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June 21, 2015

A Father's Day.

Two days after Christmas of 2012, John Hull, my father, died suddenly, unexpectedly. He had not been ill, or feeling ill, in the weeks or days before. For that matter, other than a head cold every 3 or 4 years, he had not to my knowledge been ill at any time during his 84 years. I went over to my parents' condo with my brother David after getting a call from our mother that something had just happened she didn't understand. She said that after dinner Dad suddenly mentioned to her he felt strangely, and collapsed in a big easy chair with his head on his chest as he headed toward his bedroom.

I did cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Dad for what seemed like a very long time while we waited for an ambulance. He seemed to respond once. But seeing that the muscles in his face and around his mouth remained in a state of total collapse for at least a half hour, and were continuing to form a facial expression that was beyond sad and lifeless, I suspected that he was gone forever. I think everyone else in the room knew just from that. Any response from him now was either in my head or more likely his body's swansong of liquids, gases and tissues shutting down together.

Dad died on my last night of a week-long stay with him and my mother at a condo they've had for 20 years on Florida's gulf coast. Born May 17, 1928, he was 84 years and 7 months old. Eighty-four is an age that when reached by most driven, Alpha-male retired corporate executives loved and admired by three generations of family and friends--even after a long illness--we will all applaud and celebrate. Surviving family and friends are comforted with accolades and kudos directed to the fresh memory of a life fully, happily and productively lived. Well done, sir, we are saying to the deceased and family. Nothing for you or yours to be ashamed of. You're a stud for the ages, valued friend.

And so in Dad's case, it's been hard to convey to anyone how disappointing, strange and premature his death seemed, even as he was approaching his 85th birthday. Of course, if anyone outside the family, or outside my parents' small community, simply read the obituary I and others wrote for him the day after he died, you would surely say to yourself, this man John Daniel Hull, III, lived quite a life: 6'3" and 220 pounds in his younger years, an outstanding athletic career in both football and basketball at storied Shortridge High School (Indianapolis) and in college at DePauw, a successful and genuinely exciting 40-plus year career at P&G, his building a new brand called Charmin, the astonishing variety of people, from mighty to meek, he knew and influenced, his world travel (often with our mother), the long and idyllic--there is no better word than idyllic to describe year after year of June-July in a timeless Michigan community called Pointe Aux Barques, or to describe the outlandishly isolated fishing weeks in Alaska, Beliz or Panama--summers, holidays and trips abroad and, finally, the most important thing in his life, his storybook 62-year marriage to an authentic American beauty, true humanitarian and can-do super-mommy from Chicago everyone just called "Penny". Oh. And grandchildren. There were eight.

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So what's not to like, admire and even envy this man's life? Well, for me, many of my family and others, Dad's life ended way too soon. It was somehow unfinished. Unfair. Too soon.

Yes, sir. Eighty-four. Eighty-four to most people is an advanced and admirable senior credential. To me, and likely to others who loved Dad and found his lack of health issues admirable and intimidating, it was a major disappointment and medical aberration, not to mention the name of the western Pennsylvania town near the Pittsburgh airport where one of our railway-building clients decided to put its national headquarters. True, Dad did exhibit some small but obvious declines you see in all aging people at those last two Christmases in Cincinnati and Marco Island. A high school football field injury to one of his feet had continued to make walking without a cane or walker painful and, despite working regularly with trainers in both Ohio and Florida, he wasn't shedding the extra 30 or 40 pounds that made walking increasingly painful.

Otherwise? Otherwise, Dan seemed to everyone to be doing just fine. Dad said throughout his life, and had said it again and to me during that visit, that he always "felt good" physically. An hour or two before he died, I left him to eat alone with my mother so I could spend time with my brother, who had just arrived, before my departure early the next morning. He was standing up, drink in hand, making fun of an MSNBC reporter, even though he liked the MSNBC anchors. He told me to have a good time out to dinner with my brother David, and that he would see me in the morning before I headed to the airport.

I had every reason to think I'd see him on the morning of December 28th, and for many Christmas visits to come. Dad should have had the best genes of any male Hull/Holl/Hohl in America since a mix of farmers with that name arrived here from the German Palatine in 1750. Dad's own father (JDH II) died at 87, his grandfather (JDH I) at 87, and his great-grandfather at 91. The first male in his line to be born in the colonies was a Daniel Hull, Dad's great-great-great-grandfather, who died at 85 in 1854. Finally, Dad's own pistol of a mom (Alene Oliver Hull) had died in 1998 at 101 with a narrative of health, perfect homemaker, school teacher, bourbon fancier, Southern Democrat, fun and humor until her last week. Ironically, Dad died younger than all but one of his American direct male ancestors going back eight generations. 270 years. That, folks, is just wrong.

More importantly, it was a good life. Dad struck everyone he ever met as strong, full of fun and happy. He was, as many have said in the past two years, "good company". His wit and storytelling were, well, hilarious and on occasion hopelessly wicked. Like many P&G people, Dad was a disciplined thinker and an excellent and succinct writer. He spoke simply, looked for the right word and used as few words as possible. He let inflection, emotion and humor do most of the work.

But he was also, in my view, gifted, and gifted extravagantly, in language. You picked up on this mainly in his speech. By all this, I mean gifted poetically and lyrically. He had uncanny feels for language and speech and he used that gift daily. His speech could be beautifully sounded out, and balanced, bursting all over you as tightly-constructed but witty, playful verse. It was often in a joke or a come-back. Hiding behind the funniness was a creature with an ear for words and how words could work together to make pleasing or compelling sounds, and especially sounds tailored to the idea expressed. He did not, however, and perhaps for understandable reasons, fully develop this smoldering talent. Was he aware of this? Yes, I think so, and he skillfully hid it.

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Related to his sense of language, I was eternally amused that this world-class story-teller I grew up with thought of himself as 100% German stock--and nothing else, not Scottish, Irish or French and he was also all 3 in big doses--despite (a) a paternal grandmother being named McQuitty, (b) a face like the map of Ireland (c) the ability to talk about anything to anyone and (d) a simply out-sized verbal audacity that the Irish invented and still own that made you want to buy him another bourbon and run him for Congress. Me? I know I'm a small-part Irish. Irish is powerful stuff, though. I've felt its power and play every day of my life. Devil Irish. It blows away nearly everything, and often it's not good. So for years after I left home, I'd do a lot of the heavy Gaelic lifting to keep bonding with my not-Irish Dad. We met often for fun and often unpredictable week night dinners in cities where one or both of us would be working. We kept that up, too--until I stopped drinking in 1986.

[Special Nature v. Nurture note.] I happen to think that while both are important, genes are way more important than environment. Way more. Most of me, thanks to my Mom, seems to be East Anglia-descended, or British, an amalgam of most tribes in northern Europe, and then some, including old Roman, and in me it's similarly powerful, just saner. Then there is big dose of French from Dad and my elegant Granddad J. Dan which I like to think of as the Who's Your Daddy? gene or Name's Hull, Buy You A Drink? gene. The remaining, say, 35% of me is German and apparently dormant; anyone will tell you there is nothing actively German about me or Dad. Dad and I both make true rule-following linear-thinking Germanic types panicky and crazy, and do it of course on purpose. The rationale: anyone can do Western Logic; real men play mix it up and mess with your head just a bit.]

Like me, Dad had a temper, and was opinionated. Like me, he was often, if not on a day-to-day basis, a pain in the ass who could care less what people thought. Like me, he disliked religion but had lots of friends in organized religion, and like me he instead worshiped beautiful and outrageously photogenic boarding school girls with energy, moxie and patrician sensibilities--and in his case fortunately there could be only one. I fought with Dad on every bullet point in life for a half-century. To be honest, he was more like a fun big brother than a dad. He also could throw you off track by making you angry in a heartbeat and with little effort, which in time I got good at, too.

Did I have "closure" with him? Did a lack of closure make his death seem premature. Yes, I had closure with him. We had a scorched-earth rapport. No, and again, lack of closure or remorse was NOT the reason I and others felt "cheated" two-and-a-half years ago. He should have lived at least another 10 years. Had Dad himself done this or not done that, worked a little harder to solve his creeping mobility issues or perhaps made a slight lifestyle change here or there, I think he might be with us today and still doing the things he loved. Besides, I do like in-person debates, folks. I need him here and not wherever he was sent, if anywhere, which was likely not heaven. Dad and I addressed every possible issue from a fleeting news item on a West African nation to to our differing views of how the the Hull family was stacking up so far in America. We agreed on very little. An exception: both of us wanted to be more like his own dad, and my grandfather, the quiet, strong and often world-changing Dr. J. Dan Hull.

But the status quo? Most of the time Dad didn't like me, and I didn't like Dad. Any type of disagreement, express or implied, would do to alienate him. And in particular, as much as Dad hated Yes Men (and he did), it can be said he fairly demanded Yes Kids. I think it killed him every time you did not adopt his view on world issues or politics or marriage or child-raising or the correct necktie. It hurt him if you didn't agree with him on pretty much Anything, or didn't brag on him or took up a different career. Especially lawyering--which he was right about. (Lawyers, it turns out, are indeed mainly side-liners and wimps. Hopefully I've been a warrior and an true advocate.)

But we loved each other, I think. Dad was interesting, and Dad was entertaining. He was a powerful, funny and sometimes frightening piece of work. He could use used that Ozark country boy personality like a weapon. I still want to argue with him. I still want to know what he thinks. And I can't always explain it, but I miss him almost every day.

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Posted by JD Hull at June 21, 2015 10:44 AM

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