A Colorful Life

Below is the edited written version of the eulogy I gave at the funeral service of my father, Gilbert Pomeroy Ahrens, on June 25, 2017.

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Thank you all for coming today.  It means a lot to mom, Margot and me and I’m sure that my father would be incredibly touched and grateful for your friendship to him and all of us.  Not just for today, but for the continuous unconditional love and friendship you’ve given to all of us throughout the years.  My father would be humbled by this gathering.  He was, believe it or not, a very modest man.  If you didn’t know him and were to merely look at his colorful wardrobe and love of sports cars (all of which had to be red), you would easily assume that dad was a guy who loved the spot light and wanted to be the center of attention.  Like a peacock strutting amidst the muted color and weathered culture of a small, traditional New England town.  It’s quite possible that he simply wanted to be Italian.  He was born of proper New England stock; meaning a respectable blend of British and German blood required to claim “Old World” status here in the New World.  But perhaps his internal staid genetic make-up is what motivated his external flamboyance.  I never asked him, but maybe my father wanted to be Italian. (Doesn’t everyone?)

Regardless, he was in fact, remarkably modest and always put other people and their interests first.  He was very the opposite of a proud peacock wanting to be noticed.  His colorful wardrobe and love of red cars was for his own enjoyment and certainly not to seek attention.  I don’t think that consideration ever crossed his mind for if it had, I’m quite sure he would have started wearing white button-down shirts and driving grey sedans.  If he were sitting here, he would be unbearably uncomfortable and absolutely squirming in his seat knowing that all of this — all of you — were focused on him.  So, with that important fact established, I’m going to share a few things about my father that will add to his discomfort.  But hopefully in a way that will make his heart sing.

My father was a member of the Rotary Club and he loved and embraced the organization’s mission and tagline: “Service Above Self”.  My father took that very seriously.  He embraced it and embodied it.  Unlike his older brothers, he was spared from armed combat overseas, but he served far longer and in more ways through his lifelong self-deployment here at home.  He spoke sparingly, if at all, of his service activities — he just did them.  I think he would have preferred to do so anonymously, though that’s nearly impossible in a small town.  Boasting of charitable activities — as many do today on social media — would be a distasteful and alien concept to him.

My father wasn’t wired to seek accolades or praise; they just didn’t motivate him.  Doing a good job did.  He was a professional money manager, which had become very fashionable and desirable during the peak of his career.  Still, he rarely discussed his work at home and remember as a kid trying to figure out what on earth he actually did all day.  It wasn’t until I started to develop my own interest in business and markets and started reading the Wall Street Journal that I pieced it all together.  One day, as I was reading the Journal, I happened to come across an article that mentioned my father as the portfolio manager of one of the top performing mutual funds in recent years.  I was flabbergasted.  He may have told mom, but Margot and I had no idea.  Later, I could tell that dad got embarrassed by all the attention.  Consequently, he certainly could have sought higher paying, prestigious career opportunities in New York or Boston.  But he never considered them.  He didn’t want “advancement” if it meant leaving his roots.  He was a homebody.  This was his life.  You were his life.  We all were his life.

Despite the seriousness of my father’s core belief (“Service Above Self”), he never wore it on his sleeve or let it consume his identity.  He took seriously whatever he did, not who he was.  If anything, I’m convinced that inside him was a playful jester (Italian, of course) just dying to get out and bust a move.  My father defied convention not to be antagonistic or confrontational, but because it made life a little more fun.  He was by no means rebellious, but he wasn’t afraid to bend the rules as long as no one got hurt.

A classic example of this was at this church, a place he loved and served for many years.  We always sat in the same pew, right over…there.   Despite his love of music, my father was really a terrible singer – just awful.  He’d be singing along just fine and suddenly his voice would vector off into some strange unknown galaxy that caused me to either cringe with embarrassment or bite my lip for fear of howling with laughter.  I think the reality is that my dad just wanted to test the choir to see about spicing things up a bit.  Maybe inject some elements of Miles Davis, John Coltrane or (heavens!) Thelonious Monk into some rather staid hymns.  I can now more fully appreciate the sheer beauty and wisdom of my father’s impish playfulness that he so carefully deployed within the solemn walls of this church sanctuary.  As I constantly remind my daughter Olivia, one of any father’s primary goals in life is to embarrass their children in public.  My father was clearly the master of this as his choral contribution was without equal.  Sometimes even the pastor would cringe and duck for cover from the onslaught of assaulting dissonance.

My father’s singing prowess was only surpassed by his ability to navigate a dictionary: he knew the meaning of many words but he couldn’t spell any of them.  His terrible spelling skills were a great source of family humor and he seemed to cherish the notion that his shortcoming served as both constant amusement and a motivational springboard for Margot and me to excel scholastically in subjects of writing and literature, or at least spelling.  Margot and I became so good at helping him spell that he encouraged us to help him write his reports for Church, Rotary or the bank he worked at.  His writing wasn’t bad, but Margot and I quickly learned that writing these reports ourselves took far less time than having to spell-check every other word when he was writing them.  We used to joke that dad would need to ask how to spell the word “be”.  We would mockingly probe whether he meant the verb (“be”) or the insect (“bee”), whereupon he would respond apologetically, “sorry, I meant the letter, B.”  He took subtle, gleeful pleasure in making us laugh, even if at his own expense.

He also loved sharing his passions.  Jazz music was certainly his favorite and he never let us forget his belief in its place as the only original American art form.  He introduced me to Jazz while I was still in mom’s womb and he continued to mentor me in its nuances, even when I was more interested in The Beatles, Stones or my own band.  He knew I would return to Jazz as the base foundation for all my music appreciation.  When his grandchildren arrived, he warmly embraced the “Bop-Bop” nickname they gave him, especially because it further aligned him with “Be-Bop,” his most favorite style of Jazz.

He also loved fishing and sharing its fine character-building qualities with Margot and me.  Some of my favorite times growing up were spent on early Saturday morning fishing on the lake, always in search of the elusive trophy fish.  We took many father-son fishing trips.  They were a blast and I am more grateful today for the time we spent together back then.

My father also loved sports cars and Formula 1 racing.  A real sports car, he used to say, HAD to be red — or British Racing Green…but only if were British.  He taught me how to drive in the local cemetery, with a stick shift, naturally.  My father owned one automatic transmission automobile his entire life – and he hated it.  My father hated very few things; only two I know for certain: that automatic car and Brussel sprouts.  He hated Brussel sprouts more than a vampire hates garlic.  Their very mention would cause him to instantly recoil in revulsion.

Dad loved baseball and taught me how to play.  We played catch for hours.  His favorite player was Stan Musial, who was both a great player and, seemingly, a great guy.  He respected Ted Williams as a player but wouldn’t have wanted him over for dinner.  Carl Yastrzemski (“Yaz”) was my father’s age and came to prominence in Boston while I was growing up.  We all became huge “Yaz” fans and even went over the deep-end once when we bought a loaf of “Yaz” Bread.  Even as a kid I knew it was terrible, kind of like stale Wonder Bread.  We never again invited Yaz over for dinner.   But through our love of the Red Sox and all things Boston, we caught sight of a meteor named Bobby Orr.  I was immediately captivated and my father did everything he could to nourish my new passion.  I took to the ice quickly and soon realized I could skate well.  I also soon realized that my father could not.  He wanted to skate with me on the nearby pond, but he broke his wrist — twice, in two separate occasions — just trying to be engaged and help nurture my newfound pastime.  It’s why he drove me to 5:00 am hockey practices and games all over creation.  He did it all because he loved me.

Every parent is supposed to encourage and support their children, but my father embodied it with his entire spirit.  He always encouraged when others discouraged or disapproved.  There was a time when I was in high school and my music band (with the very unpretentious name “Nietzsche and a Horse”) managed to perform during a Wednesday chapel service.  These school-wide weekly chapel services typically had chapel-like themes readily endorsed by the school or any upstanding citizen.  Virtue, integrity, perseverance, courage, etc.  Instead, our band gave a rock concert.  At full throttle volume, complete with social commentary pointed directly at the school’s administration.  And it was performed in this very church where my family worshipped every Sunday; where my father brought the house down with each hymn.

But while many in our small town furrowed their brows and scorned my band’s “mockery” of the altar, my father was ecstatic.  “Way to go!” he exclaimed.  He didn’t necessarily believe in defiance, but he wasn’t against shaking things up a bit.  He had a similar reaction when my Margot declared her intent to become an alternative farmer.  He was unreserved in his support.  “Go for it!” he said.  “You’ll do great!”

The core truth about my father is that there was not an unkind bone in his body.  He never said a mean word to or about anybody.  His words were never about himself but about others and for their benefit…and always with a smile.  Dad greeted everyone with a smile.  I have been reminded of this during every encounter I’ve had the past few days with people who knew and worked with dad.  All these people, many of whom I didn’t know, expressed their love for dad because of his kindness.  I am somewhat biased, so their testimony is far more trustworthy than mine.  It’s a stark contrast to the remembrances given on behalf of some who achieve fame or celebrity and who receive praise and accolades from luminary strangers.  Such eulogies are based on achievement but love is nowhere in sight.

My father was Gentleman in the traditional sense.  He was polite, well-mannered, gracious, and always attentive to the needs of others.  He was a loving man of great affection.  Often quite subtle, always in his colorful way, but joyful and kindhearted with every personal encounter.

More importantly, he was, in a very Godly sense, a kind, loving and gentle man.  If the most important thing in life is to get to heaven, then he clearly succeeded.  And I know he was met with the greeting to which I can only aspire:

Well done, my good, faithful and gentle servant.