You probably don’t know Tony Dolan, but you know his work. I’ve known him for many years. He’s been a second father to me — and I have a great first father, so that’s no small compliment. He’s also been a great mentor, though he’d never admit it. He’s advised me. He’s inspired me. He’s told me things I didn’t want to hear — things I needed to hear.
And he makes me try things I otherwise wouldn’t try, like writing for this website, which I would never have done without his repeated prompting. He makes me think. He makes me laugh. He heckles and teases me. He even dares me to be bolder in my fashion choices.
Tony sent me a picture not long ago from some rooftop party he’d attended the night before in Washington, D.C. I was probably sleeping when it was taken. It shows a very attractive younger woman, and there was Tony at her side, wearing a white suit, a hot-pink tie, and a wry smile. Part Tom Wolfe, part Tennessee Williams — high cotton meets high tide at South Beach.
Tony also happens to be one hell of a writer. He won a Pulitzer for his hard-hitting reporting in the 1970s that led to mob prosecutions in Connecticut. And he was Ronald Reagan’s chief speechwriter for all eight years of his presidency, using his writing prowess to fight another — and much more formidable — mob: the totalitarians in the Kremlin.
Dolan was responsible for some of the greatest rhetoric of the 20th century — most notably the “evil empire” speech, and the “ash heap of history” speech. That was back when politicians knew what rhetoric was. Back when politicians knew how to talk to people. Dolan, like Reagan, understood that to be an effective communicator, you had to dare to move people. Not just inform them, or convince them of your superior argument. You had to move them.
And to move them, it helped to have lived a full life. Not just a political life, or a life of policy, but a real life, filled with real triumphs and defeats, real pleasures and hardships, and real time spent with family, neighbors, and friends, pursuing hobbies and passions, playing sports and serving at the local church and enjoying the good things in life that have absolutely nothing to do with work. Or politics.
While it is true that Dolan was responsible for some of the most memorable speechwriting in recent history, the very best speech that he ever wrote — by far — was one that he delivered himself. It was the eulogy for his father, Joseph Dolan, who died four years ago.
I read it now and then because I have a father I love, and I know I’ll one day have to write something like it for him. I read it now and then because I am a father, and I want to be reminded of what the life of a good father sounds like. And how a good father forever shapes the lives of his children. And my goodness, did Joseph Dolan shape the lives of his children for the better. My goodness, was he a good father.
There is nothing more a man can aspire to, in the end, than to have a son or daughter write words like the ones you are about to read.
So, on the weekend that we celebrate Father’s Day, here are Tony Dolan’s final words to the father he so loved. To the father who so loved him. To all the fathers doing the work God has called them to do. To all the fathers who see fatherhood not as some tiresome obligation or some terrible expense, but as an amazing gift, and a fundamental part of life.
This is for all the fathers whose sons and daughters can’t imagine life without them.
February, 12, 2009, Our Lady of the Assumption Church
My father was generous all his life, and the facts speak to it. In the early Fifties, when we lived in Norwalk, even with a young family and at a critical moment in his career, he headed up a fund drive for a new St. Mary’s school. It’s still there — still being used.
Everyone had a story about him, often an amusing one. So many of you at St. Vincent’s were special to him. And while I want all of you to know how much he cared for you and how grateful he and his family were that you were in his life, you should know too that right to the end he was the same. By which I mean the jokes — especially with the nurses and doctors — even on the night he died.