You would never have picked him out in a crowd. He was a thin, medium sized man with a voice so soft you had to strain to hear him. He dressed modestly but rarely was seen without a hat. His hands, callused from hard work, had a slight tremor. He was just an unassuming, ordinary guy, but to me he was a hero. He was my role model, my teacher, my cheerleader, my confidante who always made time for me, always listened.
He was born in 1906 in Kupiel, a nondescript village in the Ukraine, south of Kiev. Life was hard there and eventually the family fled to the United States, settling in Austin, Texas. Eighteen years old, without a word of English, he began his American life, like many immigrants of his era, as a peddler. He moved briefly to Philadelphia, living in an area known as Strawberry Mansion, not a very desirable area but home to many of his home town friends. There he found work in a grocery store and forever after, insisted no one could pick out the perfect vegetable or piece of fruit as accurately as he could.
Back again in Austin he worked with his older brother in the junk business and eventually, with a partner, opened a service station, the D & S--high test gas for less. Their motto: "We may doze but never close." It became the busiest independent station in the south.
He met my mother on a trip to Omaha. She, too, was from Kupiel. Soon they became engaged. She wrote him every day, always ending her letters "Regards from all to all." I don't know if he wrote back, but I have her entire not-very-interesting correspondence.
He and my mother lost their first baby, born prematurely and unable to survive. When I came along two years later, he became a devoted and loving father. He worked long hours, after all, the D & S never closed, but he always took time to play with me when he came home. He taught me to print my name, read simple words and figure out the answers to "What do 3 and 2 make?", so "What do 2 and 3 make?" It was no surprise that he taught me arithmetic. He was a math whiz and was known for being able to add faster than an adding machine. In another life he might have been a mathematician.
I remember Sunday afternoon rides to Barton Springs or summer evening rides to see the water works, a fountain with colored lights. I remember him coming home for lunch and scrubbing the grease off his hands with Lava soap. In summer we had ice tea for lunch, and I always wanted him to "fix" mine with lemon and sugar. I thought he made the best tea in the world. I remember the summer before first grade he took to calling me his "big school girl." The rest of the time, his nickname for me was Sugie.
During World War II he collected tires for the war effort and the Austin American ran a picture of him standing beside dozens of tires piled up as high as the roof of the D & S.
When I was twelve, he decided I was old enough to learn to drive, so he put a pillow in the driver's seat so I could see over the wheel and patiently taught me how to make turns, back up and shift gears in our Ford. For years he bought nothing but Fords, feeling some sort of loyalty to the Ford Motor Company. Then he decided to buy a Cadillac. Dressed in his work clothes, he walked into the General Motors dealership. The salesman saw a grubby guy who probably smelled of gasoline and suggested he'd better get a Chevy. Insulted, he marched out, bought a Lincoln and went back by to show it to the GM salesman who'd waited on him and gleefully mentioned that he'd paid cash. He never bought another Ford.
He loved salty food. Mother had to refill the salt shaker frequently. He also loved salami. On Saturday nights he worked late at the station and in the evenings he bought salami and rye bread and threw a weekly party that attracted folks from all over east Austin. I think he worked late, not because he had to, but because he enjoyed hosting the "drop on by" salami dinners.
When I was nineteen, my full-skirted dress blew into a gas stove and I was badly burned. The first thing I cried when the firemen arrived was "Call my Daddy." He rushed to the hospital and never left my side. That first critical week he slept in my room (and, critically ill as I was, I was still embarrassed by his snoring.) This man, whose business was the center of his life, took off for three months when I was treated at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. My mother stayed with me during the day, and he sat in chair next to my bed at night. He must have been awake all night because I never heard him snore.
When I married and had children, he became just as devoted to his grandchildren as he always was to my sister and me. He and Mother would drive to Houston just to have Sunday lunch and spend a little time with the kids, then drive home the same afternoon.
His wisdom and advice mirrored the themes of his life: "When you give your word, live up to it." "Stand up for your rights."
"Remember, your reputation is important." "Give generously without the expectation of acclaim." He was truly generous. When the nurse who had cared for me after my accident had financial problems, he gladly gave her the funds she needed. He always contributed to causes he supported, and not just money; he gave his time, too. And he was a big tipper. My sister remembers that he always gave the man who parked his car at the bank a quarter, a generous amount in those long ago pre-inflation days. "Mr. Alec," as he was called, was known around Austin as a good guy.
He was close to his sisters and their families. On Sunday nights the whole family would gather at one of our houses for dinner. Afterward, the men played poker while the women gossiped in the kitchen...so Nineteen Forties.
He loved our dog, General (so named because he was "a general kind of dog") and the dog followed him everywhere.
Of course, he wasn't perfect. He was stubborn as a mule. Once he made up his mind about something, no amount of arguing or pleading could change it. My mother often tried to persuade him to take her to Europe on vacation. His answer was a flat "no." I've been there. I left and I'm not going back." And that was that.
He had firm ideas about what was right, even if the ideas were sometimes wrong. Soft-spoken at home, at work he was the boss and his employees crossed Mr. Alec at their peril, even Pee Wee, a neighborhood kid who hung around the station and sometimes wiped windshields to help out. He smoked three packs a day, always Chesterfields, another example of his brand-loyalty. In later life, he was diagnosed with emphysema and asthma and he quit cold turkey, but he said he never got over longing for a cigarette even though he admitted smoking was a nasty and dangerous habit. And, of course his other annoying habit--he snored. But I forgave him his faults because he was my dad.
He was a special man, a special father, and I miss him to this day.