The Wisdom of My Father
Tim Russert, the Washington Bureau Chief for NBC News and the host of Meet the Press, wrote a great book two years ago. His book - Big Russ and Me - was a national best seller, and is about to be followed up with a collection of letters sent from readers around the country.
These letters document the previously untold stories of hundreds of sons and daughters, loving tributes to their fathers that were unlocked from stored memory when Mr. Russert penned his own nod to a life of lessons, lectures, and advice.
It never entered my mind to send my entry to him, as my thoughts seem to fit better in this particular publishing venue.
My Dad, Richard Bancroft Weldon, better known as Dick to those who love and respect him, came of age in a turbulent time in our nation's history. His early years were marked by rather humble surroundings. He grew up in Marcus Hook, PA, more specifically in the blue collar neighborhood called Viscose Village, home to hundreds of families that either worked for the local textile factory, the oil companies, or shipyards along the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia.
Dad was born third in a line of nine children, with seven boys and two girls. His parents were limited in their education, but were filled with that special brand of common sense that seems so much more important than formal learning.
My Granddad, Steve (or Pop-Pop to us grandkids), was a hard worker, who believed that a solid work ethic was essential to a well-developed person. His lessons must have worked, because Dad and his siblings have distinguished themselves in a variety of careers.
My Grandmom, Catherine (Mom-Mom, what else?) had as strong a Christian faith as I have ever seen in any person, in or out of church. She was the kind of woman who walked around singing or whistling hymns, and you could tell that she meant it.
As I recall, "Land Sakes Alive," was as strong as any expletive I ever heard escape her lips, but you could always count on her for a bear hug and a smooch, no matter how egregious your transgression.
Into that context Dick Weldon was plopped, full of life and more than a little willing to test the boundaries. Recounted stories from his brothers and sisters are full of teases, practical jokes, and other stuff associated with folks who live with gusto.
What strikes me about his family is the bond of love that seemed to withstand pressures other families might find impossible to withstand. He and his siblings can be separated by thousands of miles, but once rejoined, it seemingly takes only minutes for the years to fall away and they are all just a bunch of brothers and sisters, and peals of laughter and tear-filled smiles envelop the room.
As a child, the memories of these family gatherings frame some of my most precious moments. Since most of the siblings are relatively close in age, there were usually other nieces and nephews my age to play with.
Several of the brothers would head for the pool table, ping-pong, volleyball, or horseshoe pits. These friendly games were anything but, neither very friendly nor only games in name. To imply the competition was spirited is like suggesting the Israelis and Palestinians don't get along too well.
As heated as the competition was, especially in their early years, the word around the Village was "don't pick on a Weldon." If you singled one out, you 'd undoubtedly have to deal with the others. That adage holds true today, as they are quick to come to one another's defense.
In spite of his love for his folks and his treasured siblings, Dad enlisted in the Army right out of high school, during the Korean War. He wasn't sent overseas, though. Following boot camp and technical training, he was sent to Texas as a food inspector.
Not sure what happened to that training, though. I can't recall any interest he ever had in examining foodstuff after that - except on the end of his fork!
I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I saw Dad cry. The day they buried my grandfather, standing beside his grave, tears rolled down his cheeks. I was a young teenager, but that was a powerful moment. There was no doubt how deeply Dad had loved his father, and those tears were a sign of strength, not a form of weakness.
I saw those same tears many years later when grandmother passed, and again, my respect for Dad grew.
He and his brothers and sisters have had their share of trauma and strife. His oldest brother, Steve (Uncle Son to us), died after a long bout with cancer. More recently, Uncle Son's wife died. His wife was laid to rest next to him, near my grandparents.
The sudden and unexpected loss of a beloved child, financial hardships, personal struggles, and all of the same life experiences that influence and affect other families have impacted the Weldons. The difference lies in how a family deals with these experiences.
When faced with a challenge, the Weldons circle the wagons. They revert to that old Viscose Village adage about picking on one and dealing with the others. They are always there for one another, and they draw strength, power, and sustenance from each other. That lesson has served me well in life - and in politics!
The Weldon creed is defined in simple terms. Work hard, love your family, develop your faith, accept responsibility for your own condition, respect your fellow man, step up and get involved, and be thankful for the good things that come your way.
The background is intended to build the context for my relationship with this man. As a child, I must have presented some unique and frustrating challenges for the old man.
First, a stubborn will that persists even today marked my juvenile and teen years. My formal public school education was marked by my ability to devote as little effort as was necessary to get by, while Dad urged a more committed and decidedly more successful approach.
I recall his frustration at my seeming inability to master arithmetic concepts, things that came very easily to him. He was an economic analyst for Getty Oil, later Texaco.
Dad was always a volunteer, at least as far back as I can remember. He volunteered at our church, Christ Church (Episcopal) in Delaware City. He volunteered for the Republican Party, serving as the Colonial Region Chair (comparable to our party central committees here in Frederick) for many years. He volunteered in the county's soil conservation program, eventually rising to a national director's position in Soil Conservation.
He ran for public office one time, a memorable experience that remains important. He committed himself fully to his campaign, having derived motivation from an environmental fight over a local landfill.
He took an old beat-up Ford and hand-painted it red, white and blue. He had my Uncle Son, a truly gifted artist, paint a large likeness on two plywood panels and mount them on a boat trailer. The red/white/blue car, truly a sight to behold, hauled around this self-promotion contraption.
He lost the race for county council, but the final results were much closer than anyone expected. He had taken on a sort-of shady, good-ole-boy power-broker type, and the race was a veritable squeaker based on past races.
Always knowledgeable on the subjects he takes on, Dad substitutes a genuine interest in people and process for flowery argument and an expansive vocabulary. He might not be the most eloquent speaker, but he cares about his causes.
He's a lifelong Republican, but a moderate on some social issues. He listens to Rush Limbaugh, but finds himself disagreeing on several issues. He knows that most major national political issues are more complex than Rush's simplistic, black and white take on the world.
He is very proud of his little brother Curt, my uncle the congressman. I was there sitting beside Dad the night Curt was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives. All of Curt's brothers and sisters were there, as well as several busloads of friends and political supporters. It was during the '84 Reagan revolution, and Curt won the 7th Congressional District in southeastern Pennsylvania in impressive fashion. He's held the seat every two years since, often with Dad's help, always with his prayers and good karma.
Dad sits in his big leather easy chair in his den and watches Curt give speeches in Congress, watches him spar with pundits on political talk shows, and reads every print media report about Curt, both good and bad.
I see the pride in his eyes when his younger brother is featured in a national news report. Anyone can understand that. Harder to figure, but more reflective of who Dad really is, would be the pride he showed when my daughter Cassie was named the top responder at the Brunswick Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Company for 2004 and 2005.
Dad was deeply moved by Cass's commitment to serving her fellow man, as that is a trait that he understands on a basic and fundamental level. He grew up working with his father at the Viscose Fire Company, as did many of his brothers.
In a touching and defining moment, he gave my daughter the badge and hatpin worn by my grandfather during his tenure as chief, chief engineer, and president. Cassie was moved by his gift, and holds those items as personal treasures.
Dad was standing by my side on the dais of the Maryland House of Delegates when I posed for a picture with the Speaker on Opening Day in 2003. He and Mom were there, and when I stood at my seat to take the oath of office, I looked up at him standing up there in the gallery.
My eyes filled with tears, I suspect his did as well. I might not take the time to tell him how important he is to me, how significant his influence has been on my politics, my personality, and my development as a public servant, but I should
Lessons in life he taught through his example are already ingrained in my son. Three generations of Richard Bancroft Weldon might be one or two too many for this world, but all three of us understand the importance of listening to others, striving to achieve compromise, and the difference between making our point and making someone else feel inferior.
Dick Weldon possesses the wisdom of a great thinker, but the heart and soul of a regular guy from the neighborhood in Marcus Hook.