. Passion and enthusiasm are not one in the same, though closely related. You can have one without the other. Dad had both.
The combination of passion and enthusiasm creates an unstoppable force. Passion has more to do with drive, commitment and dedication while enthusiasm deals more with the strong intensity of the emotion behind the passion. Enthusiasm is what people see. It’s the outward expression of passion. It’s what gets others excited, inspired, and to support your endeavors.
Make your life significant. Be passionate! Be enthusiastic!
My dad’s passion was anything physical. He was a naturally gifted athlete. Baseball was his sport but was good at anything he tried. He played some low level minor league professional baseball and semi-pro ball for about nine years. He performed athletic skills effortlessly and with a certain amount of grace even things he attempted for the first time.
And, he could dance. They taught dance in grade school in his day. No wedding reception ended and no New Years Eve party ended until any woman who wanted to dance had a chance to dance with him. My mom didn’t mind as she couldn’t keep up with him on the dance floor though she was quite good herself.
But his real passion was coaching baseball. He was put here to develop young men and baseball was the vehicle by which he was to do it. He was a great coach. And, was never paid for it. He did it because he loved it.
A couple things made him a great coach. First, he understood kids and knew how to reach each kid individually. Secondly, he knew how to teach/coach despite no formal training.
Plus, he knew the game of baseball inside and out. On the varsity baseball team my senior year in high school half the players on the team had played ball for my dad at some point – Little League, Pony League, or CYO Baseball.
Most, if not all, of those former players would still say today he was the best coach they ever played for in any sport. He knew how to get a player from point A to point B in a realistic time frame. He could get them to continually improve.
He could identify what each player could do well and find a situation in the game where they could “showcase” that talent and find success. This was really helpful in Little League where there can be a huge discrepancy in talent among players.
He could “manipulate” the game so the kids with lesser talent were placed in a position to succeed allowing them to contribute to the success of the team and build their confidence along the way. And, he valued and respected them as humans just as much as he did the kids with more talent.
And, finally he could physically impersonate anything you could do athletically. He was better than a video recorder because you did not have to rewind the tape. (Video cameras were extremely expensive in those days). He provided immediate “instant replay”.
He could watch you perform something once or twice and show you exactly what you look like performing that skill. “Here’s what your swing looks like. Here’s what it needs to look like. Got it? Ok, let me see you do it now”.
Coaching was his passion. It’s what got him excited and that enthusiasm was evident. It’s much easier to play for coach who is enthusiastic.
Someone once said the purpose of life is to see what you can do with it. You can’t do much unless you develop your talents and improve yourself. My dad self-taught himself much of what he knew.
He was very involved in the community (more on that below). He was the Little League Commissioner and was the president of the high school athletic booster club when he became ill. After he died the high school athletic department established an award in his memory that went to the most outstanding baseball player each year.
On the plaque is inscribed the following – In Memory of Joe Jacko who considered baseball the ultimate of sports and in the continuous improvement as the noblest of goals. Our family had nothing to do with the words, but I do think they succinctly captured a good part of his essence.
What he expected from us at the end of the day was simply to be a little better than we were the day before. Be a bit better person, a bit better student, a bit better friend, and a bit better athlete. Not a lot better, just a little bit better every day. A little bit better is possible – it’s realistic.
Life is process – take it in small incremental steps. I learned from him I did not have to be better than the next person (though I certainly like to be). I just had to be the “best me” possible and things would work out as they should.
He worked on improving himself, too, and was willing to go outside his comfort zone. It’s been said everything you want lies just outside your comfort zone. There is also little personal growth within our comfort zones. We need to challenge ourselves.
He dropped out of high school his junior year to join the army and serve our country during World War II. But, realized afterwards he needed more education and went to night school. He finally received his high school diploma at the age of 41. I was six and in first grade.
I recall sitting at the dinner table working on writing the alphabet and he was sitting across from me working on some math problems. I suppose that experience subconsciously stressed the importance of an education to me. As we were both doing our “homework” I jokingly asked him if he wanted some help. He didn’t say anything. He looked up at me, smiled, and flashed me the wink!
Here’s what’s bizarre. I was alive to watch him get his high school diploma. But, he was not alive to watch me get mine. How many times does that happen?
Serving and Paying Forward
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself. We also benefit when we help others. We become better people ourselves when we extend to help others.
Woody Hayes was known for saying that is rare that you can pay someone back so we should focus on paying forward. Thank the people who help us by helping someone else or the next generation.
My dad embodied that belief. In addition, to coaching and being Little League Commissioner and Booster Club President, he served as an usher at our church, was an active member of the Lion’s Club, and was treasurer of his bowling league. And, he volunteered in the community in countless other ways. We didn’t have much money so he gave something more valuable – his time.
My dad’s father was killed in a gas explosion when my dad was four. He had two older sisters. My grandma later remarried and had three more kids. By all accounts my dad’s stepfather was not much of a father figure to my dad and his two sisters.
So he grew up without a lot of direction. At some point a young Catholic priest took my dad under his wing. He taught my dad how to play baseball, and as you now know, baseball was the means by which my dad interpreted the world and found meaning in his life.
Baseball was his metaphor. The crack of the bat. The sound of the ball popping into the mitt meant spring had arrived – the season of new life and new beginnings all enveloped in the great American past time.
This priest served as his mentor throughout the years. They stayed in touch until my dad died. My dad never forgot him and the help he received from him. By the time my dad had married he knew what kind of dad he would be – the kind he never had, but always wanted.
When coaching my dad identified with kids from troubled family situations probably because they reminded him of himself. He had a soft spot for those who were resilient despite challenging circumstances. He felt he could help give them some direction. He tried to be a father figure to those players to the extent the circumstances permitted. He would pick them up for practice and games if needed, and he would find equipment for them if they had none.
He also admired kids that were willing to overcome any obstacle in their way. And, he felt everyone deserved a chance. One of my classmates and good friend had a hip disorder and spent two years on crutches. He was then fitted with a long leg brace with a built up shoe and sole. He was cleared to play Little League but had to play with the brace on. He really couldn’t run in the brace. He could hobble, but that was about it. None of the coaches wanted this boy on their team. My dad said, “I’ll take him”.
This boy could not step into a pitch with his legs to swing the bat because of brace. He pretty much swung with just his upper body. But, his upper body happened to be very strong after spending two years on crutches. Guess who led our team in home runs that year (I believe he finished second in the league in home runs)? A player no other coach wanted. My dad loved kids like that – kids overcoming obstacles and making the most of their chance. He would do anything for kids like that.
Bring out the best in others. We’re here in part to help others become better people, too.
Perhaps the best measure of a life well lived is the number of people we affect or touch along the way. It was clear that my dad touched others throughout his life. I think anybody who knew him well was enriched by his friendship. Several of my friends and other boys who played ball for my dad have told me they used him as their role model as to the type of dad they wanted to be.
Many times, though, we don’t know who we reach or touch. For some, a simple word of encouragement or a simple piece of advice might change their life and you may never know it. We don’t always know who is looking at us as a role model.
At his funeral hundreds and hundreds (if not a few thousand) of people paid their last respects. I don’t think anyone had been or has been to a funeral that well attended. Most who were there shared some special story about my dad and nearly all had something kind to say about him.
As many of the comments were similar and ran together no one comment stands out in particular except one. And, it came two months after he died. It came from one of those former troubled kids that played baseball for my dad. Someone who it appeared my dad failed to reach.
This particular boy was a year ahead of me in school and was a “burnout”. He was a talented athlete but just got caught up in the wrong crowd and eventually quit playing sports.
He saw me from a distance, changed direction and came walking towards me. He came up to me and said, “I’m really sorry to hear about your dad. He was all right.” There was a pause, and then he repeated, “He was all right”. But, the second time he said it he was choked up and his eyes began to water.
Before I could say anything beyond “thank you” he turned around and walked away. Maybe my dad reached a part of him after all. I don’t know. But, I do know this young man was right. My dad was all right. And, then some!
May 2, 1978 was made an even more eventful day for other reasons. We knew 13 months earlier that dad would die and though it was clear the end was near I was not quite ready for him to die on that particular day. On May 2, I was to interview for a scholarship given by the local Chamber of Commerce. The interviews were being held at the school that afternoon. We also had our varsity baseball state playoff game.
My brother was a sophomore and also was the starting catcher on the varsity baseball team.
By this time dad was in a cancer home, the forerunner of today’s hospice care. While the care of patients was good, the stench of death and near-death permeated the hallways of the cancer home. It was not a pleasant place to visit. The home had very limited visitation hours. We could only see dad on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays. May 2 was a Tuesday.
The plan was for me and my brother to play the baseball game and then our entire family – mom, older sister, brother, and I would leave the field and go visit dad at the cancer home immediately after the game – possibly for the last time.
But that did not happen.
I woke up on what was an absolutely gorgeous day with a heavy feeling in my gut not explained by the usual butterflies I might have felt before a big game, big exam, or preceding an event like an interview. Something didn’t feel right.
I was sitting in school cafeteria for my lunch hour (actually a half-hour), took about 2 bites of my sandwich when the head varsity baseball coach, Coach Maurer, stood at the front entrance of the cafeteria with a slip a paper in his hand. His eyes were scanning the cafeteria. He obviously was looking for someone.
Whoever was sitting next to me said, “I wonder who Maurer is looking for?” I mumbled somewhat aloud, “I hope it’s not me.” But, I knew he was looking for me, and I just knew – I just knew – what had happened, and I knew what was about to happen.
I locked my eyes on him as if to say, “Here I am.” He finally noticed me, nodded in my direction, and walked towards me. As he approached the cafeteria table where I was sitting, I stood up and took a few steps to the side so he could say whatever it was he was going to say to me more privately.
He looked at me and said, “You and your brother need to go home.” I said, ” I know. Our dad died, didn’t he?” He did not answer that question and simply repeated, “You need to go home. Jim (my brother) will meet you at the principal’s office.”
I later appreciated that he did not answer my question, that he was not going to take “the honor” of breaking the news about our dad’s death from my mom.
We left school and went home. The feeling in my gut was confirmed. Our mom and sister were standing at the side door of the house with tears in their eyes.
My mom said very simply, “Daddy died about 45 minutes ago. I know you both would want to know as soon as possible. There isn’t anything you two need to do here. You have your playoff game this afternoon. Dad would want you to play and so do I. All the funeral arrangements have been made.” With the exception of some last minute details much of the funeral planning was made weeks in advance.
We kissed, hugged, and cried for a few minutes. My mom looked at me and said, “Joe, I know you have the scholarship interview this afternoon. Go through with it. Just do the best you can. I know you will do fine.” With that my brother and I drove back to school.
I got back in time for the scholarship interviews, but my name had been scratched from the list of candidates interviewing for the scholarship. It was as if I were a race horse being scratched from the Kentucky Derby. It was as if I didn’t exist.
For a moment I thought they got it all wrong. Maybe they thought this Joe Jacko died – me – not my dad. It was a surreal moment. No, my name was scratched because no one was expecting me to return to school.
But, I convinced the guidance counselor them I was fine. My name was added back to the list and I went through with the interview.
After the interview I had one class to attend. It was on Bible Study of the Old Testament (this was a public school). The classroom was at the end of the hallway and I was walked down the hallway, the teacher, Mrs. Marcinko, was standing by the door which I thought was unusual. As I approached the classroom door it became apparent that she was waiting for me.
As I was about to enter the classroom she looked at me with warm motherly eyes and said, “You don’t have been in class today if you don’t want to.” I looked at her and said, “I’m fine, but thank you.”
I thought to myself, “Where else am I going to for the next hour and at a time like this being in class on the Bible probably was the best place for me.” I proceeded to take my seat at my desk.
Even though I had several months to prepare for that day, the reality doesn’t sink it until it becomes the reality. If it’s possible for your mind to wander off in 4 or 5 directions at once that is what happened to me during that class. I did not hear one word Mrs. Marcinko said that class. I think we were discussing the Book of Ruth.
I thought about my dad and realized I wasn’t going to see him again or have him to lean on. I thought of all the love he gave us and all that we learned from him. How the void he would leave behind was going to affect all of us remained unknown.
I thought of my mom and how appreciated how well she handled the whole situation. I worried about her in the long run. And, I felt sorry for her. The future plans she and my dad discussed would not happen.
I thought about college. My mom assured me a few a months earlier that our financial situation was such that I would be able to go to college. She wanted me to go. I wanted to go. But, sitting in that classroom I had second thoughts. Maybe I should delay going to college for a year or not at all.
I thought about the baseball game that would start in two hours. I prayed that I would have my best game ever hoping to make dad proud one last time. But, as you will soon find out that was an unanswered prayer. In fact, just the opposite happened.
My brother and I played in the playoff game. It was the worst game I ever played, but not just me. About 4 or 5 other players also had their worst games. Ironically, many of them had played ball on one of my dad’s teams. I struck out with the bases loaded for the first time ever. I dropped a routine pop-up for maybe the third time ever. The ball clipped my mouth filleting my upper lip.
I came in to do some mop up relief pitching late in the game and the opposing batter hit ball off me like no ever has. We did not play with fences that year and by the time the right fielder caught up to the ball the batter already had crossed home plate and was sitting in the dugout.
The game ended 21-0. The game was a complete comedy of errors. This was a baseball game, not a football game. Plus, we lost to a team we were ranked ahead of in the local area rankings.
But, the story doesn’t end there. My brother and I drove immediately home from the baseball field. We did not shower or change clothes.
When we got home after the game our house was packed with guests. Cars lined the driveway, street, and lawn. It was like having a high school graduation party in the middle of the week. The outpouring of support and condolences was overwhelming. But, I did not get to “enjoy” it. Everyone looked at me and said, “You’re going to need stitches”. My lip was shredded. So someone drove me to the ER.
This photo of Nolan Ryan is pretty much what I looked like other than it being my upper lip.
As I was a minor without a parent with me (and one parent less) I had to lie about my age to be treated. My birthday is June 1. I decided to keep the “first” and simply change the month when asked on the medical form. May came to mind but May 1 would have been the day before. Again, this was May 2. That seemed too coincidental. Plus, I was afraid they would ask me questions about how I just celebrated my 18th “birthday” and that would require even more lying.
So I went up another month to April. April 1 was the day I settled on for my “birthdate”. April 1 seemed appropriate. If you’re going to lie about your age, why not pick April Fools’ Day? As odd as it may seem, picking a birthdate was the hardest decision I made that day. So on May 2, 1978 I changed my “birthdate” just like that and no questions asked. I was “legal” and got my lip sutured. I attended my dad’s funeral with a nice big fat lip with thread hanging out of it.
When I returned from the hospital night had fallen and the last of the guests were leaving the house. I walked in the house. My mom looked at me and specifically my lip, shook her head, smiled, let out a small laugh, and gave me a hug. She said, “Mrs. Mitchell made a pot roast. It is excellent. Have a seat and I will fix you a plate.”
I took my usual seat at the kitchen table which was directly across the table from where my dad would sit. I looked at the empty seat across from me and realized that was going to be the new norm. That is when it really hit me – how life was going to be forever different than we as a family had hoped and planned.
I was still in my blood-stained and dirt-stained baseball uniform and was very hungry. I looked and stared at the plate of food in front of me for several moments. Something was different. I quipped to myself, “Wow, Mrs Mitchell cuts her carrots differently than mom. Mom cuts them cross-sectionally. Mrs. Mitchell cuts them longitudinally. Who knew you could do that?”
I believe that was my last conscious thought of the day. I finished my meal which was excellent, showered, and went to bed.
To be sure, I have not had a day like that since. But, I’m reminded of that day frequently. The injury to my lip left a very subtle scar – a scar I shave over every day – a constant reminder of a life well lived and the lessons to achieve it.