Memories of my Dad, Colonel Jack Sharp
He was an amazing Dad, an example and inspiration. He was a kind and generous man, a liberal firebrand, an Air Force Colonel, a peace activist, a scientist, a professional counselor, a national champion gymnast, a skeptic, and an author. He was a wonderful husband and loved Mom with all his heart. He never stopped learning and he was always excited to be alive.
We all miss him terribly.
Here’s some of what I said at Dad’s funeral:
I will talk about some moments I shared with him, moments that I cherish because in them he so much himself and I had the privilege to be there.
Fishing and Justice
Dad was very tolerant of my love for fishing. He disliked pretty much everything about it – the worms, the waiting, the fish. But out of love, out of duty, once or twice a year he would load me and my gear in the car, find a lake and indulge his son’s perverse angling passion.
The first fishing trip I remember happened in my third or fourth grade, around 1960, Tallahassee, Florida. We went to a city lake set in a small park surrounded by working class houses. I am pretty sure it was just the two of us. I don’t remember whether I had a single nibble or caught a fish.
What I do remember is two black children, boys about my age fishing just down the shore from us. A police car stopped and the officer got out of the car and talked to the black kids. They were far enough away from us that we didn’t hear the conversation. As the officer returned to his car the kids began to pack up their fishing gear.
Dad said, “Let’s go talk to them”, and I put down my pole and followed him. Although he knew the answer he asked them what the policeman had said.
“This lake is for white folk”, the older said, not looking at Dad, continuing to pack.
“That’s not right. Stay here and fish. You can fish with us.” Dad was angry.
The boys gathered their last things up as Dad tried to convince them to stay. They walked away from the lake leaving Dad outraged and leaving me with a memory I am so proud to remember and to share.
What a superb example to give me. Dad saw an intolerable injustice and he didn’t look the other way. He went right at it and did all he could to set it right. It was exactly like him to be naive about what it was possible to accomplish, what it was possible for two small black children to do in Tallahassee in 1960; he did his best to instigate an act of civil disobedience. It was the law that the lake was for whites only, the law was evil, therefore he had to encourage others to break that law.
Dad and Mom were very active in the civil rights struggle along with the UU churches we attended growing up in the south and Washington, D.C. He took me to civil rights marches as soon as I was old enough. I remember marching with him to mourn the little girls blown up in the black church. He attended the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King give his I have a Dream speech.
The Glorious Handstand
A very different moment from five years later. Junior high in Oklahoma about 1966. I was talking to some of my friends about my dad. Dad has always been a little hard to talk about to others that don’t know him, because pretty much anything you say about him sounds like you’re bragging.
That day I was bragging; I was telling my buddies about a gymnastics trick that Dad could do and they didn’t believe a word of it. So I took my buddies to find Dad. He was in our living room sitting in a high-backed upholstered chair. I told him that my friends didn’t believe me, said that he couldn’t do the trick. So he put his hands down and gripped the arms of his chair, raised himself off the seat, and without touching the chair with his feet curled himself up into a handstand and held it.
It was a delicious moment for me, my friends were astounded, my bragging was vindicated, and the glory of my father was unarguable. He later told me that he hadn’t done that trick in many years, wasn’t sure he could do it when I asked him, and that he never did it again. He was about 36.
A memory that will be tougher to tell. My family had a great long visit with mom and dad this past Christmas and I had the opportunity to work with Dad on his last woodworking project.
It was such a Dad project. He set himself a goal that was almost impossible to attain in his weakened state, to build a large hanging mirror for mom in the Tudor style of their bedroom furniture. He underestimated the time and effort it would take but threw himself into the work with absolute faith in his ability to finish it to his satisfaction.
In the week before Christmas we spent hours in his basement workshop working with his power tools. Part of the gift was the fact that it had to be a surprise to mom, not only what it was, but how big a project it was, so we stole hours to work while she was running errands.
It was sheer joy to work with him. He got intense pleasure from every stage of the project – designing the piece, cutting the wood and shaping it, assembling the parts, sanding and staining. As the final piece became visible he often smiled in satisfaction and talked about its beauty.
On Christmas morning we still had a few hours of work to do. And so at midday when it was ready, we had mom close her eyes and carried it up the stairs and he presented the gift to her. It was a moment of blazing joy – joy in Dad’s pride in his work, joy in Mom’s surprise at the what he had created and her appreciation of his loving labor, joy in Dad’s delight at mom’s reaction to his gift. Inga video-taped the giving of the gift and caught a beautiful image of their kiss in the reflection of the mirror.
Dad’s favorite Winter
In my last days with Dad we had a chance to talk for a few hours the way he always loved to talk. We talked about his book Cold Fronts, and he dictated captions for the last few photos he wanted added to the book. We went through a pile of mementos and filed them in various drawers.
He saw me looking at a pile of paper on the top of his bookshelves. He said, “That’s the winter of 83. Those are the weather maps. Did I ever tell you about that winter?”
No Dad, you never told me about the winter of 1983.
And so he launched into the last long monologue about one of his favorite subjects – the weather. Weather was one of the big loves of his life. It was filled with beauty and drama. It engaged his love of rational analysis and predictions based on physical principles.
He gestured a lot when he talked, and as he told me how the the high pressure ridges formed and diverted streams of bitter cold arctic air into the Midwest his hands curved through the air to mime the vast meteorological shapes of fronts and jetstreams and their movements as the temperature dropped to record lows. He was so proud of how his predictions caused millions of tons of natural gas to be rushed on time to Minnesota and how he called to the hour when his company should restrict the flow of gas because of approaching warmer air.
As he talked about the details of that winter he was totally engaged, filled with enthusiasm and intelligence, delighted to share such a wonderful phenomenon with a fascinated listener.
Dad and I shared many things; our shared love of science was one of the most profound and satisfying. Dad didn’t believe in God, didn’t believe in an afterlife, but he believed deeply in the holiness and beauty of the physical world and he had a profound respect for the rigorous honesty of scientific inquiry.
Some of his most beloved heroes were scientists – Feynman, the quantum physicist, Dawkins, the evolutionary theorist, Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. He loved science and of all the sciences meteorology was his passion.
And so though I’d heard the story of the winter of 83 many times it was a privilege to watch and listen to Dad as he articulately and animatedly related once again the story of his favorite winter.
The Dad word
In his final months there were times, especially when the chemotherapy was biting deepest, when Dad could hardly say a word when I talked to him on the phone, so drained of energy was he. The few words he said were words that I was left to think about.
During those tough conversations there was a word he said again and again. I would tell him something about what I was doing in my life, a project at work, gardening at home, some sweet thing that Margaret had done, and he would say, very quietly and slowly, “Wonderful.” And sometimes he would say it twice, “Wonderful, wonderful.”
At this time when he was hurting, so much of him was given to me in that word. A word that contains so much of his value and values – the world is full of wonders, it is our job to wonder, the world is good.
Of all words it describes my father best – wonderful.