4 Lessons I Learned from My Dad
Washington, June 16, 2019
*Originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer
As our country celebrates Father's Day this weekend, I want to share four of those lessons with you:
The way you treat people matters. Jack Wenstrup had no enemies. Literally, I think everyone who knew him, loved him — and it was because of how he treated others. I remember him telling me more than once about how he felt badly for making fun of someone in high school. Even all those years later, it still bothered him — and that was probably the last time he ever did that to anyone. Dad believed, as Emerson once said in one of my favorite quotes, that "Everyone I meet is in some way my superior, and from them I shall learn."
To Dad, no one was a stranger— he made everyone a friend. He taught us early on to give a firm handshake and look people in the eye. He constantly smiled, and usually got a smile in return. These are small things, but over a lifetime they add up, compounding into a life well-lived. Throughout our lives, everyone we ever met that knew our Dad didn't just say that they knew him, they always followed up by saying, "He is the greatest guy." We've always been proud of that. It's a lesson I want to pass on to my own children: the ultimate lifetime achievement award is the love and respect of those who know you.
Don't be afraid to laugh — especially at yourself. Dad could easily be described as both humble and humorous. His theatrical roles in the parish shows sometimes left us a little "red in the face" as kids, but really, we were always proud and we knew he was having a great time. Dad could turn anything and any moment into a song… like when he got heated seats in the car for the first time and started singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire!" Our Uncle Jerry used to say, "Jack, I hate when you tell a funny joke because that means I'll have to hear 99 bad ones before you tell another good one!" That made Dad smile. He taught us to take our values and our work seriously, but never ourselves too seriously.
Family comes first. Dad lost his father when he was only fourteen-years-old, which makes it even more amazing that he knew how to be the perfect father and husband. While Dad willingly served others whenever and however he could, he always put mom and his children first, ahead of himself. Together, Mom and Dad had Sunday night dinners for all of us every week. For Christmas and for his birthday, we'd ask him what he wanted, and we always got the same response: "I just want your love and respect." One year, we were all pitching in to give him a fishing rowboat. We named the boat “Love and Respect!” He got his wish! In actuality, though, that wish had already been fulfilled long before.
Above all, Dad adored Mom and made sure that we honored her as well, as the 10 Commandments tell us to do. We could not refer to her just as, "She." For example, if we said something like: "Well, she said I could." He would say, “’She’, who's she? That is your mother, not ‘she.’" Dad would save all year so that every summer he could take us on a week-long vacation to Portage Point Inn in Michigan. He once told us that for the same price, he could rent a cottage for a month somewhere else, but at Portage the beds were made, the cottage was cleaned, and the meals were prepared — that was a real vacation for Mom. Several weeks back, Dad was having a dental procedure done, in the middle of everything else. He complained that it was going to cost $300. I smiled and said, "Well, Dad, you can't take it with you." "I know," he said, "but I wanted to leave it for your Mother."
Know right from wrong. Dad taught the five of us to recognize right from wrong, to tell it like it is, and to take responsibility. He would say, "No matter what you did, if you lie about it, you're in deeper trouble." It sounds simple, but in a political climate that often seems to operate increasingly in a gray haze of half-truths and subjective morality, it's a lesson that feels more relevant than ever. For Dad, when it came to truth, integrity, and doing what was right, there was no gray area. His professional advice was: "Do what's right for the customer and you'll have a customer for life."
I am convinced that one day, when everything shakes out, we will come to realize that the heroes who shaped history were never just the flashy celebrities, the eloquent politicians, or the names that everyone recognizes. More so, they will be the people who were beside us every day, the ones who taught us the value of honesty, hard work, character, and commitment — not just with words, but with their lives.
Thank you, Dad, for the lessons you taught us and for the example of a life well-lived. I'm certain that your father, who hardly knew you here on earth, has already told you how proud of you he is.
Dad, I am certainly proud to be your son.