Joe Dolan: A Father Remembered
Ninety-nine years of generosity, love, and laughter

Rep. Abner Sibal, Joseph W. Dolan, Barry Goldwater, Tony Dolan — Our Lady of the Assumption, Fairfield, Conn., March 1962


Lee Habeeb

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.