Lemme tell you somethin’
My dad was an original. Born in Allentown in 1945, he surprised his beloved mother, Anna, when he entered the world shortly after his twin sister, Roberta. She had no idea that she was having twins, but Anna held him and loved him.
You see, life begins and ends with love.
My dad had an enviable childhood. He grew up the youngest of five, brother of Shirley, Carol, Eddie, and Bertie. His dad, Edward, was a real character. My dad would drive with him to baseball parks, and my grandfather would run all of the red lights. They’d wait outside the ballpark for a ball to be hit out. My dad would catch it, and his father would say “run like hell, kid”.
His family didn’t have much, and he didn’t have many toys, but he made his own fun. He’d tell us stories about trying to stop a bus on Hamilton St., burning his feet on hot pipes, and riding a bicycle with no tires right into a brick wall. He would play stickball in the alley and go down to Barney’s at the corner with his Uncle Arnold, where they’d play pinball so well that the owner would get rid of the machine because he made no profit off of those two. My dad made a bit of money selling newspapers and collecting glass bottles to trade in. He has always hustled.
Even though his family didn’t have a lot, there was always food. He’d tell stories of coming home on Sunday afternoons to his mom’s homemade meatballs and spaghetti sauce. He liked to rip off chunks of bread and dip it in the sauce. He could bring his friends; my Nana welcomed anyone. She would make pierogis, and my dad would eat them right out of the cooking pot. Sometimes a dozen in one sitting.
My dad was carefree in his 20s. He lived with his mom and drove around in his red Camaro on nice days. He was friends with John and Judy Rupelli, who happened to be neighbors of my mom, Maureen. They brought her, without sharing their intentions, to one of my dad’s baseball games. They all met after the game, and my dad had a mustache. By the next night, when John and Judy invited my mom and dad over for cards, the mustache was gone, never to be seen again. My dad asked my mom out, and away they went. My mom loved how easy it was to be around my dad – after all, he did all the talking, and she liked to listen. My dad adored my mom. Always said that she was the best thing that ever happened to him.
They became engaged on Easter Day 1977, and they got married six months later. They honeymooned in Vegas, Hawaii, and Los Angeles. Demonstrating his frugality, my dad procured a supper of MnM’s one night in Vegas, and a supper of pineapple in Hawaii, which my dad cut with a penknife. Fortunately, we were spared all-fruit dinners when I was growing up.
Mom and Dad bought our house at 1813 Sherwood St. in 1978, where they raised my sisters and me. My dad would take pictures of us with his SLR camera, and lug around the tub of solution where our diapers would soak.
The day I was born, he left the hospital and went fishing and caught a fish that was bigger than me. He liked to tell a joke about how, as he was reeling the fish in, he heard it making a noise. As he kept reeling, the noise grew louder, until finally the fish emerged from the water, singing
Please release me, let me go.
My Mom and Dad were selfless parents. We always knew they loved us. Together, they had a somewhat nontraditional marriage in which my dad did all of the shopping and cooking, and my mom took care of the finances and business. It was an empowering environment for three girls. They always made us feel like anything we wanted to do or be was possible.
When I was little, my dad attempted to impart his love of baseball on the three of us. He would take us out to our backyard for batting practice, and he enrolled us in Little League. I remember squeezing into those softball uniforms, like a chubby sausage, to sit on the bench for the majority of games. My dad was always in the stands. The perpetual optimist, he spared me no advice, and remained confident that “The Tank” would one day hit better, run better, and catch better. Colleen was certainly the best softball player out of the three of us. She even pitched. I remember my dad being so impressed with her pitching, except she would often get flustered as the game wore on. He’d declare frequently, “She’s a nervous wreck! Spitting image of my sister, Carol.”
My dad made almost all of our meals. He loved cooking. Lots of meat and potatoes, simple food. He would often call us into the kitchen after a trip to the grocery store, where he’d show off the nice cuts of meat he’d picked up. Look at this ground round, he’d say, only $1.99 a pound! Admiring hunks of ham was a favorite pastime. My dad’s overcooked meat was a running joke for my sisters and me as we grew older. For most of my life, he cooked chicken breast at 350 degrees for an hour, and he always ordered his steaks well-done. I can’t fault him; he knew what he liked.
He wasn’t big on fresh vegetables. Every once and again, he’d decide that we would have a vegetable with supper. The problem was that his vegetable of choice was canned French-cut green beans. We hated those green beans so much, that we took to hiding the cans under furniture so he couldn’t cook them when the time came.
Fruit was another story. My dad could spend 30 minutes in the produce section at the grocery store. He was highly particular about his fruit and would make special trips to Valley Farm Market for their fresh offerings. He’d buy the biggest grapes he could find and would look at every peach in the store before deciding on the lucky few that would make the trip home with us. He loved watermelons and would often show them off at home. Look at how red that is! What a beauty!, he’d say.
My dad was gifted with a beautiful voice, and he sure loved to sing. His “professional” singing career began shortly after he married my mom, when my Pop-Pop said to him, “Why don’t we go join the choir?” Well, my grandfather lasted only one rehearsal, but my dad continued on for the rest of his life. It was how he served his church, through the joy of song. We’d look forward, every year, to his O Holy Night solo on Christmas Eve.
He would burst into song regularly at home, too. I remember, as a kid, playing out in the backyard as the summer sun would set. And my dad, covered in sweat and cut grass, would go in for his evening shower. He’d have the window open, and the lights turned out. And his voice would flow out of the bathroom window, covering the yard, his tomato plants, and the neighbors’ houses. It would fill me with peace and happiness.
Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
That you’re everything I’d like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle, cause you are the wind beneath my wings.
Bobby Whitehead was one of the happiest people I have ever known. So many of us are here, today, because he radiated joy into our own lives. He could and would talk to anyone, making people feel good everywhere he went. I’ve witnessed him, countless times, starting conversations with total strangers. At the grocery store, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and in situations that would intimidate most people. Dad would instantly put people at ease, with his smile and his positive attitude.
He’d sing out, It’s such a beautiful day, plenty of sunshine!
When I was younger, we’d participate, with my Nan-Nan, in our neighborhood’s annual garage sale, the Saturday before Mother’s Day. Every year, we’d sell random stuff from the house and make a few bucks. One year, in the early 90s, my dad decided to drag his little grill out to the front sidewalk and cook hotdogs for garage sale patrons. I’d post signs around the neighborhood advertising Bob’s Dogs, and my dad would serve them up with his delicious chili sauce. In subsequent years, there’d be a line at 8 am for those hot dogs. People loved the dogs, but they loved my dad more. He would laugh and smile and make people feel good. Neighbors, strangers, his wife, his daughters.
After retiring from Just Born Candies in 2012, my dad dedicated himself even more so to fishing. He’d tell stories about his trout and sunnies and make my mom drive him around to get worms and minnows. He didn’t eat fish, so he would throw all of the fish back or give them away. He genuinely loved the sport. He felt good there, on the banks of Monocacy Creek, and he went fishing just a few days before he passed, dragging his walker down to the water.
Post-retirement, his grandchildren brought him tremendous joy. He helped my sister, Colleen, a lot after she had her triplets. He thought Lizzy was beautiful and he liked to share his iced tea with Emma. With Matt, my dad had his first male descendant, so he was happy to toss a ball with him and play catch. He absolutely delighted my daughter, Jenna, who he’d call his sweetheart. And he loved to talk to Christine’s Henry, who would babble right back, and was excellent company.
Even as his health declined, he remained generous and loving. My dad would have given you the shirt off of his back, the last five dollars he had. He worked hard his whole life, and he would have given it all away for the people around him. Above everything else, my dad loved people.
My dad will live on through all of us. He is here, whenever my mom shares a lunch with someone on the back porch. He is here, in the produce section, whenever I take way too long to pick out apples and melons. He is here whenever Colleen talks non-stop for 10 minutes and whenever Christine, his sunshine, smiles her beautiful smile. He is here through his grandchildren, in their childlike joy, in their delight of cookies, and chocolate, and ponds filled with fish. He is here, in this church, living through music. He is here for this celebration of a life well-lived. And he is here whenever you, after you leave here today, smile and laugh and are generous with one another.
I’ve covered a lot of ground here. It reminds me of my phone conversations with him in which he’d dominate the conversation, and after 10 or 20 minutes, he’d say to me, “I don’t want to hold you up”. But then, he’d tell me one more thing. And another thing. There was always something else to say. I hope I’ve said enough to appropriately honor him and convey my love.
Life begins and ends with love. Thank you for being here today – for loving my father, and for loving us.