As many of you know, I was in Alaska last week for the funeral of my father-in-law, Paul. I wrote about him in my column last week and at length in the G-File, but it came after the punditry. So, as I did when my mother-in-law passed, I’m posting a clean version here so I can have a link to send to friends and family. Thanks again for the indulgence.
I called him “Vlad” for nearly a year before someone finally told me that his wife was the only person who still got to call him that. To everyone else he was “Mr. Gavora,” “Paul,” “the Old Man,” or simply, “Dad.”
Since my father-in-law intimidated the hell out of me, I opted for “Paul.”
We buried Paul yesterday next to his beloved wife, Donna, and their cherished daughter, Pauli. (You can read his obituary here.) It felt like an end of an era, like a great king being dispatched to history.
I don’t mean to be grandiose, but that’s how it felt. Paul was not a big talker, and it had nothing to do with the fact he never lost his thick Slovakian accent. The man had argued with his academic mentor, Milton Friedman, when English was still relatively new to him. He could be a talker, but he preferred to be a doer.
In many ways, my own father and Paul could not be more different. My dad was one of the great indoorsmen of the ages. To say my dad wasn’t handy would be a gross understatement. As someone once said of Allan Bloom, “things were not his friend.” Meanwhile, Paul loved to hunt and fish and work in his garden, preferably while giving orders to his army of grandkids. Paul was rarely happier than when he was getting his hands dirty. He built an elaborate contraption because he was determined to grow corn in soil a couple hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle.
But Paul and my dad had more important things in common, and I don’t just mean their shared hatred of Communism. They were both deeply grounded.
“Grounded” is a word that doesn’t get its due. But it’s a great word, a conservative word in every sense. Great oaks have deep roots. They hold the soil in place during storms and floods. Reefs defy the waves and tides and serve as shelter for the life that grows around them. Institutions that are grounded in a community are landmarks and safe havens in confusing turbulent times. That was Paul. He was as reliable as True North.
My wife often tells the story of how, when he would bring home ducks he shot himself for dinner, he would make it a contest for the kids to see who could “win” by biting down on some buckshot first. “The boys fell for it every time,” she explained with an eye roll. When his kids would talk about their career plans or business ideas, the first question Paul would ask was, “Yeah, but can you eat it?”
Paul knew his economic theory, and he was a passionate defender of the free market, but he jettisoned abstractions like so much ballast when he swam the Danube in the dead of night to escape the Communists. That question — “can you eat it?” — was grounded in a profound understanding of how theories — Nazi theories, Communist theories, even capitalist theories — can come and go, but people will always need what humans need: food, clothing, shelter. He knew this because he’d seen what happens when people are denied it.
They also need family and a sense of community, which is why he invested so much of himself in both.
When a flood ravaged Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1967, he simply gave out the food on the shelves of his grocery stores and turned his house into a refuge for people left homeless. Paul built and supported one institution after another in his community because this was where he chose to sink his roots deep into the ground. His son Rudy, who worked by his father’s side for four decades, told how people would regularly come to their office to repay loans that Paul had long forgotten making. Strangers would come to see the Old Man for life advice, simply because they knew Paul had seen so much of it.
His oldest son, Danny, told the story of how the influx of national supermarket chains into Fairbanks made Paul’s life work untenable as a business proposition. Danny was the one who had to explain the direness of the situation to his father. Paul simply replied that the grocery stores he had built served their most important function: allowing he and Donna to raise nine children and send them to college, and that was good enough. We’ll find another business, he explained.
My wife, who is no fan of public-speaking, was understandably fearful of being overcome with emotion (something I can understand all too well, having publicly sobbed through eulogies for my father and my brother). But she did a wonderful job, explaining how the thing Paul disliked most was phoniness. “He’s a phony” was just about the worst thing Paul could say about someone. Jessica noted that in Washington, where people routinely talk a great game about the importance of family and of personal integrity, it was hard not to see so many of them as phonies when comparing their words to their deeds, never mind those of her parents, who worked so hard to model decency, honesty, and dedication rather than just talk about such things.
At the end of Saving Private Ryan, there’s that powerful scene where a now-aged James Ryan looks at the tombstone of his comrade and weeps with panic that he might not have been the good man he needed to be to earn his sacrifice. It gets me every time. When I watched men lower Paul’s casket into the ground next to Donna, I looked at his tombstone and choked up with the hope that I might be a fraction of the great man he was.
We have a tendency to think of Great Men as the cast of some grand historical narrative. But the truth is many of those men were not so much great as glorious or simply glory-seeking. They sought out fame and a place in history. That wasn’t Paul, though he made his share of history where it mattered to him, and he’d seen more than his share of history as well. Paul was a truly great man because he was truly good man, grounded to the things that mattered the most to him and the things that simply matter most.