Laddy Stehlik was not a very complicated man. Everyone who has spoken to us these last few days described him as a good man, a true gentleman, always smiling. But there is more than that. He was a guy who joined a church in Yorkville because they had a basketball court that was lit at night, but found religion at a small rural Catholic church in Ottsville, PA. He was an Army Sergeant (and a Drill Instructor) during the Korean War (serving stateside at Fort Jackson, SC), after which our mom agreed that he just might be marryable. He was good with numbers, and had the most erect posture and purposeful walk of anyone I have ever met. He was a really good bowler and a man who taught me to appreciate Jack Daniel's.
He worked three jobs (accountant at G. Schirmer, a music publisher; helping at the print plant on weekends; pump jockey at a gas station) when we were growing up — for the longest time, I thought he didn't like Paul and me! It wasn't until much later when we realized that's how he made ends meet for his young family. He was a hard worker, but a lousy baseball coach. To this day, I have no idea what, "You swing like a rusty gate", means. And both Paul and I lived in fear of the words, "Wait until your father gets home." (although I figured I was safe since the running joke was that I looked like the milkman). As befit his DI background, he yelled at us when we were growing up, and family "conversations" were often contentious, but he taught us what he thought was important and, having done so, trusted us to do the rest.
For my high school graduation, he gave me the keys to the Plymouth and an Exxon card, and waved goodbye as Paul, Vyek, and I drove to the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, TN, the first of many road trips to come. Four years later, he did so again, and Paul, John, and I drove to the Grand Canyon and back. I will never forget that trip as it instilled in me a desire to travel and see new places that I have until this day.
While we didn't have a lot of money, dad kept us entertained. I don't know how many Ranger games Paul and I saw as kids, but taking the subway to Madison Square Garden was a lot of fun (and made lifelong hockey fans of both of us). Every year, there were treks to Babylon and, later, Montauk. Not far, but far enough to get us out of the city. And then there was the country house in Quakertown — how many fish did we feed at Lake Nockamixon and how many games of 500 rummy and Uno did we play? All wonderful memories of him for us to keep in our hearts.
For a man of his generation, he was remarkably objective. A quick story concerning my first date with Syl, my wife. I came home at around 1am, but dad was still up, waiting by the window, as he always did when Paul or I were out. So I came in and said, "There's something special about this woman." To which he replied, as he did so often, "You're full of ..it!" But, five years later, when I told him that I was going to ask her to marry me, he said, "It's about time!" Now consider that Syl was Puerto Rican, divorced, and had a seven-year old kid. Talk about 3 strikes! Yet he could see her as the wonderful person she was and, 32 years later, his faith in my judgment was well-founded, which I know made him very happy.
My one regret was not really being able to say an appropriate goodbye. Two weeks from now, on May 14, I was going to surprise him with a visit on what would have been his 83rd birthday. Because of that, I thought his death to be incredibly unfair. But, in truth, most of us never get to have that exact conversation. If you can, the one you love is critically injured or otherwise hurting which makes it difficult. And when things are not critical, it's just not the time. The best we can hope for, and what I believe we all had with my dad, was enough approximations to that talk over the course of a lifetime that there really wasn't anything left to say but, simply, "I love you", "thanks", and "goodbye".
And as to his death being unfair, one has to ask, to whom? Unfair to us, perhaps, as we grieve the loss, but he died peacefully, having lived a good life. A man who would have been married 60 years this June 5th, very proud of his two sons, knowing he loved, and was loved by, both of them and their wives and his grandchildren and new great-grandson. That is a life worth celebrating!
Go with the angels, dad; rest in peace.