Father’s Day 2015

How do I start? I’ve been working this through my head in so many different ways over the last few weeks. How cruel that two major annual celebration days fall so quickly upon Dad’s death: Mom and Dad’s 72nd anniversary on Friday and Father’s Day today. Mom’s first anniversary without her husband, and my and my brothers and sisters’ first Father’s Day without our father. In some way, maybe just owning up to that and the bittersweet sadness of it all, and moving forward is part of grieving my way back to happiness.

So there. I’ve done that.

Now, here’s what I’m thinking. I’ve a collection of cards that I’ve written to Dad from Father’s Days past that I want to share with you, some in my own handwriting so I hope that you can decipher the script. It used to be way better than it has turned out to be now in my 60’s.

FYI, Mom and Dad both have distinctive handwriting; his strong and powerful with a formality to it. I can almost feel the teacher standing over him forcing him to hone his penmanship.

He turned that long ago stern instruction into his own mark and when he signed his name, he always did so like he meant it, with a flourishing swoop of his writing hand. Whether he was signing a mortgage or our report cards, he put his mark to paper leaving his trademark showing that he had full understanding of what he had signed, and that he stood by his signature.

Mom’s is an art form in itself, almost calligraphy in style. She actually uses a postcard or some form of sturdy paper to set her lines absolutely straight, completing each line before coming back and filling in the descending portions of each letter. It’s a process that is awesome to watch.

But this isn’t about their handwriting. It’s about Father’s Day and I want to start it all off with the most remarkable card Dad ever sent me. It’s dated 1984 and it’s a birthday card, but it might as well be for Father’s Day. He sent it to me when I turned 31 on April 10, 1984, forty-two days after Clark was born. The brevity adds to the eloquence. It’s both lesson, praise and hope tightly tied together in his clearest of printing. Not one extra word used nor required. I have cherished it ever since – for the last 31 years.

Dad to Steve Bday 1985

And then there’s my card to Dad in 2009. Like you, I’ve sent my dad many a Father’s Day card over the years. Long ago I stopped buying cards at the store for the most part, choosing to make my own. Sometimes I’d dress it up with a photo thanks to the Mac. Sometimes I used plain 8.5 by 11 inch sheets of plain printer paper folded in half. Sometimes I’d find some nice paper stock that holds the ink of a fountain pen and helps the nib glide across the paper. I guess I inherited the joy of writing letters and words on real paper like my folks. Would that I had their wonderful handwriting. Occasionally I had to interpret a word or two for them.

Anyway, I think that this card captures what I’ve written over the years and re-voiced from almost all angles. I never tired of telling my Dad how I loved him and his importance in my life each year as I grew another year wiser and he showed me another year of life’s lessons.

Fathers Day 2009

Of course, this year, he won’t receive and read my card, nor hold it in his hands and think about it for a minute, before folding back up and giving it to Mom. He’s now shown me the final lesson in life.

I leave you with this. A note that I wrote to him long ago spurred by my own reckoning of fatherhood, its immense joy and corresponding responsibility, as I came back to bed after tending to my baby boy, toddling in age, troubled by something during the night in his bed. I think that it says it all. One of the most important acts of fathering lies in how you pass along the truth of your connection and turn it into a guidepost for your children’s fatherhood. I hope that I’ve come close to living to that intention in my life as a father to Clark and Blair.

Dad Fathers Day 1985

Goodnight Dad. Words fall too short in stating how much that I miss you, today and ever more. By the way, your boy Jordan Spieth won the US Open! But you know that already.

Love,

Steve

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The Odyssey of Homer

Dad’s Great Ride

(The following is the full text written as a eulogy for my dad’s memorial service on Monday, May 11, 2015 at Asbury United Methodist Church, Durham, NC. For his service, I edited it down and rearranged it for time and to avoid repeating ground wonderfully covered by my brothers, Lin and Page, who spoke before me. This contains what I wanted to say.)

When I think of my dad I think of joy. Joy in the living and doing. Joy in his friendships made and those in the making. Joy in his long love affair with his Martha. Joy in his family and work, the balance between the two, the raising of kids and watching them grow up to have kids of their own. Joy in winning the bid and building the job. Joy in the game of golf, a ball well struck, a fairway hit and a putt holed. Joy in the beginning of the morning and the ending of the day. Joy in worldly travel and arriving back home. 

Joy in me, and joy in you.

Picture 3
Homer’s photo as it appeared in the Durham Herald Sun article for Veterans Day

I have been honoring my dad’s living all of my life. Now it’s time to honor his whole life, because, sadly for us, his life is done.

And boy did he live a good life. Raised in hard times he found the simplest of ways to build a good life.

He started by finding another life very early on with whom to enjoin his. He was 13 and she was 12. Since he and Martha both have lived a good long time, they have shared their lives together longer than most live.

Blessed with an easy style with people, a clear mind, a vision for today and tomorrow, and the wonderful capacity to let the trials of yesterday wash away with a good night’s sleep, Dad was always ready for the new plan for today.

Homer on the Teer Plane
Homer on Teer Company plane

He covered a lot of ground. Eight-four countries. Every state in the U.S. including Alaska before it was a state.

He’s been living on borrowed time since February 19th, 1945 when he first saw Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima at dawn from the deck of his troop carrier before hitting the beach.

He made it off of Iwo alive. It was the worst of many battles that gave him plenty to fear, but he came back home and put himself into his life with a passion knowing that the worst was behind him.

Homer was the epiphany of a self-made man. Just ask Mom…because she made him, her self. He wasn’t an extremely ambitious man for one who achieved so much in his time. He didn’t crave money, glory or the spotlight but he was often in it. It seemed that if something was getting done in Durham, Dad was smack dab in the middle of the doing.

For all of his great qualities and inherent capabilities, it was “Sha,” his pet name for the love of his life, who inspired him to see his own potential.

It was her, his new bride, for whom he fought his way through World War II.

It was Sha who begged him to use the GI Bill he earned through his service and attend N.C. State College instead of returning to his pre-war days as a plumber.

Sha, and their new baby girl, Marti, gave him the incentive and kept him focused on getting his degree.

Oh, he did do it all, make no mistake even if Mom lit the fire underneath him on occasion. Dad brought modern engineering practices to Nello L. Teer Company, accelerating a very good and growing company into a great company. From right here in Durham, Teer built out the US Highway system, dams in Oklahoma and Venezuela, an air base in Israel and roads in Africa.

He dined with heads of states, governors, celebrities, Saudi royalty, West Virginia farmers, Pennsylvania coal miners and African tribesmen. And he was comfortable in each setting.

He trusted his wife, close friends and God to guide him, his creative and spontaneous smarts to generate choices, his ability to decide and move on knowing that most wrong decisions could be course corrected if you’re observant enough to catch the error, and big enough to admit and alter the pathway to success.

When I nursed him over these last few months, as my brothers, sisters and Mom all did, sharing in the effort to help him heal from the infection, I woke up each morning thinking about him. And I’d lie in bed and feel those slow rolling silent tears, tears of sadness, hope and worry, slide down my face and drop to the pillow as I thought about his fight to get better.

Damn, I’ve never met a man with so much courage, courage to fight and survive in the worst of wars, courage to do what he thought was right, for others, and in the best and most difficult of times. Courage to give us all strength as he lost his.

At his weakest moment Homer had more courage than most men on their strongest day.

He knew the difference between God’s Plan and the plans of men – of everyday life. And he believed that a plan made things happen…good things. Progress.

And when folks needed stuff done, Homer was their man.

He didn’t do the work himself, nor did he ever claim it so, but man could he organize and cut through the clutter, focus and harness the power of willing, and sometimes not so willing, people.

He did it for Teer for 38 years starting in 1949.

He did it for the Exchange Club of Durham since 1954,

For the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Durham,

For Asbury Church, its pre-school and annual Christmas Tree Fundraiser,

For Willowhaven and Croasdaile Country Clubs,

And, for Croasdaile Village, his final home.

That strategy helped him focus his way through this life, to live up to his commitments to each of us and the community of Durham. And he relied on it to carry him through his battle for his health when he leaned on others because he could not plan the day by himself. He’d greet each us with, “Top of the morning. Good to see you. It’s a good day. I slept great. How are you? What’s the plan, son? I think it’s time that we made something happen.”

As you can tell, I don’t know how to put a bow on this. I guess that the best way is to end in thanks.

Thanks to the people of Asbury United Methodist Church who gave Dad a spiritual community.

Thanks to NC State College from which he gained an education upon which to build his life.

Thanks to Nello L. Teer Company and family for giving Homer his chance to start and finish his career and passion for building and to provide for his large family of five children.

Thanks to the Exchange Club that gave Dad and so many others the connection and energy to do so much good for Durham,

And the tremendous people living and working at Croasdaile Village who gave him a new home, new friends, and cared so deeply for him during his weakest time.

The amazing doctors, nurses and staff at Duke University Hospital who saved his life for a few more precious months.

The City of Durham for a lifelong home.

And, thank you, to each of you here today, and those who couldn’t come due to circumstance, for your love and appreciation of a man the likes of which don’t appear that often. Homer loved each and every one of you.

You made his day. His life. Every day.

A few weeks ago Mom asked Dad during a late afternoon at the hospital, “If you could wish for something, what would you wish for?” Dad answered, “I don’t deal in wishing.” “What would you change,” Mom asked. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.”

“Do you miss me?” she whispered. “Honey, I beat this bed to death at night looking for you.”

That about sums it up on this amazing man who I had the honor and privilege to call Dad and you called husband, granddaddy, father, friend, uncle, boss, partner, or neighbor.

Rest in Peace Homer Lindell Riley. You enjoyed a Great Ride, drove most of the way and took us all along for the ride of our lives with you.

And as Homer often summed it up, the rest is history.

Homer, kissing his bride of 70 years, June 2013
Homer, kissing his bride of 70 years, June 2013, at their celebration thrown by their kids and grandkids.

“You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.” Coach Dean E. Smith

We’re Tar Heels.

We work hard.

We play hard.

We play smart.

And we always play together.

That was Coach Smith’s credo as remembered by Erskine Bowles during the public celebration of Coach Smith’s life held under the dome of the UNC Student Athletic Center. Bowles, a former UNC system president, is the son of Skipper Bowles and Smith family friend. Skipper chaired the charge for building the basketball arena working alongside with Smith.

It was a very moving day of storytelling, personal and fond memories shared, all to make sure that people now knew as much about their great coach, friend, mentor and father, as possible.

IMG_8755Many have remembered our legendary jewel of a coach, both before and after he passed away this month. He’s a coach who drew attention from the moment he stepped into the hot spotlight that was Carolina basketball. He took over a team that was in trouble not long after winning a national championship. Frank McGuire, his head coach, had left for the NBA. With his hands tied by self imposed restrictions by the university, Smith, as head coach, began to build what became the “Family of Carolina Basketball.”

Fittingly, one of the first to speak was Mickey Bell, a former walk-on player. Bell said that Coach Smith “was the most positive man I ever met. In game defining moments, Coach said things like ‘When we make the free throw, not “if.”‘ He never talked about winning. He only talked about improving.

“Preparation leads to calmness,” continued Bell. “When the Heels were down eight points with 17 seconds to go against Duke, Coach Smith called a timeout. In the team huddle he said, ‘We’re in great shape. Isn’t this fun.'”

I want to share an important part of the Dean Smith story from an article written by John Feinstein and published last year on February 28th to honor Smith’s 83rd birthday. Knowing Dean’s declining health and diminished memory, John recalled and retold a 1981 interview with Smith in which he learned even more about the coach’s character and principals in the game of life. John, an alumnus of Duke, tells it like this:

There’s one story that — to me — defines him. I’ve told it in the past, but it bears re-telling. In 1981, Smith very grudgingly agreed to cooperate with me on a profile for this newspaper. He kept insisting I should write about his players, but I said I had written about them. I wanted to write about him. He finally agreed.

One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith’s pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill’s restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.

“You have to remember,” Reverend Seymour said. “Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more.”

Smith agreed and went to a restaurant where management knew him. He and his companion sat down and were served. That was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

When I circled back to Smith and asked him to tell me more about that night, he shot me an angry look. “Who told you about that?” he asked.

“Reverend Seymour,” I said.

“I wish he hadn’t done that.”

“Why? You should be proud of doing something like that.”

He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”

In their first home game after Coach Smith’s passing , Carolina took on Georgia Tech. Julie and I were standing six feet from the TV expecting something special to happen. It did.

Coach Roy Williams honored his coach and mentor in the best way he knew how. On the first Carolina possession, he raised his hand calling the play. Four fingers signaling Smith’s famous “Four Corners” offense. Play by play announcer Wes Durham, son of legendary Tar Heel sports broadcaster, Woody Durham, caught on quickly as the camera cut to a shot of Roy with his four fingers held up high. I looked over at Julie, smiling through tears and said, “He’s calling for Four Corners!” I choked up as I said in all honesty, “I hated the Four Corners! I hated it. But I love this moment.”

Then Marcus Paige, playing Phil Ford’s position in the center, spotted Brice Johnson cutting to the hoop, threaded a pass to him for a reverse layout. It was one shining moment on the court and a fitting tribute for the coach and to the crowd.  

And I did hate the Four Corners. See, I grew up in a family of die-hard NC State Wolfpack fans who shared their love of the Pack with their kids. We shared the common thrill of gathering around the black and white TV to watch the one camera, silent telecast of NC State games on UNC public television. We’d listen to play by play on the NC State radio broadcast. Yes, we loved the Big Red. So, naturally, we hated Duke and Carolina. Especially Carolina. It seemed like the whole state worshipped Carolina Blue except for the Rileys. And anyone except for UNC fans hated the Four Corners. It controlled the tempo, protected leads, and slowed the game to a snail’s pace. The shot clock took care of that. And yet, Coach Smith’s teams continued to win, year in and year out because he continued to innovate with his players and the game. 

Even while attending UNC from 1971-75, it took me some time to warm up to my own school team. Hard to fathom probably for many of my friends today since I’ve swung full tilt to Carolina Blue over the years. But I still love NC State. It meant family to me growing up, joined in a passion and love for something special. It still means that today. I turned around and gave my kids the same unifying experience of yelling at the TV as my Tar Heels played and we cheered hard together for every victory and loss we could watch while living in Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Cheering for the Heels meant home. Home in North Carolina.

I want to share my own Dean story about when and how I actually met him. I didn’t meet him until I suffered through an embarrassing moment in my career as a fan.

I was working for WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh. Dean’s tradition of putting an early road game on the schedule against a school in or nearby his seniors’ home towns brought the National Champions to Pittsburgh in December of ’93. Kevin Salvadori, was the senior player and native Pittsburgher I had to thank for the Heels’ visit. We had been living in Pittsburgh for eight years. I can only say that a combination of homesickness and an overabundance of championship pride drove me to the depths of “fandamonium.” I secured tickets for the four of us way in advance. As the day drew near, I developed an almost desperate need to score team autographs from this opportunity. After all, they were the reigning National Champions.

Julie bought one of those little commemorative Tar Heels basketballs for me and I took it to the game. We got over to the Civic Arena early enough to see the shootaround. I took my ball and Sharpie courtside and went to the end where the team was warming up. It was me and about 10 kids under 12 years old, hanging around the basket shuffling for attention with our sharpies in our hands. A security guard came over, looked at me with sad acknowledgement before shooing us away. I moved around the corner to behind the team bench and recognized Phil Ford on the floor talking to some folks who obviously belonged on the floor. I yelled, in a whispered voice, “Phil! Phil!” I didn’t catch Phil’s attention, but I did raise the guard’s attention again. He moved over my way and with a look of “Are you serious?” and dismissed me with a wave that strongly suggested that he’d better not see me again. 

We enjoyed watching our team play and defeat Pittsburgh that night, but being so close to the team and not getting many autographs drove me crazy. After the game, as we were leaving the arena, I saw the team bus in the loading dock area. I ushered Julie and the kids to the car in the upper parking lot and went back down near to the bus. There were a few other people standing there where a chain link type gate kept us out of the huge passageway. As I waited, I recognized Eric Montross’s father standing in the small crowd. I had seen him numerous times on TV, watching Eric play. He, like his son, was quite tall. I spoke to him for a minute and he said that the kids would be coming out shortly. Finally, the gate rose and out walked the team. I did get a few autographs which have faded to be almost unreadable. I remember Pat Sullivan took the time to write his name on the ball as did Montross. When I finally got back to the car I met a very unhappy family. How could I leave them to be the last car in the lot? And, it was December and cold. How could I? Only one explanation. I’d become pretty darned invested in my Carolina Tar Heels while living away from home for so long.

Next time up came two years later. Dante Calabria, a sharp-shooting kid from Beaver Falls, PA was the senior. This time, I worked the inside route, asking Sam Nover, our sports director, for advice. He told me to show up at the press entrance. He knew the team was practicing in the early afternoon. He’d leave word at the security gate to let me in.

Although it was not without a moment of pause when the security guard wasn’t so accommodating. This was pre-cell phone days so I couldn’t raise Sam’s attention. He was inside. I was facing an unbelieving guard who didn’t seem to want to go out of his way to verify my story. Thankfully, a more customer service oriented employee stopped by, and took me in. I walked through a long dark hallway that came out right on the Igloo’s floor. It’s an amazing way to enter a building like that. The rows of chairs were laid out filling up the end zone area. I walked down the aisle leading to court from behind the backboard. I came up on a few folks talking in the aisle. One man turned my way, saw me, smiled and said, “Why hello. I’m Bill Guthridge.” I had recognized him in the instant I saw his face and before he spoke. And now it was my turn to explain myself. “Nice to meet you, Coach Guthridge. I’m Steve Riley, class of ’75. I work here in Pittsburgh for WPXI-TV, the NBC affiliate.” Guthridge gave me a very warm handshake. “Well how about that. That’s great. Hey Coach!” he said turning and walking me right up to Coach Smith who was standing nearer to the court where the team was scrimmaging. “This is Steve Riley, class of 75. He works for WPXI-TV here in Pittsburgh!”

“Why hello Steve. It’s great to meet you. Thanks for coming down.” That’s what I remember Coach Smith saying as he gave me a warm handshake. “Hey fellas,” he shouted to guys as they were walking off the court. “Come over here and say hi to Steve Riley, class of ’75. He lives up here in Pittsburgh working for the local TV station, WPXI-TV.” And that’s how I met Coach. And Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and, of course, Dante Calabria. I had a Sports Illustrated with me that had the Tar Heels on the cover and a Sharpie. Those guys gave me their autographs. Dean gave me something that meant so much more, his hand and recognition.

All through his life Coach SmIMG_8764ith did what was right. He honored the game, our school, our team and the boys who became men all at the same time.

He did win ball games. But he also won hearts.

Rest in peace, DES.

IMG_8758

Mr. Hiatt and The Rileys

As the Riley Family prepares to gather for Christmas in Greensboro, my sister-in-law, Maggie, the co-host with my bro, Page, sent out an email to all about sleeping arrangements, cooking assignments, etc. She laced references to song titles from family favorite, John Hiatt, throughout her email. That started what became a long chain of emails between our family members adding more and more references back and forth.

I started to join the fray and remembered this posting from 2008 on my old blog site. I am sharing it once again with the family and whomever wants to read it along with a few links to live performances. If you too have a John Hiatt story or favorite song or album or concert, leave a comment below and share with all.

(July 2008) I’m ripe with new music from Clark’s Father’s Day gift and Julie’s anniversary surprise and I’ve been listening pretty intently, either while riding to work during my Atlanta summer commute or while writing.

Here’s the first of five new selections that I’m throwing out there for those of you who share an interest in music, new and old, from bands in their infancy to singer/songwriters in their second life.

Let’s start with the venerable Mr. John Hiatt and his new release, “Same Old Man.” (2008)

John Hiatt "Slow Turning"John has become one of the musical loves of my life. One of my interns at WPXI back in the early 90’s gave me “Slow Turning” as a parting thank you gift. At that time I used to play music in my conference room on Fridays for those in earshot so she had a sense of my musical taste. “I think you’ll like this guy.” As often happens in the land of opportunity, we let great things languish. I took it home, set it aside for a while until one day, seeing the CD and remembering the gesture and intrigued by the cover photograph of this craggy faced, oil-slick hair musician, I popped it in the player – the first digital player of our lifetime. Out of my old Advent speakers came this incredible sound that picked me up and took me places in rhythm and rhyme and story telling phrases that licked the essence of life experiences. As they say, I was transported.

(Click here to experience “Drive South” the title track and first cut on the first Hiatt I ever heard. You’ll see what drew me to him.)

Later, at lunch with a local Pittsburgh radio executive, I dropped Hiatt’s name. His eyes lit up. He had found someone else who knew the guilty pleasure of John. “Do you have, “Bring the Family”? Nope. “Slow Turning” is all we have at the moment. “I’ll make you a cassette.” He did. We played it on a trip down to Beech Mountain. I fell in love with “Memphis in the Meantime” and spent the majority of our visit in the mountains figuring it out on the guitar.

I won’t take you through the many concerts of his we’ve seen but I must say that the first two set the stage for a love affair lasting through today and his new release.

The first thing that hits you is the difference in his album photograph personae and his stage presence. In the photos he’s cool, edgy and thoughtful. On stage, I’ve never watched someone enjoy himself or herself any more than Hiatt. He wears 50’s style clothing, laughs and jokes his way through the sets and cracks himself up all through the night. He tells stories in between his songs in a self-deprecating fashion.

Our first opportunity to see him live was at Graffiti in Pittsburgh in a standing room only crowded house. Later, we talked him up enough to convince a couple of friends to go see him at Metropol, a new hip hot spot in the historic Strip District. It was this concert tour playing most of the just released “Walk On” album that took us to an incredible pinnacle of personalized hand-crafted musical experience. “Cry Love” live finished in this brimming over the top cascading of perfect harmonies of acoustic instruments and human voices singing the “Cry love” refrain until we, well, almost cried tears of joy. After the final crescendo, the four of us – again standing in the pressed together flesh of shoulders four rows from the musicians craning to see it all from the open floor – looked at each other with “Damn that was unforgettably good!”

Often we’ve traded his name and CDs with others who enjoy looking for new entrees into their musical revelations. My little brother, Page, took to him and turned some friends in Knoxville on to his music. Clark and Blair grew up with the tunes and traveled with us to many a concert here in Atlanta, a frequent stop on his touring path, only four hours from his Nashville area home.

Back in 1997 I was in a Nashville recording studio on Music Row working on new theme music for WPXI. During a break in the session I turned around and looked at these boxes housing two-inch wide recording tape reels for the 16 track decks in use at the time. On the rib of one it said, “John Hiatt”. My heart skipped a beat. I was feet away from a master of tracks of the guy I idolized and whose music made me come alive. I said to the session engineer that I didn’t know what the protocol was, I assumed these were private tapes, but was there anyway possible that he could string it up and let me listen? He just shook his head and said, “No way man.” Still, I was that close to maybe “Little Head.”

So buy it and any other in Hiatt’s discography, and if you see that he’s performing in your area, please go to see him. He may be alone or with some amalgamation of his almost lifelong band of brothers, The Guilty Dogs or The Goners. You’ll love his love of music and the little things that can make music. You’ll also enjoy his sense of humor in his songs. Here’s the track that started it all for me, Memphis in the Meantime.

(Thank the world for YouTube! You can see and hear almost any song video recorded “live” and see John’s joy in performing with kick ass band mates.)

Remember, leave a comment in the box below and let’s keep the Hiatt chat going!

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

Left to right in chronological order, separated by Pittsburgh years and Atlanta years, starting with "Bring the Family."
Left to right in chronological order, separated by Pittsburgh years and Atlanta years, starting with “Bring the Family.” I had to get out a magnifying glass to read the copyright dates. We have more on digital only inlcuding 2010’s “The Open Road” and 2011’s “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns”

Cam Waller, 1922-2014

Cam Waller was bigger than life to me.

He finished everything with a flourish. Even eating a piece of hot buttered corn on the cob fresh out of his garden ended with a grand finale. After he had gnawed all around the cob, he let it drop from his hands, bam! onto the plate, his lips alive with butter, his hands out waiting for someone to put a napkin or dish rag in one of them.

Oh he loved the finer and simpler things in life. And he did love the show. Whether it was a barbecue, a fish fry, a dust up on the job. You name it. He made it more spectacular. Like taking Mom and Dad and Nell to the NC State at Penn State football game…by helicopter. Simple stuff like that.

He was a surrogate father figure of sorts in my life. The summer after I turned eighteen I think my dad sent me up to West Virginia to work on Cam’s road job on I-79 around Burnsville just to give me a taste of a special brand of basic training. Like a drill sergeant, Cam found the perfect job to humble me and test my mettle: the fence crew. Next time you’re riding down the interstate, look for the fence. It usually runs off in the woods. In West Virginia, it ran way up on the hillside above the job. We had to haul all of our tools and concrete up the hill.

On the farm, he included me in with his son John, like the brothers we were, ordering us around with the comfort of a father. “Hey, you boys, get over here,” he might yell from the front porch of the farm just as we finally settled down on a chair by the pool after a full day of odd jobs on the farm. “I need you two to go down to the lower barn and bring the red tractor up here.” And off we’d go on a 20 to 30 minute run that led to more work later with the tractor.

I met him sometime around 1965 to 1967 when I was 12 or 14 years old. He, like his dad, Charlie, worked for Nello L. Teer Company, and my dad was his boss. Cam and John came through Durham to pick up Dad, Lin and me to go hunting at his father’s camp at Lake Mattamuskeet. His eyebrows were as wild as they come, arching up to the sky on the outside tips. His eyes twinkled underneath them like he knew excitement few men did. I wanted to be around that. Catch some of that fire. That spirit. That energy to command other men who could move mountains with bulldozers, motor graders and scrapers.

Turns out I wasn’t much for killing. I wasn’t a bad shot. I just didn’t like the result. After we opened fire from our blind on a gaggle of Canadian geese coming in for a landing in our corn field, the barrage left a few on the ground. Cam sent John and me out to fetch them back. The bird I picked up by its feet turned out to be just stunned and came back to life as I was running back to the blind. It was damn near as big as I was and started swinging its neck around trying to bite me, honking and snapping for dear life. I’m sure it was a sight. Cam looked at me with a kind of manly disgust and grabbed the bird by the head, gave it a twirl and that was that in one pop. Goose for dinner. That cured me of hunting.

The rest is a long story of a love and sometimes not so much love affair with a man who could be as soft and gentle as they come, especially to his three daughters, and as rough and tumble as you’d ever want to meet. There really was only one way with Cam. That was his way. And he definitely had a vision of what and when he wanted some doing done. It was always an unfolding mystery to the rest of us, and not usually on the same schedule as you were thinking. He could redirect John and his buddies in ways that seemed, well, almost calculated to frustrate a bunch of young men and show them exactly, unmistakably, who was in charge, and it wasn’t any of us.

That said, he could not have been more generous a man with what he had. He shared it all with pride. He enjoyed the having, but he enjoyed sharing it even more. Just know that there was a price to pay in how he could affect your enjoyment of the moment and you just never knew when you would end up in the middle of a work crew.

Well, through all that unpredictability, I loved him and his family. So much so that, with Julie’s approval, we named our son after him and John. On February 28, 1984, Cameron Clark Riley was born into this world.

Cam, with his namesake, our son, Cameron Clark Riley, at the farm under the picnic shelter near the lake.
Cam, with his namesake, our son, Cameron Clark Riley, at the farm under the picnic shelter near the lake, 1984.

Cam, I didn’t see you enough these final years. The last really fun time together was when you and Nell drove over to visit the whole Riley clan shacked up in a cottage on the beach at Emerald Isle, NC. We put together a shrimp boil in your honor, iced down some beers, covered the table in plastic, crowded all in around it and ate us up a mess of shrimp. I can still see you sitting there, big smile on your face, telling stories and laughing at your own words, as the shrimp peelings piled higher and higher, then holding your hands out for someone to put a napkin in them. It wasn’t going to be Nell. She was wise to that move, but she loved you for and in spite of it.

Back in 2005, on your 83rd birthday, I sent you a letter. Do you remember that? I had found this photo I took of you in 1984 on the farm and it stirred me to write you and tell you just how much you mean to me. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share it now with your friends and family, as we’re all starting that very sad part of our lives, the part without you in our midst. Everything that I wrote below I mean today. You were a man among men and one of the great influences on my life. Rest in peace.

Cam 1984-1

June 2005

Cam,

Happy Birthday a bit belatedly. And now that I think of it, Happy Father’s Day!

This is just one of many photos in my collection that captures you quite well: a man in thought, enjoying where he is at the moment, and with whom he finds himself spending that moment. And we had some moments together for sure. I learned a lot from you although I’m not completely sure you meant to be teaching me what I was learning.

There are so many things that I know how to do and how to figure out because of the years I spent around you, the jobs and The Farm. One thing that I took from the entire practical on the job experience stays with me still: witnessing common men doing uncommon things in the face of necessity. In our case, it was figuring out how to get the job done by overcoming one challenge after another.

Unknowingly I absorbed the values of working hard and then sitting back for a minute and admiring your work, relishing the time spent changing something into something else.

I witnessed the remarkable character of the men like you drawn to construction, where you applied your vision and leadership, your tenacity and almost fearless presence on the job to literally and figuratively move mountains.

The more I look at this photograph, the more I’m thinking that you’re looking out over The Farm conjuring up some work you think needs some doing. Any minute now you might say, “Steve, let’s go take a ride in the pickup. I got something I need to check into. You drive.” And off we’d go, your scotch tinkling in your glass as we bump along the back road angling up behind the house while the golden hour of the sunset purifies and confirms the glory of it all.

I love you man. Thanks for sharing all of those times with a snotty little skinny kid from the big city of Durham.

Steve

(For more on Cam’s life…)

Aunt Mildred 1925-2014

DSC_0310
Aunt Doris, Aunt Mildred and my father, Homer, celebrating Mom and Dad’s 70th anniversary, June 2013

Calm, soothing voice.

Caring inviting smile.

Grace from another era,

Blessing our lives today.

 

Aunt Mildred loved and adored children,

Her children, their children and their children’s children.

Her nieces and nephews all.

They kept her young,

And she kept them on track.

Doting, but firm.

 

She loved her mother, Pep,

And carried her mother’s laughter in her heart,

From which it often exploded.

Aunt Mildred’s eyes lit up when retracing her childhood,

How she was raised through hardscrabble times,

The days of Hoover carts,

When a penny meant something to be saved,

And a nickel was joy in a bottle of soda.

 

Mildred loved and admired her brother.

She looked at Homer with the understanding and appreciation,

For what an older brother meant to a family that lost their father,

And how he turned difficulty into opportunity.

 

Tough times make for tight ties.

With Baby sister, Doris, and her big brother,

They bore through poverty, depending on each other to make it.

To handle their chores before school,

And to do their homework after.

And they did. Learning from Pep what it takes to make ends meet,

What it takes to meet the trials that come with life,

How to veer from the troubles that lay in the seduction of the corner pool hall.

And, what a smile, a laugh, a hug can do to pull them through.

Together.

 

 

Yes.

We’ve all lost so much in her passing,

A sister, a mother, an aunt, a friend.

But we maintain all that she’s passed along to us.

Her point of view of then and up to now.

Her timeless advice good for any modern changes we may encounter without her.

Her goodness.

Her memories.

Her touch.

And the sound of her voice.

 

We keep what she inspired in her family and friends alike.

Her hope.

Her grace.

And most certainly, her ever-enduring love for each of us for whom we are and will be.

 

Bless you, Aunt Mildred.

In your passing, you brought us all together in spirit and in body,

As we returned to our family home from far and wide to say goodbye,

In celebration of what you meant and gave to us.

Every hug. Every laugh. Every tear,

In your name.

 

 

Marti & Susan Get Married

A Long and Winding Road…

The details of how they met are important, but even more important than the circumstance of their meeting is the full life they’ve lived together for 22 years and the celebrating that life with an eternal promise to one another.

They announced their engagement to the family at large last Christmas. Marti came over to me after our big Christmas Eve extravaganza dinner while I had my hands in dishwater cleaning up. I could sense that she really wanted to tell me something and I picked up a hand towel to dry my hands.

“Steve, Susan and I are getting married this summer,” she said while looking me in the eyes. “We’ve been together for almost 22 years.” And with that, joy washed over both of us. Joy in the telling. Joy in the knowing. Joy in the freedom from 22 years of not.

I immediately gave her a hug, towel, wet hands and all. I put my hands on both her shoulders and we continued to look at one another, the way you do when you really want to communicate.

“Marti, what awesome news,” I said. “I couldn’t be happier for you both. Just tell us when and where and we’ll be there.”

“We’re looking at sometime in June, probably in P-town. We know that it isn’t the most convenient place to get to, but it’s really amazing there.”

Okay, I’ll go on the record and admit that I thought she meant, “Bean town” for Boston. “B-town?”

“No, P-town,” she corrected me. So, I’m thinking “Providence.”

“Hey Julie, Clark, Blair, Aunt Marti has an announcement.”

And that’s how Marti presented us all with a great Christmas present: a long awaited announcement and an event to which we could all look forward. I did have to learn that I was mistaken twice. “P-town” of course was short for Provincetown, Massachusetts, long known by all but me as the place where gay women and men could go and be themselves, free from the shackles of the judgment of others. Family member after family member shared in the news and put their names in the hat to attend. The response overwhelmed my sister.

And so the months flew by and we all booked flights and rental cars and made plans to go to a part of the U.S. we’d never been, Cape Cod. What an adventure it became. And, as a bonus, we flew into Providence and got to experience the long time home of our nephew, Kelly. He has continued to make that his home base since his college days.

Clark and his best girl, Ashley, and Blair joined Julie and I on the trip. Marti recommended a place that they had looked into and it turned out to be remarkably beautiful. A four-bedroom log cabin at the end of a long private gravel road overlooking a huge bog on National Park land. Our niece, Claire, secured the place for a four-day weekend and we were all set.

Arriving on Thursday gave us Friday to enjoy P-town and we started it off with a boating adventure out to see the whales hanging out off the coast. And sight whales we did after we made it through the chop created by winds of 15 knots blowing inland, nothing a little Dramamine couldn’t handle. After we got eight miles from shore, the seas lay down and we saw what we came for. First, the explosive grey mist of water and air as the whale broke the surface and blew. Then, the roll of the back showing the dorsal fin. And, then the majestic tail, rising up out of the water as the humpback prepared to dive.

On our trip we saw all humpbacks, except for one Fin whale off in the distance, the second largest creature on Earth. We saw mothers with calves and singles. We were even lucky enough to catch one calf in a playful mood, breaching the surface head first three different times. According our guide, Chad, it’s a real treat to get to see that. It proved difficult to capture on camera however. The breach is a total surprise. The boat is wobbly. You’ll see how I clipped the upper most part of the head off. Still, amazing sight to see.

Back at the dock we swapped seats with Lin, Sylvia, Claire, Kelly and his girlfriend, Kia. They were off for their own unique adventure. Every trip is different according to Chad.

Friday late afternoon, our niece Peyton, finally made it in on the ferry from Boston having started her journey that morning before the crack of dawn. A quick refresh and she was good to go and off we went.

That night, Marti and Susan put on a dinner at a wonderful place on the water. Nothing formal. No agenda. Susan welcomed us all and invited us to enjoy the evening, the wine and the food. Then Lin uncorked the toasting, joking that we’re celebrating a really long engagement, and that it’s about time. Then, friend after friend spoke, mixing good-natured, over the top, roasting with heartfelt love, affection and happiness. The more the wine flowed, the more involved the storytelling, about how they first met Marti and Susan, how long they’ve known them and how meaningful they were in their lives. It was all beautiful. Marti tried to say something, but she, like me, have our mother’s characteristic trait of sobbing instead of speaking during emotional moments. So, she sat back down.

Having roasted Marti pretty well for her 50th and 60th birthdays, I took a different approach, following Lin’s lead about the length of time they’ve spent together.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this. And if wasn’t exactly like this, this is what I meant to say:

Listening to you talk, I’m so impressed with the long term friendships so many of you have shared with Marti and Susan. For me, well, I’ve never known life without my big sister Marti. My brothers and sister say the same. She was the first of five. For three years, the one and only child. Her birth started the family of Homer and Martha. They had nothing but each other, a scholarship to NC State on the GI Bill and Marti. Pennies, nickels and dimes were their currency. Marti was their pride and joy.

Being the oldest, she played a major role in raising us. She led the way in so many ways. I have nothing but love, admiration and respect for her.

Lin said it has been a very long engagement. While this wedding, like most, celebrates the commitment of one to the other for the future, most weddings announce a start for a couple, and are based on hope. Hope that they can manage their love and life through the wonderful and trying times ahead. In Marti and Susan’s case, they have 22 years of solid proof of their commitment to each another. This wedding isn’t about hope, it’s a celebration of their lives already together. And to that I raise a glass to the two of you and say we love you. We’re proud of you. We’re so happy to be here with you, your families and friends and share this moment in time with you.

God bless the state of Massachusetts for recognizing the rights of all to enjoy privilege of marriage! May the great and shameful state of North Carolina crawl out of the age of darkness and do the same. Although I’m really glad to be in Provincetown.

Saturday morning, 9:00 a.m.

Beautiful blue-sky morning. Cool enough for slacks. Warm enough for shorts. We all dressed up and found our way to the shoreline where the nuptials were to take place. We ran into the minister waiting in the car with her husband, Hugh, for Marti and Susan. We crossed the dunes, barefooted, onto the wide expanse of beach, and saw a crowd gathered around a few coolers a hundred yards into the sun up the beach. As we approached, Marti and Susan came out of the crowd to meet up with Hugh. We blended in with the folks there as more trickled in. We bid our time taking shots of each other, grouping friends and families together.

Twenty minutes or so later, with cameras clicking and iPads rolling, we gathered around Marti and Susan and the minister in a semi-circle with waves and sky as backdrop.

The reverend had the copy on pages in a black three-ring notebook. The wind whipped up as she started and the pages went flying. She regrouped, started again, and again, the wind gusted. She tried to control the pages but the wind was winning out. Susan, never turning from Marti as they faced each other, reached over to the notebook and clamped down on the pages. It was one of the moments every wedding seems to provide that makes each unique in what doesn’t go exactly according to plan, often harmless, but enough to help all remember that day in later years.

I was in front, shooting photos and almost as soon as they began saying their vows, one of their Charlotte friends (and you know who you are Linda) appeared with her iPad directly behind them so that I could hardly get a clean shot without her in them until I went down on my knees and shot up. You’ll see Linda in the photos though, along with Kelly, who was tasked with capturing the moment on video – he is a documentary filmmaker for goodness sake.

When Susan said her vows, she spoke up clearly for all to hear, as is her nature. It’s the Ohio in her. Straightforward, to the point and clear.

Marti, on the other hand, whispered through a clutch of emotion and was no match for the wind and surf. I will have to read the transcript in order to find out what she said. I know that it came from the heart, filled with compassion and sincerity. But quiet. I am sure that Susan could hear it.

They exchanged rings, kisses and that was that. They turned to us and we all clapped. Champagne flew out of the coolers. Glasses raised in celebration. They thanked us for coming so far to be with them and we went right into shooting big group shots. Them with Susan’s sister, brother and nephews. Then with the Riley clan. Then, the Charlotteans, their brothers and sisters of different mothers.

After all of that, I found a moment where they were looking at each other like, “What’s next?” I went over, put my arms around them and walked them away from the crowd towards the surf. I congratulated them both and suggested taking a few shots of just them and the sand and ocean.

With that, the beach wedding was over. We drove into town to Victor’s for the reception. Food walked around on trays. Beer and wine poured out of taps and bottles. Their Charlotte friends all disappeared and reappeared singing Broadway songs with feather headgear and boas, marching past us all and forming a chorus line in the most open area of the bar. It was camp, funny and fun.

After that cooled down, I asked Marti if it was a good time to call Mom and Dad knowing that they were at home and wondering how things were going. I called, gave Marti the phone and left so she and Susan could talk outside the noise.

All was complete. It was midday. Champagne and beer was bringing on drowsiness. We all parted with plans to gather the families for burgers and hot dogs at our place.

Our little party came off well. That night’s sunset, which by the way, comes really really late, was magnificent. We all turned in early with a full day of travel on Sunday.

The event was over. Their new journey begins. We all have the memory of being together as one taking meaning in our own ways back to our lives in different cities.

We welcome Susan officially into our family although she’s been a sister for two decades. We love her and their union. They know that now and for evermore.

Bless them. Bless our wonderful family and friends. Bless us all. And once again, bless the state of Massachusetts and the other 19 citizenry of states of these not always united United States setting the path forward, holding to the core belief of our great country that we are a nation of individual rights and freedoms, of goodness and kindness, leadership and forward thinking, and of inclusion not exclusion.

Thanks for reading. Leave a comment for Marti and Susan if you choose.

Click here for the gallery of photos