Commentary

Hail to the Chief: Tough Love From the Greatest Generation

By TOM MEREDITH | May 22, 2019
Courtesy of: Tom Meredith Cpl. 1st Charles L. Harrington, Marine Division, 1943-1946, later became known as the Chief.

The Chief was the toughest guy I’ve ever known or ever likely will know. He was a member of the Greatest Generation, like my father, a World War II veteran.

He grew up in upstate New York. His father, Jack, a World War I veteran, held several jobs but had trouble holding one for a consistent period of time. He, however, provided for his wife and children a home, food and clothing, which was not so easy in the 1920s ad ’30s.

Chief did not feel particularly happy in his family home, so during his senior year of high school he left and rented a room while finishing school and working at the local window shade factory.

My own father also did not benefit from what we now refer to as a comfortable family life. He was an only child while the Chief had one older sibling, a sister. My father, Tom, came from a family of ministers, and his father had a very troubled relationship with his own father, which may or may not have impacted his parenting skills.

With both coming from what we can easily refer to as hardscrabble lives, it is interesting how they both got themselves through it – without what some have started referring to as white privilege.

Chief enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school in 1943. Tom went into the Army in the same year.

At my daughter’s wedding I had the honor to introduce both of them to the crowd as survivor participants in the two great, final battles of WW II: the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa.

Tom went on to a career in writing, publishing and editing, most significantly with textbooks for elementary and middle school-age children. He also taught at local community colleges for fun while raising my sister and me.

Chief returned to upstate New York and attended college at Oswego State, where he met my mother-in-law while earning a degree in industrial arts. He then took a job with Beneficial Finance doing collections. When he was discovered to be paying some of the customer payments with his own money, his boss spent time trying to correct his behaviors and ended up promoting him.

Later Chief moved to New Jersey to accept a position with First Federal Savings and Loan. In this position his nickname Chief was born, as there was an American Indian bust left in the office he took over. The face on the bust was quite imposing, as was Chief’s famous “look.” He expanded this bank, opening several new locations, and was approached by the Federal Reserve to merge his group with another group forming Crestmont Federal Savings, now a part of Bank of America, the details of which are too complex for explanation here.

He and his wife, Ruth, married in 1950 and had five children, two of whom they lost to childhood disease and one being institutionalized with the same disease.

As a father-in-law, Chief could be a bit intimidating due to his Marine Corps background and business position. However, he always treated me well and helped me finance my business when the time came. He turned down my first request, and in hindsight he was quite right. The second request was accepted with a strict timetable for repayment based on sales and needed working capital.

My wife and I were raising three children with his over-watch. He wanted to see us figure it out ourselves and was always available to help in an emergency, but it had better be an emergency. Twice it was, and he swooped in with his checkbook to bail us out with no remorse or second thoughts. The business loan was repaid in full; the personal loans were forgiven over several Christmas holidays.

Both Chief and my father retired and enjoyed the lives they selected. They helped with our children and attended all the usual events, exchanging pleasantries and conversations with each other but not socializing together more than that due to geographic separation.

My father is 97 now and quite healthy, living an active life in an assisted living apartment in Downingtown, Pa., writing family history and a historical account of Mount Gretna, Pa.

Chief passed away this April 24. Too stubborn to go to assisted living, he insisted on staying at home to care for Ruth with her dementia. As we feared, he fell one day, hitting his head and doing irreparable damage. He passed one day before finally moving to assisted living. Coincidence?

Both of these men, I believe, are heroes due to the lives they carved out for themselves and us from meager beginnings. When I hear young people today complain of white privilege, I am quite confounded as I realize they are offspring of people with similar backgrounds as these two men, who took responsibility for themselves and did the best they could and passed that work ethic on to their children and grandchildren.

It might be us, in the middle generations, who have forgotten our roots and tribulations of our ancestors and allowed our children to grow into adults expecting to be taken care of by someone else, an employer or the government.

My wife and I raised children who are hardworking and independent, as did our friends. What, though, has happened to the children recently who seem unable to cope with disappointment and the other ups and downs that have always been considered part of life by past generations? Has each generation improved life for their children so that now they cannot cope with adversity and difficulty? Talk about unintended consequences. We all want life to be easier and better for our children, but they seem now to demand it with their own personal definition of better.

I am convinced that Chief, at 93, did not want to live any longer, seeing the world he helped build torn down. He was the toughest guy I know, and while I often was frustrated by that toughness, I now see how he and my father made me a better person through their unrelenting tough love.

Tom Meredith lives in Little Egg Harbor.

 

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