Monday, July 26, 2010

Remembering Dad

Following is a sort of "remembrance" that I wrote for Dad. Actually, I wrote two of them -- one that was more biographical, and one that was more personal. The shorter, more personal one ended up in the  booklet distributed at the funeral. Here, I've merged the two:

 Our Dad, Norman Gerald Daoust, was not one to draw attention to himself or his accomplishments. In fact, every year he asked us (his wife and kids) to skip his birthday celebration—a request that was annually denied. For his 80th birthday, we put together a book of memories, but just as we began to read him some of the anecdotes, he stopped us with a raised hand, thanked us very much, and insisted that he would read them later.

He would undoubtedly protest this brief remembrance as well. Still, we did not want to let him pass without recalling a few highlights from his time with us. As a compromise, we will follow his constant maxim: “Keep it simple.” (He was a good engineer, after all.)

Dad was born on February 8, 1926, to Irene and Wilfred D’Aoust, in Worchester, Massachusetts. (The family moved to Windsor, Canada, shortly after his birth, and later to Detroit, Michigan.) The first of four children, Norman was the quiet one. He would often be found listening to music on his homemade radio, or climbing the plum tree in the backyard, or (in his teens) walking all the way into Detroit with a friend.

Occasionally he got up to mischief with his siblings. He liked to tell the story about how he and his family had a colossal food and water fight (the garden hose was involved); it took three days to clean up and dry out the house. At the summer cabin they visited on Lake Erie, he and his brothers would try to sink the rowboat for fun.

Beyond a few stories like that, he did not talk much about his growing up years. Those were the years of the Great Depression; for a while, his family lived in a single room in the back of a grocery store. He also faced personal challenges. He was legally blind (the result of Leber’s optical atrophy, an uncorrectable genetic condition) long before visually impaired people received help from the school system or the government. And as the quiet, near-sighted, classical-music-loving kid in a rough neighborhood, he had his fair share of trouble with bullies. It’s not surprising that he dropped out of his vo-tech high school; besides not being able to see the board, apparently the students were wild enough to regularly jump out of the windows, and at least one teacher lectured from a chair on top of his desk.
After leaving high school at age 16, he worked numerous jobs. According to the notes I have from an interview I did with my Mom for that 80th birthday remembrance book, he worked as a newspaper delivery boy, a shoeshine boy, a chimney sweep, a coal delivery helper, a carpenter’s apprentice, a butcher’s apprentice, and a draftsman. (Mom now says she doesn't recollect him having worked at some of those jobs.) He tried to volunteer for World War II, but was turned down because of his poor eyesight. In his early 20s, he found time to study the piano, eventually becoming good enough to consider pursuing a career as a professional concert pianist. At about the same time, he enrolled in a correspondence course in mathematics. Catching up on his education was a challenge, but he really loved math. Later, when he helped us kids with our math homework, he always worked very methodically, writing out the numbers in small, neat script on grid paper, so the rows and columns were all very straight and orderly. He eventually enrolled in Wayne State University (Detroit), where, in 1960, he earned a bachelor’s degree in math. He was 36 years old. 

 He landed a job with the Milwaukee-based AC Electronics Division of General Motors, where he worked on the inertial measurement and guidance systems that were used in NASA’s Apollo spacecraft. When he wasn’t working, he lived the life of a bachelor: a steak and a martini every night, fine clothes, and long nights spent playing the guitar with friends in his apartment. Because he couldn’t drive, he biked just about everywhere.

He was also involved with the Catholic Alumni Club (CAC), playing the guitar for their Masses and eventually becoming vice president. It was in the CAC that he met Patricia Donahue. They first met on a CAC canoe trip on the Wolf River; he offered her a place to sit next to him when the attentions of a few other guys seemed to be making her uncomfortable. They went on their first date (a steak dinner, of course) on her birthday, September 7. He proposed to her in November. Initially, her parents had misgivings about the sixteen-year difference in their ages, but he eventually won their respect, and the two were married the following June. It was 1967.

Two years later, Norman became a father with the birth of his first son. Two years after that, in 1971, he was laid off as a result of the space program winding down; his first daughter was born around the same time. He was unemployed for a year, and then worked for the city and a technical college as a math instructor for a while.

In 1974, he got a call from his old boss at AC Electronics offering him a job as a computer engineer with the Control Data Corporation, one of the world’s leading supercomputer firms. Norman worked for Control Data for the next eighteen years, first on supercomputers, and later, on quality control issues for the new computer hard drives that Control Data was pioneering. (These were the new 14-inch hard drives. He once worked on a problem for more than a year; he sat bolt upright in bed one night, exclaiming, "That's it!") He would bike to work in the summer and take the bus in the winter. After work, he would have an Old Milwaukee beer with his dinner. 

Many people define themselves by their occupation or career. But even though he worked very hard to get those good jobs (especially considering his visual impairment), Dad was not defined by his work. Several times throughout his career, he was offered opportunities to advance into management positions. He always turned them down, because he knew that management meant longer hours, and less time with his family. It was typical of him to quietly make a sacrifice for someone else.

With five kids in a small house, one of his major sacrifices was the quiet order that made mathematics and classical music so appealing to him. We kids had many fine qualities, but quiet and orderliness certainly were not among them. When we asked him why he didn’t say more during dinner, his bemused answer would inevitably be, “Because I can’t get a word in edgewise!”

He made room for us anyway, and then some. He played catch with us, even though he had difficulty seeing the ball; he was the “monster” whenever we went swimming; he took each of us out to restaurants for one-on-one “dates.” All of us kids remember the times he spent comforting us after a scary nightmare in the middle of the night. He didn’t rush us back into bed, but sat quietly and talked to us until we had calmed down. And whenever we struggled with our math homework, we knew where to turn. He would take out his golden mechanical pencils and his blue grid paper, and for the next half an hour or so, he’d methodically demonstrate how to solve the problem in his small, neat script.

He taught us how to live, too. As little kids, we got a few good spankings here and there; he didn’t like it, but thought it was necessary (“Someday you’ll thank me for this!” he’d say). As we grew older, lectures were his preferred method of discipline. The length of these lectures became legendary among us kids! But he was also willing to spend lots of time listening to our problems. He could commiserate, having had his own share of problems growing up. He handed on his faith to us, too—not only through his living example, but also during “Family Time,” a regular time for talking about family issues and learning about the faith.

As his health declined, he increasingly relied on that faith. His prayers had always been simple, respectful, and devout, but in his last few months, they became even simpler. “Jesus, have mercy,” was his constant prayer whenever the suffering became too much. And in the last few days, when he lost even his ability to speak, he locked his eyes on the crucifix on the wall, and his fingers around the crucifix in his hand. This was his final “Family Time” lesson for us: teaching us how to die well. Two days before he died, he kissed each of us goodbye, and whispered three words that seemed to sum up his life: “I love you.” 

Norman Daoust was a humble man, not one to draw attention to himself. And yet, we are left amazed by the fruit of his simple life. His sister and brothers call him their hero and their friend, and the love he showed his wife and five children has been multiplied again and again as it is passed on to friends and neighbors and twenty grandchildren, and finally, to the God of heaven and earth. In the end, that is his most beautiful and enduring mathematical equation.