Color him father

I wrote this on Father’s Day several years ago. It is a post that struck a chord with at least a few readers. I have amplified it since then and am taking the liberty of reposting these reflections in honor of the day.

My father was a thoughtful man in his own way. In the last years of his life he recited for me the things for which he was most grateful. In retrospect I can see he thought about gratitude a lot.

He listed the three things he was most grateful for in this order: 1) that his grandfather didn’t miss the boat from Russia to the United States, 2) that when his grandfather arrived in New York he kept on moving until he reached Minnesota (this although my father loved New York), and 3) that his father was born before he was. The last was his way of acknowledging his debt to his father. I join him today in all three thoughts.

He wasn’t a good student, but he urged me to get a good education. “They can never take it away from you,” he told me over and over.

After Army service in the Philippines, he went to hotel school on the GI bill in Los Angeles. He returned to Minnesota and married my mom, Rivian, his high school sweetheart. They moved from St. Paul to Fargo-Moorhead so my dad could manage the Comstock Hotel in Moorhead.

My dad loved the hotel/restaurant business. He established the Las Vegas Lounge and the Chuck Wagon buffet (“All you can eat” for 50 cents) at the Comstock. The Chuck Wagon was a raging success. Below is a late ’50’s photo of the sign on the roof of the Comstock when the price of the buffet had skyrocketed to 60 cents.

Below is a photo of my dad checking Hubert Humphrey in to the Comstock. I would guess the photo dates from 1954, when Humphrey ran for reelection as Senator. My dad would have been 26.

Below is a photo of my dad checking Orville Freeman in to the Comstock. I would guess the photo also dates from 1954, when Freeman was elected governor.

Humphrey and Freeman had retaken the DFL Party from the Communists between 1946 and 1948. I wrote about their efforts in “Revolutionary theater in Minneapolis.” We could use men like them again in Minnesota politics, but they are nowhere to be found inside the DFL. That much I can tell you, as Donald Trump would put it.

We moved from Moorhead to St. Paul in 1958 when my grandfather died. My dad sold the Comstock in 1960 and bought what was then mostly a trucker’s motel in Roseville, Minnesota, just north of the state fairgrounds in St. Paul. In the early 1960’s he remodeled it and added a restaurant, a bar, and a buffet.

When I was in law school I used to meet my dad for lunch at his restaurant. One day I found him in the kitchen by the heat lamps pushing out the meals to the customers. It was busy. Mopping his brow, he reflected, “This is my punishment for my lack of education.” I told him that the punishment didn’t fit the crime. We both laughed.

I started thinking about my father and this Father’s Day when I heard the old Winstons’ single “Color Him Father” on the radio last week. I learn from the Allmusic Guide entry on them that the Winstons were a Washington, D.C.-based soul act led by Richard Spencer. Spencer was born in North Carolina, where he received some formal training on the piano.

In 1969 the Winstons hit it big with “Color Him Father.” The single was a top ten R&B and pop hit. Spencer wrote the song and won a Grammy for it. At this point it sounds like a story from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It might even be deemed hate speech where the thought police hold sway.

The father depicted in the song sets a good example for his seven kids. He works hard to support his family. He emphasizes the importance of education. He also has a big heart for the kids. As if that were not enough, Spencer loads an O. Henry twist into the last verse: the man is the kids’ stepfather. Their father was killed in the war.

I wonder if the father in Spencer’s life resembled the man in the song. Spencer followed one of the that man’s precepts, taking time out from show business to pursue his education in 1979. (First posted in 2010, amplified in 2020.)

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