For those who’ve been asking for it, here is the eulogy I delivered for my father, Stephen Alsop, who died in an automobile accident on Sunday night in Nashville, TN, while fulfilling a lifelong dream to visit the Grand Ole Opry:
There is no one single true story about a person’s life. A life is made up of multiple stories, and sometimes those stories are conflicting and complicated and confusing. It’s only when you take them all together—when you consider a person from multiple perspectives—that you start to get something that maybe resembles the truth. And that’s really hard to do. For my father, it feels impossible. There were so many parts to him, and I may need the rest of my life to figure out how they all fit together and get to that complex truth.
My father lived through what can only be described as an agonizing childhood. But it seems to have inspired him to devote a great deal of his life to making children everywhere feel happy and loved. He was born on Christmas Day in 1944 not into a family, really, but into the bottom of a deep, deep emotional hollow. His earliest years at home were nothing short of dreadful. But he never gave up: he devoted his whole life to making the long, treacherous climb upward and outward and into the light. And he made it, against all odds, battered and bruised, but free.
By the time he’d hauled himself up into adulthood, he was a very proud father with three children he adored: his eldest, me; my late brother Jonathan; and my youngest brother Ben. And once he’d reached his later, lighter years, he was a beaming grandfather who adored his four grandchildren—Solana, Sagan, Lochlann, and Porter—more than anything else in the whole world. He made for himself the kind of loving family he should have been given.
Throughout his life, children meant everything to him. His highest calling, I’m sure many would agree, was teaching: not only in the social studies classrooms in which he worked as a younger man, but in the many patient hours he devoted to his grandchildren and in caring for the two young boys, Max and Jessie, with whom he’d been spending so much time in recent years.
My father’s former students thought of him as heroic for the wisdom with which he helped them wrestle with ethical issues and consider the larger world around them. They also treasured the kindness with which he accepted each student on his or her own terms. Those who might have felt “different” for one reason or another in other classrooms felt right at home in my father’s, always, no matter what. Even several decades after he left the classroom, they sought him out to tell him how much he meant to them and how much he influenced their lives.
Part of the reason my father was successful as a teacher was that he took his profession very seriously. He worked impossibly hard at it. He earned one of his two master’s degrees, from Johns Hopkins University, in education. Outside of the classroom, he developed social studies curricula for Baltimore County and ran the youth group at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. He even developed an educational geography game called Geo that was produced by Rand McNally. I can still remember opening up the box it came in and thinking “Man, that is so cool! My dad made a game!”
Another reason my father was a great teacher, I believe, is that he lived through, was moved by, and learned from the era of school desegregation. At a young age, he drew a simple conclusion: racism was both ugly and ignorant, and the only way to make the ugliness go away was to educate people. In order to do that for his students, though, he first had to do it for himself, so my father earned his second master’s degree in African American studies from what was then known as Morgan State College. Raised in a racist family in the Jim Crow south, he defied virtually everything his world had ever suggested was appropriate for a young white man in order to matriculate at a historically black college and educate himself. It’s no wonder his students loved him.
My father was always a seeker like that. He was never settled, never quite satisfied. For a few years when I was a child, that restless impulse led him to running. He was so proud to have finished a few marathons and to have turned his somewhat slender frame into lean muscle. Later in life, that same desire transformed him into an avid walker; the miles he put on his sneakers every morning kept his mind bright and free and his medically-very-challenged body as vital and strong as possible. He valued that time, and the men he shared it with, immensely.
Seeking also took other forms for him, too. Not long after he was married, my father devoted an entire year of his life to the process of converting to Orthodox Judaism: partly, it must be said, as another act of defiance, but partly because he connected with a faith that values so highly some of the things he also valued: learning and family. While he may not have adhered to Jewish traditions forever, he never stopped thinking of himself as Jewish to some degree. Judaism was a way to give his life meaning.
My father looked for meaning everywhere, in fact: in his dreams, in art, in visitations from chance butterflies and birds, in causes, in old churches and classical architecture, in folk wisdom, in things wondrous all over the world. Where he couldn’t find meaning, furthermore, he created it: in the way he arranged and re-arranged rooms, both in his own home and in others’; in his collections of Santa Claus dolls and pillboxes and antiques of various eras. It was always as if he was trying to assemble life’s fragments and impose some sense of order on them.
My own collection of fragments-I-learned-from-my-father includes a few choice ideas I’d like to share with you. The first is that we should all have the courage to love whomever our hearts call us to love, no matter what the world might expect of us, no matter how difficult the circumstances of our lives might seem. Amor vincit omnia; love conquers all… if we let it. Without this treasured piece of wisdom I would never have had what I needed to find and love and marry my wife and to raise my own family. It may be the most important gift he ever gave me.
The second is the importance of self-sacrifice, especially for children. My father didn’t always have much of himself to give, but what he did have, he gave freely. He knew absolutely nothing about baseball, for example—how to drop down a bunt, how to back up the third baseman on a throw from the outfield—but he still coached my Little League team, no matter how frustrated the other fathers got with his many mistakes. He did that for me, because he wanted to be there for me. I hope to be as humble and kind toward my own son in turn. Even when I make mistakes.
The third thing I collected from my father was, if you’ll pardon a cliché, an appreciation of beauty. My father loved beautiful things. He may have been born a country boy, but he grew up to have refined city tastes. He loved furniture, of course, above all else: antiques of all eras, all styles, and all materials, but also modern stuff, too. He loved both quirky and contemporary pieces; even the ones he didn’t quite care for he could still easily admire. Shopping for new tables and sofas and bookcases and chairs was one of our great pleasures together.
But it was more than just furniture; it was fine clothes, too, as anyone could tell from the outfits he bought for his grandchildren. It was the hotels he stayed in, which were often top-notch. It was the fact that he almost always ordered the most elaborate, expensive meal at any restaurant he went to. And it was also artwork; the walls of his condo were covered in prints and photographs and paintings, and he never seemed to tire of moving them around from room to room like he was staging exhibitions. My father wanted life to look and be gorgeous at all times—even (or perhaps especially) when he didn’t feel beautiful himself—and he worked very hard to make that happen.
The fourth and final thing I’ll share is the simple, proud fact that, while he certainly gave me all the bourgeois tastes I’ve just described, he also never let me forget how incredibly fortunate I was to have what I have and how broken our government is for the people who don’t. Even at a young age, my father asked me “What are the problems with democracy?”, and I would answer “Poverty, pollution, sexism, racism.” He was a proud liberal: a former bearded hippie protester and a striking, organizing member of his teacher’s union. He could see any argument from multiple points of view, but he believed what he believed, and what he usually believed was at least somewhat farther to the left than most of my friends’ fathers… which I always thought was one of the absolute coolest things about him.
Maybe the coolest thing of all, though, was the way in which he held tenaciously onto his relationship with my mother through the many different seasons of their marriage. Even after 45 years, he still sent flowers on Mother’s Day and on their anniversary. He still got her nice, thoughtful gifts for her birthday. They still had a standing Saturday night dinner date, took day trips and vacations together, sought each other’s advice on important decisions, and made each other’s lives better in small but important ways. He wanted and needed her, and in his own way, he loved her as much as any man could. There were difficult, critical lessons there about commitment and being a husband that I expect my brother and I will keep studying and learning from forever. And I know that my mother is going to miss him terribly.
Our last visit together as a family was a week in the Outer Banks this past June. We swam together, walked the beach together, cooked meals and ate together, and played games together. During the course of that week, my father and I spent several hours together working side-by-side on a jigsaw puzzle I’d brought with me, each of us relying on our own methods, our own means of imposing order on the chaos of oddly-shaped cardboard. Over several evenings, the image of a collection of beautiful, exotic beetles resolved itself slowly into focus, and as the last few exciting seconds passed, my father stopped working so that I might get to put the last puzzle piece into place: “You should have the honor,” he said. “It’s your puzzle, and you’ve done most of the work.” That small generosity was typical of the man my father had become, and it’s the sort of thing I’m going to miss the most: his everyday supportive presence in my life as I try to make meaning the way he made meaning, with courage, persistence, and devotion. His absence will forever be my puzzle’s missing piece.
The love and support my family and I have been receiving from all over the globe has been both overwhelming and vital for us. I hope to be able to return a thousand-fold what everyone has given me, though under much happier circumstances. Thank you all.