by Deborah Steele Hazen
(Editor’s Note: The Father’s Day column that follows may seem familiar to regular Chief readers. It is a slightly edited version of a tribute to my father that was written and published several years ago.
Gail Steele was the second generation of our family to edit and publish The Clatskanie Chief. He grew up among the rolls of newsprint, the barrels of ink and the hot lead type of the old-time newspaper office run by his parents, Art and Malvina Steele.
He loved his work, his family, his community and his country. He instilled an ethic of integrity, perseverance, courage and service to his children and grandchildren.
We apologize for the redundancy of republishing this tribute, but if you choose to read on, we hope you will find something that will remind you of your father, or will prompt you to appreciate the fathers in your life. – DSH)
I was born on my father’s birthday. I like to think I was the best birthday present he ever had, but I know I was the most expensive.
There is a picture of the two of us on my second or third birthday. I am standing on a chair and leaning over my cake getting ready to blow out the candles. My father is beside me and a second cake is in front of him. (My mother thought that, although we shared a birthday, we were both entitled to our own cakes.) Daddy’s face and eyes are turned toward me, away from his cake, and although his mouth is open, as if he is taking a big breath to blow, he is smiling at me.
Every time I look at that picture I am filled with the tenderness and the depth of his love.
Our family has photos of my husband, my son and sons-in-law, even my grandfather (who was always indomitable), with that same expression of tender love as they are interacting with their children and grandchildren.
It has been my experience that men who can be tough and rugged, stubborn and unyielding in some aspects of their lives, are melted by fatherhood.
When I was little, my father read to me at bedtime. But he didn’t read “Mother Goose” or other children’s literature, he read the poetry of Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling, and recited the prologue to the “Canterbury Tales,” in old English. Together we memorized lines from “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “Gunga Din.” In his booming, off-key baritone he taught me, not children’s songs, but the Army Air Corps anthem and the Linfield College fight song.
He played mind-challenging games with me for hours – checkers and later chess, battleship, cribbage, hearts, pinochle, Clue and Scrabble. He never let me win, but he would congratulate me on playing well, or show me how I could have won if I would have played differently. When I finally beat him, I knew I’d really accomplished something.
Daddy taught me to work hard – that a “good” job was the least I could do, and that I should always strive to do better. He taught me to serve my community in every way possible, to stand up for what I believed, and that every man (or woman), no matter how powerful they were, “put their pants on one leg at a time.” He was fiercely patriotic, and instilled that in me, too.
Once in a while, I’d let him down. He would let me know he was disappointed. Sometimes, we’d even have angry arguments. But, I never doubted that he loved me, and we laughed much more than we fought.
Daddy and I worked together for years and got along remarkably well. Our strengths and weaknesses complimented each other. As the years went by, his respect for my abilities as a journalist grew, and it made him proud. He may not have told me so, but I knew, finally, that I was, in his eyes, his professional peer. That made me proud.
A few weeks from now will mark the 14th anniversary of my father’s death. It is hard to believe that he has been gone that long, or that he would be approaching his 90th birthday if he were still alive. His spirit and memory remain youthful to me.
My father suffered from poor eyesight all his life – ending with a series of detached retinas and partially successful multiple surgeries to reattach them. He was blind in one eye, but still a very active and hardworking 69 going on 70, when he suffered a near fatal heart attack at his desk in The Chief office on July 1, 1993 – almost 20 years ago.
It was during the lunch hour on a Thursday – our slowest day of the week – and he was alone at the office when the heart attack struck. He called my mother at their home at River Ranch about 10 miles away. She called our daughter Amanda at home looking for me. Amanda called my husband Phil, who ran over to the Chief office, took one look at Daddy, and called the ambulance.
As soon as the ambulance arrived, Phil ran back to the hardware store, which he’d left unattended. Meanwhile, somebody found me having lunch with a friend at Hump’s.
Robert Keyser, our friend and then a paramedic with the Clatskanie Rural Fire Protection District, was trying to take Daddy’s blood pressure, listen to his heart, etc., when the phone rang. Before Robert could stop him, my father grabbed the telephone – as he had for decades – and answered: “Chief office.” It was Phil checking on the situation and thinking that one of the ambulance crew would answer. Robert took the phone out of his hand, said “Steele, that’s your last phone call for the day,” and hung up.
I got back to the office just as they were loading Daddy into the ambulance. My mother arrived a few minutes later. We followed the ambulance to the hospital.
As we visited with him in the emergency ward, my father gave me instructions about what I should do to finish the paperwork task in which he was involved when the heart attack struck. “I’ll get it done, Daddy, don’t worry about it.”
Minutes later, my mother and I were whisked from the room. Minutes after that, my father’s heart stopped.
But not for long. It wasn’t time yet for that big, warm, rambunctious heart to stop for good. My father still had something to learn and much to teach.
My mother and I were waiting in what I think of as the “death-watch room” with a couple of nuns whose presence was as worrying as it was comforting, when a doctor came in and told us that one of the major arteries in Daddy’s heart was completely blocked by a large clot. (We kidded him later that it was a piece of the polish sausage he’d had for lunch.)
The doctor wasn’t pulling his punches. The only way to save Daddy’s life, he told us, was to give him some “super clot-busting drugs.” They might or might not work and there was a chance they could cause hemorrhaging. My mother and I looked at each other, but neither of us felt much hesitation. We weren’t ready to lose him yet – give him the clot-buster, we told the doctor.
They did, but he hung between life and death for hours until one of the doctors was able to install a temporary pacemaker and Daddy was stabilized enough to be transferred to St. Vincent’s hospital in Portland for angioplasty.
My sister Dayle had arrived from her home in Corvallis by then, as had Amanda and Phil from Clatskanie. When the ambulance left for Portland, Phil returned home to take care of the rest of the family and the businesses, while the four women drove to Portland, nearly beating the ambulance to St. Vincent’s with my lead-foot on the gas pedal.
We got there in time to walk beside the gurney as they wheeled him into surgery. Daddy was cracking jokes to buoy our spirits, and still reminding me of that bookwork to finish at The Chief office.
Into the wee hours of the morning, my mother, my sister, my daughter and I sat together in an abandoned waiting room, until yet another doctor finally emerged with the news that the clot had been cleared, and it appeared that Daddy was going to live.
It was several days later before he regained complete consciousness and it was then that we realized that the clot-busting drugs had indeed caused a hemorrhage. The one eye that my father still had vision in at the time of his heart attack had hemorrhaged behind the retina, detaching it again.
Although he was to endure more eye surgeries, none of them were successful, and he spent the last six years of his life – until his heart failed him for good – completely blind.
His Greatest Fear Overcome
Blindness was my father’s greatest fear. He was afraid of very little else. But his eyes had kept him from being good at sports – one of his great loves. His eyes almost kept him from serving his nation during World War II, but he memorized the eye chart and got into the Army Air Corps anyway as a cryptographer.
He had watched his mother suffer through primitive attempts at reattaching her retinas before she died, almost blind, of a heart attack suffered while she was working at The Chief office at almost the exact age as her son was when the same thing happened to him 21 years later. He knew he was predisposed to retina problems because of the eye shape he had inherited from his mother.
He feared that a blind man was useless and that he could no longer serve the community he loved.
He was wrong.
Although my father went blind, his heart and body recovered to the extent that he studied with a therapist for the blind and learned to navigate around his home, his neighborhood, The Chief office and a few blocks in downtown Clatskanie.
While his blindness lessened his role in the operation of this newspaper, he would come often to the office and we would collaborate on editorials. He also attended meetings with me, and, when we had two simultaneous meetings to cover – as we often do – I would leave him at one meeting to serve as the ears, if not the eyes, of this newspaper, while I went to the other. Very little escaped his sharp mind and memory.
My mother and I read to him as much as we could, but his voracious appetite for current events and other literature led us to the Oregon Commission for the Blind which provided him with a special tape recorder and recorded books, newspapers and periodicals, as well as a reading scanner, which could scan documents and read them back to him.
My father began to see that being blind did not mean that his life was useless nor meaningless.
As he realized that he was capable of performing the task, he fulfilled a lifelong dream – one that his position with this newspaper had previously prevented. He ran for and won a seat on the Clatskanie city council. He did his homework and always came to the meetings prepared and ready for a lively discussion, having “read” and “re-read” his council packet with the help of his scanner.
He inspired others with his courage and his perseverance.
But gradually, Daddy’s physical strength began to fail, although his strong mind never did. He continued to fulfill his duties as a city councilor, attending meetings and events in a wheelchair, participating in a community visioning/strategic planning process that took place in the spring of 1999 – always looking to the future of Clatskanie.
Then on the 4th of July – six years and three days after he had suffered that first almost fatal heart attack – Daddy’s heart began irreversibly to shutdown. He was in the hospital for eight days before he died – my mother beside him almost constantly.
I visited as often as I could – between events and meetings I had to cover and Chief deadlines I had to meet. During the last conversation we had before he slipped into unconsciousness, we talked about the prospects for development at Port Westward – something for which he had worked and fought for years.
During his last couple of days, Daddy was restless, but seemingly unconscious. I took the old book of poems which had served as my bedtime stories, and read Service and Kipling aloud to him. It seemed to calm him. I even thought I caught the ghost of a smile when I read with the dramatic emphasis he’d taught me: “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the livin’ God that made you, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
My sense was that he’d had enough “belting and flaying” from doctors, hospitals and medical procedures. He was ready to move on to whatever lies ahead.
He’d caught a glimpse of what comes after this life six years before, when he “flat-lined” in the emergency room. He said it was a beautiful valley with a bright light at the end, like the scene on the Sunmaid Raisin box, except without the maid. Even on the topic of death, my father never lost his sense of humor.
I was back at The Chief office doing what he’d taught me to do, when he drew his last breath with his wife of 52 years beside him.
It is almost 14 years now, but I miss him still. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of something I’d like to ask him or a topic about which I’d like his opinion.
But his love remains with me as warm and constant in memory as it was in life. I see it reflected in the eyes of the other fathers in my life – my husband, my son and my sons-in-law.
Happy Father’s Day!