In a couple of weeks, my family will gather to celebrate my father’s 90th tour around the sun. I must concede that the old man has paced himself well. Despite all the things he’s endured, confronted, and overcome (the great depression, World War II, cancer, raising five children, to name a few), he’s doing quite well. Given his family’s “longevity gene” he may last another decade or so. My siblings and I were tasked with drafting a tongue-in-cheek essay for the occasion, to accompany a photo album we will be presenting him. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, Soren Kierkegaard, and you, dear reader, I offer an abridged version for your consideration:
Four score and ten years ago, in the tiny coal-mining town of Welch, West Virginia, a strapping baby boy named Clifford Henrik Swensen, Jr. was brought forth. Conceived in love and dedicated to the proposition that all children should do their parents’ bidding and suffer in silence, CHS’s life and exploits—as a son, brother, husband, father, friend, grandfather, professor, etc.—tested well whether that proposition (and others) could long endure.
Now we are engaged in a corporate acknowledgement of those nine decades, and with equal parts gratitude and awe (and with malice toward very few) we celebrate his life. Moreover, in unison—we, his children—do now publically proclaim, “Dad…for all the times we snuck out of the house to rendezvous with sketchy boyfriends (Betsy), sequestered ourselves in our bedroom for months (or years?), aurally mainlining Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell in a prolonged fit of teenage angst (Susie), wrecked the car while scanning house address numbers instead of attending to nettlesome details like stop signs and thereby jacked up the family’s auto insurance rates (Lisa), broke a window or tracked roof tar onto new carpeting (Tim), or whipped a yo-yo through the glass casing of the built-in, living-room bookshelves (Barbie)…we’re sorry.” The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here nor what we perpetrated at his expense in the past. In response to this immutable truth, we sigh deeply and mumble in the mother tongue, “Gudskjelov! (thank God!)” It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
Rick [the name he is best known by] excelled in his studies as a lad growing up in the Pittsburgh metro area, and established many friendships with ease. He played baseball and basketball and joined the Cub Scouts. He welcomed his younger siblings into the world. He lived through the depression. In High School he made extra money at a local bowling alley as a pin-setter and worked at the Snee Dairy, wrote for the school paper, and observed the onset of World War II. After joining the Navy in 1944, he spent time across the country, and at one point found himself in Indianapolis, Indiana. Here he met a sweet, charming, beautiful and long-suffering woman—Doris Gaines—who, praise be, put to death his obsession with one Polly Gene Stewart. They soon married and raised five extraordinarily gifted—and extraordinarily humble—children together. Following his stint in the Navy, Rick briefly attended David Lipscomb College, but after a little misunderstanding involving alcohol and curfews, he elected to take his talents to the University of Pittsburgh where he received his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate (in Clinical Psychology) degrees. While there, he and Doris welcomed their eldest—Betsy—to the clan. They moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1953 where he continued his career in academic psychology at the
University of Tennessee. During their Rocky Top years, Rick and Doris expanded their family to include Susie, Lisa, and Tim, respectively. Rick also dipped his feet briefly in the pool of politics, running for State Senate and getting to know a few folks who later enjoyed political success and prominence, including one gentleman who became a United States Senator and coined the now-famous question, “What did the President know…and when did he know it?” In 1962, Rick and Doris moved to West Lafayette, Indiana for a better career opportunity at Purdue University and the highly desirable climate and topography of northwestern Indiana. They welcomed the arrival of their youngest, Barbie, just a few months after moving. Rick enjoyed a successful tenure at Purdue and in West Lafayette, publishing scores of articles and two books, advising and supervising numerous graduate students, teaching hundreds of courses, picking a few fights at faculty meetings, delivering many sermons at Elmwood Ave. Church of Christ, and frequently issuing exclamations like, “Crummy kids! What do they know?”, “Doris! Where’s my coffee?!?”, and “Officer, [expletive deleted] it! Can’t you see I’m trying to get my family to church on time?!?”
One of Rick’s often neglected contributions to family lore were his sartorial “statements”. Who can forget, for instance, his rumpled, sweat-stained blue baseball cap, worn exclusively during lengthy car trips (such as jaunts to Civil War battlefields or the Rocky Mountains. Daughters Lisa and Susie hypothesized that you could estimate Rick’s age by counting the number of concentric sweat stains on the hat’s interior, but the hat spontaneously combusted somewhere around Antietam before their theory could be conclusively confirmed or refuted.)? Or his stylish argyle bathrobes/pajamas, festooned with pickled herring stains and tiny flecks of petrified peanut-brittle? His fashion piece-de-resistance, however, was/is his, ahem, cheeky “jock-strap-‘peeking’-above-the-top-of-the-bathing-suit” look. The world may little note what he wore, but it can never forget…despite desperately desiring to do precisely that.
His has been the quintessential dialectical life, lived in multiple continents, covering multiple centuries, utilizing multiple languages, and experiencing multiple states of consciousness. It has included countless works of love, instances of fear and trembling, and several edifying discourses (how often did we hear, for instance, “children, purity of heart is to will one thing”? Etcetera. Ad nauseum).
It is for us, his five children, nine grandchildren, three (so far) great grand children, and all other family, friends, and loved ones, to dedicate ourselves to the great task before us—that from Rick’s life we take increased devotion to those causes for which he gave a great and glorious measure of his own devotion: that this family, under God, shall love deeply, that meaningful traditions shall endure , that trials shall edify and stimulate spiritual growth, that forgiveness shall flow freely, and that joy, laughter, sarcasm, and interminable story-telling shall not perish from the earth.