As a Father’s Day tribute, here’s what I said about him at his memorial service in February 2009…
After reflecting on remembrances of my dad that I wanted to share with you, several themes emerged, some expected, some surprising — cars, trains, Pennsylvania, being there, rootedness, modesty, and a twinkle in the eye.
Modesty was a surprisingly strong theme. My dad wasn’t a self-effacing person, but I don’t remember him ever bragging or calling attention to himself. He did many things in his own modest way.
He was a modest socializer. During his parental life at least, his socializing consisted of visiting close friends and family, vacationing with Mom’s relatives, and avoiding non-family social gatherings like the plague. But he had a knack for starting up a conversation. Once about 12 years ago we were vacationing in Avalon, NJ. My sister Candie and I asked my parents repeatedly what they wanted to do while they were there — visit the local gardens, go to the beach, do something? ‘Nothing — we’re fine just being here.’ So my sister and I went off visiting and swimming and all; when we came back at the end of the day I asked Dad how his day was. He started talking about a doctor he met from Philadelphia and about this guy’s life and family and — “Dad”, I interrupted him — “you haven’t gone anywhere all day; how did you meet a doctor from Philly?” It turned out that he sat on the front steps of the beach house on Dune Drive, greeting people as they walked by, striking up conversations; and apparently, this actually works — at least it did for him.
He was a modest rebel. One of the modestly rebellious things my dad did on more than one occasion was to take the family out for a Sunday drive — on a road which hadn’t been opened yet. So, for example, we were surely one of the first families, if not the first, to travel down PA 283, the “new” road between Highspire and Lancaster. I still remember the ride — going right around the “Road Closed” barriers, driving down this brand new four-lane road all by ourselves, my mom pleading “Jack! Slow down! What if the bridges aren’t done yet?” That prospect added even more excitement to the ride, but dad worked for PennDOT, so he knew that the road construction was complete — I think.
He was a modest pioneer. The progenitor of the Sener family in America, Gottlieb Soehner, got off the boat in Philadelphia in 1749, and promptly took part in that great American tradition of the westward migration. It’s just taken our family a little bit longer. To my knowledge, it took our branch of the Seners over 200 years to migrate across the Susquehanna River, thanks to my dad who settled our family on the West Shore just outside of Camp Hill around 1952. Then there was the Great Move of 1967 when we migrated an additional three miles westward to Good Hope Farms, where he spent almost all of his remaining 41 years. By my calculations, if our branch of the Sener family had continued migrating westward at this pace, we would not have reached Pittsburgh until the year 2859. But then again, this was a man who thought the idea of my going to college in Ohio was positively exotic.
Of course, this all makes sense because my dad was a Pennsylvanian through and through. Most of the childhood memories which have come to back to mind over the past several days — playing in Little League games, getting Dum Dum lollipops at the barber shop on Railroad Street in Shiremanstown, riding the modest rides at Willow Mill and Williams Grove amusement parks, watching Bears hockey or high school basketball playoff games at the old Hershey arena, buying toys at EJ Korvette’s and the Middletown Merchandise Mart and Joe the Motorists’ Friend, which despite its name sold cool toys — are of things he enabled to happen at places close to home, well within the state borders, and long gone or no longer used.
Even more important to him than sense of place was a sense of rootedness. His home was meant to be a place where family and possessions could gather, relate, endure. One of our cherished family traditions perfectly embodies this: the Christmas tree platform. Under the tree were Lionel HO gauge tracks and trains and the timeless village of Plasticville; later came the Model Motoring race cars. One year we got really elaborate and set up three conjoined platforms in the basement with trains, village, race cars, and a slot car track. In other words, vehicles that make their journeys without ever leaving the comfort of your home, and that stay on track, mostly — although we reliably got yelled at when we tried to crash the trains or cars on purpose. And, of course, trains, village, race cars, slot cars, and many of those toys bought when we were kids are still down in the basement of his house — gathered along with countless other objects of relative enduring importance.
I could go on, but perhaps you’ve guessed what I’m really up to here. Because what I remember first and foremost about my dad is his love of telling stories. I hope that the stories I’ve just told echo his love for telling stories, and perhaps they help you remember him fondly through stories he told to you over the years.
Storytelling was perhaps his favorite way of communicating. His stories were characterized by understated humor and never-stated but common themes: the everyday absurdities of working for the state; what people were doing now — neighbors, former neighbors, people you grew up with but had forgotten about, people you didn’t know at all; highlights of trips he clearly enjoyed after having groused about taking them right up to the day of departure. But he didn’t tell stories to convey life lessons or important information, or to persuade, or even to entertain. For him, telling stories was a means of personal connection, of being there, of being rooted in a way he enjoyed. So at some point in his telling a story, usually related to a twist of plot or humor, you could reliably count on seeing a twinkle in his eye.
The day before he died, I talked with him on the phone. To be perfectly honest, the conversation did not make a whole lot of sense at the time; he told a story which involved a store where they displayed and sold model trains, the prospect of franchising that store nationally and making a healthy profit from it, and a boy who got a green lollipop. My sister Patty told me later that he was animated and lucid for an hour or two afterward. I suspect a twinkle in the eye was involved as well.
Thanks, Dad, for all the rides, for being there, for embodying the value of rootedness and the gentle gifts of modest pursuits, and for the twinkle in your eye.