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Saying goodbye to a happy, fearless ‘mensch’

Paul Akers and I were very good friends. That might seem strange to some people who knew we were from different political worlds. Those differences were trivial to our friendship because we connected on so many other levels.

We were born two years apart and shared a generational and cultural context with the same historic events, same music, and same movies, etc. We came from blue-collar, working-class stock, and we were both very proud of it. We were from close-knit families. Our fathers were cut from the same cloth. They were hardworking, no-nonsense, God-and-country guys who believed in the work ethic and deferred gratification. Some gratifications were meant to be deferred forever.

No excuses were ever accepted. Our parents believed in personal responsibility. That may seem to be a shocking concept today. You didn’t get any special attention or credit for doing the right thing. You were supposed to do the right thing because that reflected on your upbringing, and in the end that was the best thing for you personally. If that wasn’t enough, then there was something wrong with you.

There seems to be a shortage of that kind of thinking in the world today. Paul was acutely aware of these deficiencies and was not squeamish about pointing them out. Sometimes that made some readers uncomfortable. Maybe they should be uncomfortable.

Our fathers concealed their emotions. They weren’t good at expressing those kinds of feelings. There were few overt displays of physical affection. They may not have known how to tell us they loved us, but they did know how to show us. When you are a kid, sometimes you are not adept at picking up on those signals. Maybe you have to become a father yourself before you truly begin to understand your own father.

Paul wrote a poignant piece about his dad. Mr. Akers was determined that his son would have a chance at a better life. When his father died, Paul found a stack of U.S. savings bonds in his father’s top dresser drawer. They had been put there month after month for years so Paul could go to college.

I called Paul to tell him how much I liked that story, and I told him that each savings bond was really a love letter to him. Those saving bonds were tickets to a better life. Paul went to college and never forgot the sacrifices that made it possible.

Why did I admire Paul? He was passionately in love with his wife. He was so proud of his children, and he doted on his grandchildren. His family was the center of his universe. I would always smile when stories about them would show up in his editorials. He would always cast himself as the butt of the joke. His many plans to show his grandchildren things like his honed camping skills would often backfire and go awry.

His writing could make you laugh out loud. He could touch your heartstrings. That takes talent. Those who thought of him as only a hard-nosed political commentator knew only half the man.

On the other hand, he was never afraid to get out what he liked to call “his bucket of turpentine” and use it unsparingly on the phonies of both the left and the right with equal vigor. He had a sharp pen and a voracious vocabulary. I was an English teacher, and sometimes I needed a dictionary when I read his editorials. He wasn’t showing off. He was raising literary consciousness.

His most important job was to make the community think and participate in the intellectual arena. He did not want you to be a bobblehead nodding appreciatively at his editorials. He expected and welcomed retorts. If you wrote a scathing letter calling him a fool, he not only printed it, he would use it as the lead letter. He was proud of the fact that The Free Lance–Star got many more letters than papers he had worked for with much larger circulations.

Do you know what hot political topic Paul told me got the most letters? A young woman getting ready to graduate from high school wanted to wear a blue robe instead of the white one that girls were told to wear. You would have thought the world was going to end. Paul thought it was hilarious that it generated so much heat. Heat is good for a newspaper.

Paul laughed well and often. Sometimes he would start laughing loudly in the middle of a story he was telling me. It was usually attached to something ridiculous someone said or did. I am going to really miss his laughter. I miss it right now.

He was always catching flak for the different national writers’ columns he reprinted on the editorial page. No matter who he used, someone from the other side would question his parentage for allowing such baloney to be printed in their newspaper. Those comments never fazed him. He had two things going for him—a thick skin and integrity. It was OK if you didn’t like him. Sometimes it was preferable. The same half-dozen people called him up over and over again to complain. He was always polite. He was much more enlightened than I am in those situations. He had much to teach me, and he led by example.

When Cathy Jett called me for a comment on his passing, I told her that I ran with a bunch of Jewish kids growing up. The highest accolade they could tender was “mensch.” It meant “stand-up guy.” That is what Paul was both personally and professionally. He never stuck his finger up in the wind to decide what sentiments would be politically popular. He had a core set of values that never wavered. It is not that his views never changed. Some did, because he was never afraid to listen to and consider a good argument. Paul understood that rigid for rigid’s sake was not a good idea. Mark Twain said it best: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Some perspectives may have changed over the years, but the core values never did. They were part of his DNA. In this slippery, slipshod world, how can you not admire that?

Paul was not wealthy in material things that most people use to measure a person. He did not have an expensive house or fancy car, but he was a king in all the things that can’t be measured. He was a wonderful husband and father. His grandchildren adored him. He was a true friend, and he always had time and appreciation for the simple things. He was a terrific writer, and that would infuriate his opponents. He never took himself too seriously. Underneath it all was a self-deprecating sense of humor.

He was courageous in his final battle with heart disease. I never heard him complain. He was the first person that MCV used to try out their new heart pump. I am sure what they learned from him will save other lives. In the end they could not save his.

On the night he passed, the hospital room was filled with his extended family. He was unconscious when I touched his hand and thanked him for being my friend. Later everyone but Karen and his family left the room, and the nurse disconnected the life support. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Karen said she was lucky to have him as long as she did. I think we all were.

Archer Di Peppe lives in Stafford County.

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