We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Russ Navarre passes
29 June 2014, 12:58
Filed under: Navarre, Veterans | Tags: , ,

As a way to get out the word about my father’s passing, I’m posted an extended version of the eulogy that I’ll be giving tomorrow. Since I could write and speak about him for hours and some of this is more about me than it is about him, the spoken version is going to be considerably shorter. I also plan on adding to this as I write more, but wanted to get the main thrust of it out. He was a marvelous man and I already miss him. If anyone would like to attend, we’ll be convening at the Harry J Wills Funeral Home at 37000 Five Mile Road in Livonia. There’s a viewing from 3-5pm today, 29 June 2014, and another starting at 10am on Monday, 30 June 2014. Unity service at 11am. I’m unsure whether my remarks are at the service or at the luncheon that follows.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

My father was the kind of man who deserves that kind of epic speech.

My Dad grew up an orphan, having been dropped at the St Francis Home for Boys by his single mother. It couldn’t have been an easy childhood, but he didn’t think of it that way. He talked about playing the rafters and getting in trouble with the nuns. In 2011, a fire broke out in the building, which had spent twenty years as a Detroit public school. Eventually, they had to tear it down. I suspect that there were boys playing under that wooden roof, literally following in my father’s footsteps, making mischief.

Dad had a lot of stories. I’ll never know which of them were true, which had a grain of truth and which were invented out of whole cloth. He had a vivid imagination and he knew a good story when he had one. When we’d talk on the phone after I moved to Washington, we’d slip into a little game, talking like we were important men who knew the Presidents and would be asked for advice. Sometimes, I’m the same way. Heck, even some of my stories about my Dad never happened. For example, I’ve said for years, “My father always told me, if you can’t sing well, at least sing loud.” A few years ago, I let him know I’d been saying that. He laughed and told me I could keep doing it.

Probably the best speech I gave in my life was based on him. I was working on planning a volunteer project in DC and we were at that nervous, don’t know if we can pull this off stage. I remembered his old State Fair stand. It was a crazy, hand-made construction that never went together the same way twice. It took half a dozen men to put it together over several hours. The top of the stand was something like 15-18 feet high, with a sloped roof and you had to man-handle all these heavy parts into position. There were no plans and every year we’d go out there (once I was old enough to help) and he’d get everyone together to put it up. I embellished and I had him giving a speech every year at the start, to gird his crew for the huge task. He’d say, “We’ve done this fifteen times. Every time it’s different. Every time we have different parts left over when we finish. But every time we start, we finish. We can do this.” It was a good speech, and it really caught the flavor of my old man. I’ve given the speech a few times, at the request of friends who were there, so I know it had to be a little inspiring. When I gave the speech to him, he liked it too.

When he walked the fairgrounds, everyone was his friend. You’d see him greeting people and shaking hands and waving. He wasn’t a politician, but he was a man you couldn’t help but like. In my better moments, I am my father, relentlessly unafraid of people and gregarious. In other moments, I’m the shy boy who doesn’t talk to strangers and hates to use the phone.

There’s probably never been a man who didn’t want his father to be proud of him and I sure wanted my Dad to be proud of me. He coached my brother and I in baseball when I was new to the league and not very good. He didn’t see me play a lot of sports after that, but I kept at it. One year, he came to Washington and watched me play flag football. He told me I was pretty good and that meant a lot to me.

That reminds me of a crazy thing that happened when we were on that baseball team together. One of our guys rounded third, headed for home and was beaten by five steps. You’ve all seen Pete Rose bull through a catcher and you’d think he try that. He didn’t. He channeled Bruce Lee instead and planted both of his feet in the catcher’s chest. When the other coach complained, ours piped back, “We score half our runs that way!” I can’t say for sure it was my Dad saying it, but you can sure imagine him that way.

He had a great outlook on life, always seeing the bright side and always seeing the best in people. We used to help out sometimes at the fairs, and I met some of the most interesting people working for him. I’m not sure that all of the people who worked for him could hold a job any place else, but when Russ came into town for the State Fair or their county fair, these people came out of the woodwork for him. They busted their butts for him and earned every dollar they got. He had a soft heart and so he was helping them, but he made sure they helped him right back. I lucked out. I got the sunny disposition and the ability to always see the good in people. He taught me that when you expect good things of people and they know it, good things happen.

I loved working the State Fair stand. My brother Rob and I worked the Detroit Grand Prix one year with him, and he just couldn’t believe us. We busted our butts, but we were loud, outgoing and boisterous. Kind of a caricature of him and we loved it. I helped out at the Tulip Festival one year, and he had Darlene working her fingers to the bone there too. I think Russ was the first one who actually got paid to work for him. He’d thought he’d have free labor with three boys and a hard-working girl, but he did pay us.

I met my wife Melissa back in 2002 and the old man had told me he wasn’t going to keep working the State Fair any more. So, I came to town and brought Melissa with me. She’d told me she wanted to work the stand for a day, too. He wasn’t so sure, because it really is hard work. She was persistent and he let her work. He had a way about him, when he wanted to think. He’d stand there with his arms crossed and his chin in his hand. Late in the day, when Melissa had worked hard the whole time, loving every minute, he stood there like that. He nodded, surprised she’d done it and impressed with her. He let me know I’d gotten the right gal and he was proud of me.

My Dad was a fitness nut before there were fitness nuts. He used to run, sometimes at night and make my Mom follow him the car. In his 70s, he could still lift 180 pounds over his head. He’d earned his black belt in Judo and he used to do this thing with his hands, like Bruce Lee almost, getting himself into position, letting out a little “Hyaaah!” He’d do it to be funny and I always laughed with him. Now, he wasn’t Jack Lalane, but he kept fit. He grew out of the nutty part of it, of course, but he never stopped staying in shape.

This isn’t the first time an obituary ran in the paper. A number of years back, we were at one of the St Francis reunions, and someone shook his hand and said how glad they were that he was still alive. Another Russ Navarre had his obituary in the Detroit News and this old friend had called the orphanage to let them know. The way he told it, when the orphanage called the house to express their condolences, he answered the phone and, channeling Mark Twain, replied that “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”

One year, a few weeks before Christmas, I was struggling to figure out what to get him. It came to me in flash. Here was a guy with a bunch of great stories and here I was, a guy who loved to write. So, for Christmas, my gift to him was that we’d sit down together and I’d write his life story. Well, we’d talk about his stories some times and I’d ask probing questions because I knew we’d do this some day. Well, we never had the long sessions we needed to get it done, but this weekend, I started writing this.

But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once,—not without cause:
What cause withholds you, then, to mourn for him?—

—Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

The funeral home obituary, which I think my sister Darlene wrote, has plenty of good photos.

Video of my eulogy:

When I read obituaries in the paper, my favorites are the ones after which I say to myself, “Gosh, I wish I’d known him.” One of my former co-workers, Eric, wrote “Now I miss him too.” I’m so happy to have been able to share the written and spoken versions of the eulogy and to have received compliments on them. I’m grateful that I got to speak to him on Father’s Day and tell him that I loved him, but sad that he had to tell me that he wished I’d call more often.

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