My Father: Known and Unknown

In many ways, my father was a mystery to me. A lot of what he did and accomplished, I had no
idea of at the time. We talked very little – he wasn’t stern or withdrawn. He was just quiet. You
knew how he felt, by simply being in his presence.

My father grew up in Chicago’s Jewish ghetto, at a time of fairly virulent anti-semitism. His parents
were Russian immigrants who felt blessed at having the opportunity to live in a place where their
very survival was not a daily worry. My grandfather said little about anything. We used to joke that
he had a 50 word limit per visit. My grandmother was obsessed with her grandchildren, and with
everyone’s health. Her damage from growing up with persecution and brutality left her with an
enormous battle with anticipatory loss. There was no way to convince her that those she so dearly
loved would not be taken away and destroyed or develop illnesses that would surely kill them.
The expression of feelings did not play any direct role in my father’s life. Feelings were a luxury
that could be ill-afforded when survival was the dominate goal of life. So he learned, early in life,
to keep his feelings under wraps, and hope that those he cared for, would know the depths of his
feelings by a kind of unspoken emotional transfer.

Unlike the experience of his parents, his battles were very existential. He was an all-state
basketball player in high school (when pro basketball was in its infancy) but Jews were not seen as
potential recruits. He was one of the first Jews to be admitted to the dental school at Loyola
University (a courageous move on the school’s part) but experienced harassment and abuse on an
almost daily basis. To put himself thru school, he pulled a rickshaw at the Chicago’s World Fair, and
had a number of less than elegant jobs.

When he finished dental school he found no one who would rent him space to set up his first
office. He finally found a fellow who rented him space, above a pool hall. (I became quite a pool
shark, visiting him at his office.)

Because of his quietness and his low key demeanor, I never got lectures about values. I learned
what they were by paying attention to those facets of his life that were known by very few people.
Except for a small number of people, no one knew that every other month he would drive to one of
the poorest neighborhoods in the City and do dental work for people who had never seen a
dentist, and would never have the opportunity, were it not for my father. He was also an informal
scholarship office for a number of kids whose mothers cleaned our home. None of this was done
with any fanfare. If my father learned, primarily from my mother, that one of these kids was
accepted at a school, but had no way of affording it, he “took care of it.”

I learned three things from my father. First, I learned that if you wanted people to pay attention to
what you were telling them, say it calmly and directly. If you’re all bent out of shape, no one will
pay attention to the message. My father primarily taught me how to drive. On one of our outings,
in our neighborhood, he turned slightly toward me and said: “It’d be a good idea to get back on
the street.” I got the message, and didn’t have to endure a lecture about how stupid it was to be
driving across people’s lawns.

Second, I learned that if you really wanted something, you must be willing to work harder than
other people who want it. And of equal importance, you don’t get to whine about how hard you’re
working. If your whining, it’s not that important to you.

Lastly, I learned that making commitments to others is serious business. If you make the
commitment, not keeping it, is a no choice option. On many nights of my growing up, I would
hear the front door close at all hours of the night and early morning. I came to find out that those
middle of the night events were my father leaving to take care of one of his patients who was in
pain. He would go to their homes or meet them at his office. He never told a patient to wait to
the morning, take an aspirin, or go to the emergency room. He made the commitment, when he
started his practice, to take care of his patients; and to the best of my knowledge, he always kept
his word.

I haven’t thought about my father for a long time, and that makes me sad. He impacted my life
more than I could ever thank him for. I won’t wait this long again.

Morrie Shechtman

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