by Bill Hellkamp
At 6:45 on Christmas morning, my father, also Bill, took his final breath and passed beyond the veil. He was just over 90 years old and had lived a full life. After a 32 year Air Force career, he retired to a small town Iowa life of volunteering and community service. For most of our lives our fathers can be distant, almost mythical figures, who live in worlds that are very different from us. Usually about the time we start to move in our own professional circles, Dad is close to retirement. Seldom do we get to experience them in their prime, working and interacting with others. This was true for me as it concerned Dad, but in dealing with him more closely while he was sick and in meeting many of his friends for the first time at his funeral, I was able to more completely add context to my childhood recollections. Some of the lessons I will discuss came from this interaction with his contemporaries and how they viewed my father. The other ones came from watching him be retired for more than 37 years, more time than he had spent in the Air Force!
Show Respect To Everyone – As a detachment commander during the 60’s and 70’s, Dad worked with a diverse group of people during a time of intense racial strife in our country. While he did not always understand or agree with the positions his subordinates held, he always showed respect to them as people and strove to handle their issues with understanding and dignity. At times one of us kids would spout out something that was biased or uncharitable towards other people and he would admonish us not to paint others with a broad brush. He said that we should deal with people as individuals and not judge them until we knew more about their situation and what might have motivated them. This considerate and fair attitude was evident in the functioning of his command which had few racial incidents, even during those challenging times. He told me later that it due to his insistence that all parties in a dispute be heard before a decision or judgement was made.
Make the Most of Where You Are – During Dad’s military career, our family moved about 10 times to mundane places such as Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa and more exotic places like Hawaii, the Philippines and Spain. Each of the family members dealt with this vagabond lifestyle differently. Some of us were excited to be going to a new place, while others dreaded the thought of a new school and making friends all over again. Dad didn’t seem bothered by the moves even though he was probably the most affected. New bosses, new staff and different working conditions were all issues that could impact his career. Yet through it all he maintained an attitude of excitement and enthusiasm about each new challenge. I remember when we moved to Clark AFB in the Philippines. The lifestyle was very different and we weren’t able to get the same kinds of food and other luxuries that we had stateside. When I complained about it, Dad told me to quick pining for the past and enjoy what this new place had to offer. Then he went over a list of all of the neat things our new home had that I couldn’t get in the U.S. When we moved back to the States three years later, I found that there were things I missed from the Philippines. Don’t waste your time pining for what was. Enjoy what is right here, right now.
Make ‘em Laugh – Humor is important to both our work and personal lives. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter relieves tension, stimulates your organs and cools down your response to stress. So if that is all true, my dad might have done more to improve people’s health that your average doctor, because he really enjoyed a good joke. He loved to tell them, but more importantly he was OK to be the butt of the joke. He even insisted that his funeral not be a sad event, but that we should tell all of the funny stories that we knew about him. Most of the people who came up to speak to me at his wake said something like, “I sure will miss hearing your Dad tell jokes. He was really a funny guy.” So enjoy life and be able to laugh at yourself – it will do your body good.
Guard Your Input – As my father got older he began fretting more and more about the world situation. His interest in world affairs was nothing new. He had been in the military through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam, so he knew how to worry. But his concern now was more constant and less hopeful. I noticed that whenever I would visit, he would be planted in front of the television tuned to a 24 hour news channel. Asleep or awake, with visitors or by himself, the news was always playing. A constant refrain of unsolvable problems with protests, murders, car wrecks and politics, the news was always pushing its way into his mind. And what goes in the mind always comes out. From watching him I have learned to turn off the television, avoid talk radio and burn the newspaper! A very little of those sources goes a long way in producing a negative attitude – guard your mind from them.
Stay Involved in Meaningful Work – The challenge with retirement, not only for my dad, but for most retirees is that they move from positions where they are involved in important work to a more mundane and mindless lifestyle. They volunteer at the hospital or with a local club. They have friends and acquaintances, but they are no longer doing work that uses the talents and abilities they took so long to develop. I watched as my dad’s world shrunk until it was just home and hospital, wife and doctors. And for so many years that fine mind and his many abilities went to waste. As I near the age when many start to think of retirement, I am making my plans to keep coaching and teaching and to keep making a difference in the lives of others.