We cleaned out my father’s office shortly after he died.
Located on the third floor of the Opera House in downtown Rutland, Vermont, my father’s office was a unique space that occupied the far corner of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission. Two six-foot high windows looked down onto the businesses of Merchants’ Row and out over their rooftops. One wall was exposed brick and the two others stopped short of reaching the twenty-foot high ceiling that was decorated ornately with swirls and other embellishments.
As unique as his office was, the items that were kept inside were even more so. A menacing wooden mace hung on the wall between the two windows. A bulletin board took up most of one wall and tacked to it was a large picture of a bear named Taps that I had drawn when I was in the first grade, various comics, pictures, plaques and quotes—all of which I looked at often when I would stop by. In the lower left hand corner was a G-rated picture of me with a huge smile on my face holding a large yellow towel open and flashing the camera. The picture remained in this spot until, as a teenager, I begged him to take it down out of sheer terror and embarrassment. Hopefully he threw it out, but knowing him it is tucked away somewhere. The shelves were filled with planning books, reports that dated as far back as the seventies, a sculpture of the Bremen Town Musicians, a green tea cup and matching saucer with the likeness of our ancestor General Blucher, and pictures both old and new. On his desk was a rectangular wooden dentist box, that was opened with a small key on a red velvet string. Here he kept pencils, ink for his fountain pens, a broken pair of glasses, post-it notes and other assorted things. Next to that was a small metal clown jack-in-the-box on a square of white marble that was a paper weight. On the low shelves below the windows were a couple of plants, books, pictures and the doorknob and a piece of the door that was my grandfather’s office door when he was a planner in Detroit. Always within arm’s reach of the guest chairs was a small square wooden tray with ten numbered blocks in it and one empty space—a brain teaser made by my great-grandfather. Two drawers of the credenza, we discovered, were filled with his day planners dating back to the eighties. On top of the credenza sat a large wooden box that to my amazement I discovered was a writing slope. I believe it too was made by my great-grandfather. I now use it for my writing.
Of all the treasures we knew were there and of all the ones we discovered while cleaning out his office the most amazing was a small plaque with a poem on it. The image behind the poem is that of a person in a red coat walking on a bluff above the sea, faded trees with no leaves can just be seen off to the left and two equally faded birds fly above the horizon. The poem has been pasted unevenly onto a dark wood plaque with a beveled edge, at the top is a tarnished brass hook embossed with a vine-like design. I remember always seeing this plaque in the office but I never paid much attention to it. As I took it off the wall I paused to read it before putting it into the box. I stood there for a few moments as the words and what they meant began to sink in.
That man is a success who has lived well,
laughed often and loved much;
Who has gained the respect
of intelligent men and the love of children;
Who has filled his niche
and accomplished his task;
Who leaves the world better than he found it,
whether by an improved poppy or a perfect poem or a rescued soul;
Who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;
Who looked for the best in others
and gave the best he had ~ by Bessie Anderson Stanley
Over the past few weeks my brother and I had gained a deeper understand of who my father was, outside of the man that we knew as our dad, and how important he had been to the local community and the state. As I read this unassuming plaque, held dear by an unassuming man, I came to realize that I could apply every word of it to the way that my dad had lived his life.
A month after Dad passed away we received a letter from Chris Campany, the Executive Director of the Windham Regional Commission. It speaks volumes.
“Mark was one of those rare people who was universally respected for not only his service to others, but also his humanity and empathy he demonstrated through that service.
I’ve been with the Windham Regional Commission for about a year and a half. Mark made a point of welcoming me to the director’s circle when I first arrived. I never heard him offer a harsh word about anyone, and his optimism was contagious. At a recent meeting he gave all of the directors a mug decorated with a “No Whining” symbol. It’s a wonderful reminder of Mark, his spirit, and his guidance to us as we continue our work.”
Dad gave those mugs to everyone when he himself was dealing with the reality that there was no longer a way to keep his cancer at bay. He was probably also in a tremendous amount of pain as the cancer began to aggressively ravage his body. He had every reason to whine, to give in, but he never did. Never in my life did I hear him complain.
From time to time I look at the plaque to make sure I am doing my best to follow what is says. None of it is hard to do and yet in our hyperactive partisan world it is easy to forget. If only more people followed this poem and made it their creed, as my father had, our lives would be inherently better. I am trying to teach myself to live this way so that I can teach the boys to live this way—something that my dad tried to do for me and countless others both young and old. I can see that now, for three years after his death I am still hearing comments and stories that reinforce that he lived every word of a poem that was written on a small plaque that hung on his office wall.