Saturday, June 18, 2011


Sidney is your very typical Midwestern small town. The seat of Shelby County, in west central Ohio, the clarion bells in the county courthouse still chime angelic hymns every Sunday afternoon. In its shadow are the businesses and merchants surrounding the town square, including a bank building designed by the famous American architect Louis Sullivan, and a hamburger joint simply known as "The Spot." The town is the subject of the 2009 documentary 45365, named for its zip code, and produced by two native sons, Bill and Turner Ross.

The town is a prominent landmark at one end of a five-county region known as "The Land of the Cross-Tipped Churches." By the 1840s, the area once home to the Miami Indian nation, was settled and parceled by immigrants of French and German origin, most of them Catholic. The edifices that were built as testimony to their Faith, under the guidance of missionary priests from the Society of the Precious Blood, punctuate the landscape, marking the little hamlets where their people settled. It was out of that broad, flat, agrarian land, not far from the log cabin where Annie "Get Your Gun" Oakley was born in 1860, that Leonard Alexander and Viola Barga* began their married life, settling in the town of Sidney, where the husband found work at a tool and die factory.

PHOTO: Holy Angels Church, Sidney, Ohio.

Leonard had been a teetotaler before getting into "the family business" operated by his mother, the former Ann Katherine Grilliot (Grillot), a feisty and formidable woman, who produced a byproduct of corn in the bathtub of their farmhouse, and had husband and sons on the payroll of her enterprise. But over time, and with end of Prohibition, a taste of the spirits was getting the best of him. Work at the Sidney Machine Tool Company was not always steady during the Great Depression, and Leonard was not above self-medicating, and taking his troubles out on his boys, and in particular, on his wife. The older boys grew to despise their father, and in a house without certainty, and without peace, found solace among the more "spirited" youth (as Paul would refer to them later) that roamed the streets of that town in the heartland.

But Paul was different. He found his solace in anything that could keep him out of both the house, and the sort of trouble that occupied his older brothers. The good Sisters of Charity ran the Holy Angels School. They knew the real story behind "the friendliest man in Sidney." Paul was given any number of tasks, from cleaning blackboards and hallways, to learning to play the clarinet and the french horn for the school band. He also loved to play "fast-pitch" softball, and was the best catcher and clean-up batter in Shelby County. His team, sponsored by The Sidney Dairy Company, won the county title in the summer of 1940.

PHOTO: Paul at his desk in high school, Latin textbook at the ready, Saint Gregory Minor Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio, circa 1940.

Paul found companionship in a mentor, a young assistant priest named Father William Goldschmidt. The pastor wasn't the easiest man to live with either, so the young father and his spiritual protege went on hikes and other outings together. It was likely from this experience, that Paul felt a calling to the priesthood. So upon graduating from the parish school, he left home for Cincinnati, one hundred miles to the south, to Saint Gregory Seminary, the preparatory school and minor seminary components of the Athenaeum of Ohio.

In later years, he would call them "the best of years of my life outside of being married." He was an outstanding student, and the best man ever to stand at the plate staring down a pitcher during pickup games. Through classmates with families living nearby, he spent his weekends getting a taste of family life as it was meant to be, at least relative to his understanding. It was in these years that he found comfort and the sense of order and stability for which he craved. Paul completed high school, and went on to the college program. By the end of the third year, however, something changed. It has never been clear to anyone other than Paul or his spiritual director, one Father Charles Murphy, just what it was -- he told his children later that the first sign was "I stopped getting straight A's -- but there was an understanding that he did not have a calling to priestly life after all. Father Murphy helped him find work, mostly janitorial duties at various parishes in the city. He stayed at The Fenwick Club, a Catholic men's boarding house located downtown, and completed his studies at the Jesuit-run Xavier University. He majored in Latin, if only because he had more credits in that subject than anything else by then.

PHOTO: Paul in his cassock as a college student, Saint Gregory Minor Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio, Spring 1944
One of the priest-professors cared little for this non-Jesuit interloper, and appeared determined that Paul fail his final oral examination. On the appointed day, Divine Providence intervened, and the would-be antagonist came down with a fever. Paul graduated from Xavier University in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages. He sought work as a high school teacher in the comfortable eastern suburbs. In the fashionable district known as Mariemont, he was rejected for being a Xavier graduate, which was to say that no Catholic would ever get a job teaching children in that thoroughly Protestant enclave. His search took him across the county line -- without a car, he was not above thumbing a ride to get anywhere -- into the farmland east of the city. He eventually taught English and Latin in a wide spot in the road known as Fayetteville.

By the end of the 1940s, when he wasn't teaching school, he was driving the bus and refereeing basketball games. (He detested the latter duty, especially the catcalls over every decision he made against any player.) He loved teaching, and found himself quite good at it. Any cocky young farm boy who thought he could best his teacher, found out very quickly that Paul did not suffer fools gladly. One student said later, "There was no messing with Mr Alexander; you knew exactly where you stood with him."

PHOTO: Paul's high school faculty portrait, 1950.

In time, Paul won the respect of his students, and even had an easy rapport with one group in particular. Among them was a girl named Dorothy Ann Rosselot. She was very attractive, but not as frivolous or outgoing as the other girls. She was smart, sensible, and hard working. Paul was a man of disciplined habits, and could not imagine any intentions toward one of this students. Be that as it may, a few weeks after graduation, he called upon the young girl, and asked her out on a date. Two years later, on the 14th of June, 1952, they were married.

By this time, Paul had already signed up for reserve duty, with the 123rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron of the Ohio Air National Guard. His seminary deferment had kept him out of the latter years of the war, but even in the years that followed, a young American man simply viewed enlistment as the continuation of duty to country. No sooner had he been married, however, than his unit was called to active duty, and the young Air Force sergeant was promoted to second lieutenant, and sent with the occupation forces in Germany as a payroll officer, leaving his new bride to live with her sister in an apartment in Cincinnati.

PHOTO: Paul on his wedding day, June 1952. He would leave for active duty with the American occupation force in Germany shortly after this picture was taken.

Upon his return, and convinced he could never support a growing family as a schoolteacher, he took some business classes at night, and got a job at Procter and Gamble, the world's largest manufacturer of consumer and household products, which was headquartered in Cincinnati. There was not position at the front office at that time, so he was sent to Cleveland. By the end of 1954, at Saint Ann's Maternity Hospital on the east side, his firstborn, yours truly came into the world at about seven in the morning.

Eventually the young husband and father found a position with P&G in Cincinnati, closer to extended family. They bought a starter home in a small yet growing hamlet on the eastern outskirts known as Milford. There they raised four children -- boy, girl, boy, girl, in that order.

Paul was a man of his time, and the changing of those times was not accepted easily. A devoted husband and father, and a devout Catholic, he had built for himself and for his own, a world where there was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. His children were encouraged in their talents, each to his or her own path. He was a civic leader, an elected public official, and at one point, a Scoutmaster. His was the generation that defeated an evil bent on world domination, and there was nothing they could not do if they banded together for a common cause. But the social and political upheavals in the 1960s were a threat to that perfect balance, that common cause. If the world was going to spin out of control, he was determined that it would never touch his sphere of influence. Paul was a strict disciplinarian, but as time went on and his children grew older, he found himself losing that grip on his surroundings. The world of order and serenity he had sought his entire life, the world he believed he had finally found, was crumbling around him.

Paul was losing control -- of his career ambitions, to where others of average talent were promoted ahead of him; of his temper, to the point of uncontrollable rage; of his health, to where he would see doctors for his nerves, and they would prescribe Valium. Indeed, it was his health that was getting the best of him. One thing went wrong, then another, and later something else, without a conclusion from his doctors. This went on for several years, while his frustration grew with it, and his wife and children bore the brunt of that frustration. In the fall of 1970, shortly after his forty-fifth birthday, the doctors finally gave his affliction a name -- multiple sclerosis.

PHOTO: Downtown Milford, Ohio, as it appears today.

It was two or three years before Paul learned to accept the limitations that came with MS. His wife Dorothy summoned her courage, knowing that faithfulness to her marriage vow meant forsaking a retirement of leisure. That there was no question of her love and devotion to Paul, and to the children she bore him, did not make this any easier, and for her, the early years of that affliction were of melancholy, culminating in quiet resolution. By the time Paul left the business world on disability, on his fifty-second birthday, he and his wife reached an understanding. Over time, the "balance of power" in the household would have to accommodate a shifting of responsibilities. This was not the variety of MS that was "relapsing-remitting," for which there was often medication or treatment. It was the "progressive-degenerative" variety. Short of a complete cure, or a miracle, Paul would never get better, and Dorothy's life would never get easier.

The children came of age, each in their own way. The oldest began college in the fall of 1973. He was ordered to get a haircut "off the neck, and off the ears," the weekend before starting classes. The young man was almost nineteen. It was the last time Paul would issue such a directive. By the time the firstborn neared his twenty-sixth birthday, he had graduated, struggled to retain employment in a weak economy, and eventually left everything he knew, for a new life in another city, five hundred miles to the east. He was the only one of the four to leave Cincinnati.

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In light of the above, what can I say I learned from my Dad? The answer to that is the other side of the story.

PHOTO: The author with his mother and father at a parish Oktoberfest, October 2010.

In our lives we meet people with many gifts, some greater than our own, some of which never reach fruition. Talent can be wasted with a lack of discipline. Intelligence can be subverted by pride or bad judgment. Wealth can be squandered by mere foolishness. It is perseverance that covers a host of sins. During Dad's first years at Procter and Gamble, he was fortunate to leave Cleveland when a position opened for him in Cincinnati. He found himself reporting to a man who made his life a living hell. The man thought that if he made Dad miserable enough, Dad would go away. Eventually, he did -- to a dead-end position elsewhere in the company, anywhere but under his nemesis. It was there that he bid his time until a very promising position opened up in the main headquarters building, as a Sales Assistant in the Soap Products Division. He would be the "detail man" providing administrative support for sales representatives in the field. Dad had an incomparable eye for such detail -- no "I" would go undotted, no "T" would go uncrossed, not on his watch -- and it was in those years that his reputation among the movers and shakers of the corporation flourished. It was here that perseverance ruled.

Dad was a man of uncommon generosity. For years, he quietly offered financial and material support to a single mother of five children abandoned by Dorothy's cousin, who like his own father was an alcoholic. Dad expected no reward, and as the woman's fortunes improved, he got none. She eventually ceased any and all contact with our family. Dad would not have done anything differently. It was a corporal work of mercy, therefore the right thing to do, and that was all that mattered.

When I was in Scouting, Dad volunteered as Scoutmaster when no one else would. This was quite a challenge for a man who was not accustomed to the outdoor life. He soon won the able assistance of those who were. Dad was eventually pressured to approve the Eagle Scout award for two sons of a wealthy man. These young men did not endeavor to meet the service requirements of such an honor, and Dad held firm in his refusal. Their father proceeded to destroy Dad's reputation, to the point where the veterans' group that sponsored our unit "accepted" his resignation. Dad continued to encourage my progress toward Eagle, even as he was banned from Scouting; ironically, for the unspeakable crime of upholding its ideals.

But even these were not his greatest achievement.

To a man who considered himself obligated to control his entire universe, even to assume that he could, God bestowed what C S Lewis called "the gift of suffering." Those who do not suffer bear the illusion that all is well, that they have no need of God, thus they do not seek Him, thus they do not find Him. The hardest lesson for Dad, was to learn that it was not he, but God, who was in control. Thus pain became "a megaphone to rouse a deaf world." God spoke, and His servant listened. When my marriage was falling apart, it was the end of my world. The man who once lost his temper at the drop of a hat, became the wounded warrior, to lead the way through the pain of divorce, the occasional setbacks in my professional life, and for a time, the estrangement of my only son. He was the father I never had, when I needed him most of all.

His example has inspired an entire household. The house on the street where I grew up was transformed into a nursing home with only one client, extensively renovated to meet a special set of needs, with Mom taking care of Dad, and two daughters -- one a geriatric nurse, the other a homemaker who gave up a lucrative career -- assisting Mom. The other son manages his parents' financial and other affairs, and any one of six grandsons (not to mention a daughter-in-law) have a share in the yard work. In the heat of summer, the Alexander lawn is the greenest on the block.

Dad has been blessed with a long life. He will turn eighty-six come this September, which is better than average even for a much healthier man. In the summer of 2012, he and Mom will have been married for sixty years. His reward in the present world is that which was promised years ago, when a priest stood before him and his bride, and prayed the Nuptial Blessing.

O God, who by Thine own mighty power, didst make all things out of nothing: who, having set in order the beginnings of the world, didst appoint Woman to be an inseparable helpmeet to Man, made like unto God, so that Thou didst give to woman's body its beginnings in man's flesh, thereby teaching that what it pleased Thee to form from one substance, might never be lawfully separated ... and come to the repose of the blessed and the kingdom of heaven. May they both see their children's children to the third and fourth generation, and may they reach the old age which they desire.

There are no doubt many tributes to fathers published on Father's Day. They are written by grateful sons and daughters, who cannot say enough good things. But there are no manuals that come with newborn babes, and mothers as well as fathers are left to fend for themselves, both to learn by what they know from their past, and as they go along in the present. Their children are usually well into adulthood before they learn, that their parents are no less subject to the stumbling of human frailty than they are themselves. The best thing I can say about my Dad, is not only that he was a great father, but that he was a great father in spite of himself.

I cannot ask more of a man than that. I only hope my son expects no more of me.

UPDATE 06/16/2013: Closer to the present, click here.

[Special recognition must be given to my sister, Patricia Alexander Drybala, for compiling photos from Dad's early years. Thanks, Pat. -- DLA]


Tina said...

Really nice post, touching and direct.

Tina in Ashburn

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