Fitzgerald: My dad was a man for all seasons

He has truly been a man for all seasons. Every spring, when the gritty Chicago snow finally melted and a hint of warmth touched your soul, he was an artist and painted the gutters, the garage, the shed and…

“If it doesn’t move, I’ll paint it,” he still likes to declare, waving the tattered brush as if it were a sword.

St. Patrick’s Day, of course, falls in March and he was always a gifted dancer, entertaining the family with an impromptu Irish jig and twirling his wife around the floor at the Friendly Sons’ annual bash.

Summer meant being a chef on the backyard barbecue grill, much to the delight of his many family members, friends and neighbors — not to mention the lucky dog that got the blackened burger that failed to get flipped during a particularly funny story.

Baseball was always on the summertime menu. He coached Little League with true passion, staying on for years after his two sons passed through the teams. My favorite mental portrait of him is sitting on a park bench, which served as a dugout for the congested South Side Diamonds, a grin filling his face as the midget major leaguers performed. It was his version of the opera and he rarely missed an act, despite the many long days of construction at the steel mills or factory site.

He also played gloveless 16-inch softball for many years and once broke his big toe sliding into second base on the last play of the final game of the season. The very next day, he was back at work with a walking cast and still wouldn’t let his wife drive while he was in the car.

There was even a boxing episode that I like to recall. A large, biker-type fellow followed him to our driveway one time after a traffic disagreement. When he failed to stop swearing in front of our family, my dad dropped the bearded giant with a sharp right hand landing between his eyes. He went down in a heap and the cop who was called had to help him get back on his motorcycle to quickly flee the scene.

Even at 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, he was a scrappy guy — and had the oversized nose to prove it.

Fall was made for football and his lifelong love: The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The stadium in South Bend was part of heaven to him and some of his favorite moments were when the team charged onto the emerald turf and the famous fight song sent electricity through the air.

One time, true legend has it from his later years, he was stung by a bee while tailgating and briefly passed out in the parking lot before the big game. The EMTs quickly arrived and advised him to go home and rest.

“Are you kidding me? Do you know what these tickets cost?” he said, before quickly moving through the nearest turnstile. The lifesavers could only shake their heads in disbelief.

These days he’s not too wild about the Notre Dame head coach. “His lads can’t even tackle,” he sadly remarked to me over the phone after a particularly disappointing defeat last season. He also coached “widget” football, the real little kids, for many heartwarming seasons.

Winter was his least favorite season as he battled the razor-like winds and endlessly shoveled the snowdrifts. It also meant working outside, sometimes high in the air, when any exposed skin would turn dangerously numb in seconds. Yet, I never heard him complain in his more than 40 years as a pipe coverer. He got up early every morning and went to work, where he always put in a full day. “It’s a decent living,” he would tell me. “But you can do better.”

Last year around this time he turned 70. Then the long years of breathing asbestos finally caught up to him and his lungs almost stopped working. It also affected his heart, the one that is bigger than Lake Michigan and has touched so many, many people of all ages and backgrounds. He almost died a few times but his will (and stubbornness) kept him alive, along with the prayers of thousands of concerned family members and friends.

Before one especially dangerous operation, he had his wife bring him his VFW hat, the rumpled brown one with the medals and flag pins on it. He proudly served in the Korean War and is a past commander of his VFW post in Indiana.

“This will be my rally cap,” he said from his hospital bed with a brave smile, a few hours before they wheeled him into surgery.

The operations were a success and he now has a pacemaker in his skinny chest and is hooked up to an oxygen tank most of the day. His new message on the phone answering machine told the world of his latest conquest: “Unlike the Edmund Fitzgerald, I am still afloat.”

The doctors quietly told us that he would be lucky to live for six more months. Surely he would slow down and peacefully fade away, they said.

That was 13 months ago. He called me the other day just before leaving for the golf course and his Senior League tee time.

“I hope this damn rain holds off,” he said. “Why does it rain every Monday?”

Someday the man for all seasons will pass on.

And he has requested to be buried wearing his VFW hat, the rumpled brown one with the medals and flag pins on it, the rally cap that will indeed allow my dad, my hero, to live forever.

(This column originally ran in the Provo Daily Herald, about a year before Mike’s father died. It runs here to celebrate Father’s Day.)