Joe Dolan: A Father Remembered

by Lee Habeeb
Ninety-nine years of generosity, love, and laughter

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.

First, let me say that until two weeks ago my father had been doing well — going to church every day — but after his Christmas Eve fall, we were in and out of hospitals. In one emergency room, the 23-year-old nurse was impressed to have a patient just one year short of a century old. My father used his A material — it will sound familiar to some of you. He would be perfectly willing to run off with her, he said, as long as he could be sure she had a lot of money and would take care of him in his old age. 

A doctor asked him, “Mr. Dolan, is there anything I can do for you?”

“How about a million bucks?” came the response. 

The irony, the joke, of course, was that beyond a certain point money never much mattered to him except to the extent it helped others. Yet for all the fundraising my father did and all the fun he had, some from the hospital remember him for something else.

Let me first pause, though, and tell you this. As he got older and we walked together, I would sometimes have to slow down so he could keep up.

I am not the first son who has had that experience. But I doubt whether anyone else ever reflected more on the irony of having to wait for someone who so many times had waited for me —  kindly, affectionately. Yet however things changed in a physical or ambulatory way — as over the years a once-superb athlete lost a step or two — not much else did.

It’s a wonderful thing to say about a parent. I mean that we were always learning from him. Right to the end, I always felt I was trying to catch up and that he was there waiting for me — kindly, affectionately.

The earliest lessons remain the most vivid. Do you recall as a child the confusion caused by the sight of someone who is blind or in a wheelchair, or has some other conspicuous disability or hardship? And asking about it? My father would explain. And then the words would follow that he always used as a coda to his description of someone else’s troubles: “The poor fella.” Or: “The poor girl.” The way he said it — the way he made it sound — always for me — all the pathos, the compassion, the feeling humans are capable of in facing our calamitous lives were there in those words.

I hear the same words even today. And at the sight of suffering, I hear again my father’s voice. And I try to catch up.

Which is what I mean by his other contribution, the other stories from St. Vincent’s. People would tell us that while they were trying to deal with a relative’s illness or their own — and maybe anxiously waiting for word from the doctors — this nice man would come along and talk and listen, and just when they needed it most he was touchingly thoughtful. They would always mention how much easier his kindness — and the parking passes he always carried — made such difficult moments. I wish you could have heard them. So much was in their voices.

Always it made me think I had much catching up to do.

In his business life, he had been no different. People who worked for him at Sears — he was manager at stores throughout New England — or at Warnaco told us how good he had been to them. And he was ahead of his time, too. Back in the late Fifties or early Sixties, he was getting awards from the NAACP.

Though even those who worked for him kidded him. He was originally from Boston, by the way — “a slashing fullback,” Boston Latin’s yearbook said. He studied classics and German at Boston College and was offered a teaching fellowship at the University of Heidelberg but somehow ended up in retail. He found life hard in southern Connecticut. He had kept his allegiance to the Red Sox. And the Yankees were here.

And his cross.

When he was promoted to the Bridgeport Sears, the Norwalk store’s display artist did a wonderful sketch of him with a dollar in his pocket and the words, “It’s not that I need the money, it’s just closer to Boston.”

He took a lot of that same kidding at Brooklawn Country Club. Though there, he was also respected for his prowess at a game that frustrated so many others. At 77, he was Brooklawn’s senior flight champion. And even after that, he played a great game for many years, and the golf magazines wrote about him shooting his age or under. Some of those he played with said they had a tough time explaining to their friends and family how they lost that morning’s game to a 90-year-old.

Some think country clubs are snobbish. My father and his friends were self-made. He was close to so many of them and they to him. They looked out for each other. They were the best of their kind. It was a privilege to see such wonderful fellowship.

He owed Brooklawn too for happiness — the bliss he found out on the course. (And sometimes, when you go by, think of him. Say a prayer if you can.) On his 90th birthday, the club and Ralph LoStocco gave him a party.

Then, and most of all — just a month before my mother died — a storybook finish for them that I got to see. A dinner in Joe Dolan’s honor. Hundreds of people seated at tables along the patio on a Connecticut summer night. As darkness came they asked him to make a long twelve-foot putt. Under a strong spotlight the 96-year old gave it his valiant try. No, he sunk it. And the cheering, which could be heard down at Jennings Beach, may have done structural damage to the clubhouse roof. You would think he had won the Masters.

I was surprised at the shot. My mother wasn’t. “Joe was always doing things like that,” she said. Her hero one last time.

Not long after that, when I woke him one morning with the news that she had died, and as I took him take back to the hospital, he kept saying it: “Oh, the poor girl, the poor girl.”

Since we were children we called him by his first name — to the horror of many of our friends. Though we tried to explain that “Joe” to us sounded just like “Dad” did to them. But while his children deeply respected him — and I’ll tell you more of why in a second — for all of that he was also something out of Charles Dickens, one of those endearing figures. Coming home from college or our jobs for the holidays, we so looked forward to seeing him. He was our Joe Gargery, or Tiny Tim’s protective father. Our most dependable ally. Our oldest friend.

Life and time and circumstances being what they are, some day — it may be 50 or a hundred years from now — change will come to St. Vincent’s, and they will take down those pictures in the lobby. I’ve thought about that sometimes and realized that by then the person taking them down may wonder about the men in those frames.

Well, I know what I would want that person to know about my father. That he is the man his son was always trying to catch up to. Especially the night he died.

His vital signs, which had plunged earlier, seemed to have stabilized in the ER. But the nurse kept trying to get a blood pressure and she couldn’t. We didn’t realize what was happening.

What my father did next is what I remember. And it brought to mind, forgive me, another parallel, another — speaking of English novelists — literary one. Evelyn Waugh is considered by many the best of the 20th-century novelists, and Brideshead Revisited is his masterpiece. At its end, Lord Marchmain comes back to his great house to die, and the family he had deserted hopes for some sign of a return to the Church. With all the mastery of the artist he was, Waugh describes a deathbed scene in which the semi-conscious Marchmain dramatically, tellingly, makes the sign of the cross.

Joe Dolan needed no novelist’s art. No contrivance of genius for his drama. My father — as they tried to get his vital signs — gave them the most important one of all. Slowly, solemnly, he raised a hand and made a perfect sign of the cross. A few minutes later and a rush of doctors and nurses into the room and he was gone.

A better drama, I think, than Mr. Waugh’s. The perfect playing out of the plot line — all that has gone before — what’s expected of good or high drama. Because unlike poor Marchmain, Joe Dolan had always been there, ever generous to his wife and children, his church, his neighbors. In all that, he had been strong, manly — dignified, really. Living by his code of helping and loving others.

So, such a good ending. So believable. The man in the picture in St. Vincent’s lobby then? That’s who he was. The man I was always trying to catch up to. A man I know that even now is waiting for me, kindly, affectionately.

“Lord let thy servant now go in peace. Thy word has been fulfilled.”

And, Lord, help me catch up to him someday.

— Lee Habeeb, vice president of Salem Radio Network, resides in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, his daughter, Reagan, and his mother-in-law, Kay. He is still trying to catch up to his dad.


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