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“When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he had learned in seven years.” – attributed to Mark Twain.

Hugh Billingsly (aka Ward Cleaver) must be smiling that knowing smile somewhere this weekend. He learned a lot as Wally and the Beav were growing up. Such is the lot of dads.

Mark Twain may or may not have ever uttered that quote, but my dad used to love to repeat it followed by a twinkle and a little laugh. I think now he must have been signaling my brother and me that “you boys will understand one day…” Yup, dad was right again.

My dad never played golf. He wasn’t a hunter or fisherman. He didn’t shop well. He tended to the yard. He painted things. He played catch pretty much whenever called upon. He always flipped the car keys your way at the drop of a hat. He could fix most anything, a trait he did not, unfortunately, pass along to me. I don’t think he ever went to the garage for a tool. That was work for a son, which is why I hate to this day to go to the garage for a tool that I probably won’t be very good at using. He knew about cars and airplanes and, I realize now, women. He was old school with women, particularly with mom. He’d stand when a woman entered the room. He’d take his hat off in an elevator, and he always wore a hat. He would hold a door and offer a compliment, easily and genuinely.

He loved jokes. I repeat them today even as I recall thinking they were corny or silly when he first told them and then repeated them again and again. My favorite one is, nope, I can’t repeat it on a family blog. Dad could give a great speech, tell a great story and make a great point. He loved Will Rogers and could quote the great cowboy humorist. He wasn’t very political, just very practical. Everyone, I mean everyone, liked dad.

Dad loved baseball and was very fond of the St. Louis Cardinals. He once saw them play two World Series games and loved to tell that story. Dad loved to read and almost anything; magazines, books, newspapers, the backs of menus. He liked his VO with just a little water. Wasn’t much of a beer drinker. Wasn’t fond of many foods, but for reasons that still escape me loved my mother’s meatloaf. And saltine crackers. He liked his steak very, very well done. I remember cringing when he’d tell a waiter to “bring me the charred remains” of  a once tender New York steak.

Dad was a member of the so called “greatest generation,” but he wouldn’t have thought of referring to himself that way. The war and the Depression were the life changing events in his too brief life. I wish I would have been smart enough, when he was getting much smarter as I aged from 14 to 21, to ask him more about it. He didn’t say much, but he knew a lot. He was among the smartest guys I have ever know. It’s taken me a good part of my life to figure that out.

He loved his own dad, I think, the way I love him. Much to my regret, I never knew my grandfather, but know enough to know what I missed. I think about and miss both of those good old guys this weekend as I watch a little baseball, read a little, try to find the right company to tell that story of his and stay away from the garage.

Happy Fathers Day.

New Leaders at NEH and NEA

LeachLeach Confirmed to Head NEH, Landesman Will Run NEA

The Senate recently confirmed the new leadership at the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts and they are interesting and unconventional choices.

Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach (above), a Republican who endorsed Barack Obama, is the former head of the House Banking Committee and a committed fan of the humanities. Leach helped organize the humanities caucus in the House and will be a politically savvy choice to run the NEH.

Rocco Landesman is a big-time Broadway producer and will head the NEA. Mel Brook’s The Producers is among his credits.

The two endowments, dating back to the administration of Lyndon Johnson, serve an incredibly important national role. The Idaho Humanities Council is the state-based affiliate of the NEH. The Idaho Commission on the Arts has a similar relationship to the NEA.

Among many wonderful benefits, the two national endowments provide grant funding for local arts programs, library reading programs, small museums and teacher institutes.

The endowments have survived an immense amount of political scrutiny since Newt Gingrich tried to eliminate federal funding back in the mid-1990’s. The extremely modest budgets for the two principle national cultural organizations that reach into every corner of the United States are still below where they were when Newt swung his meat ax nearly 15 years ago.

Leach and Landesman appear to have the prestige and smarts to keep rebuilding the endowments. America culture, art, history, literature, and our pleasure will all benefit.