My Dad died on Father’s Day 30 years ago. On a beautiful June night, my family walked out of Mary Hitchcock Hospital, then in Dartmouth, N.H., where he had been rushed two weeks earlier after suffering an aortic aneurysm. We were exhausted and dazed.
If Dad wasn’t larger than life, he certainly was brimming over with it. Even today, in my mind’s eye, I can see him limping onto the tennis court, waving his racquet before the game against a phantom foe, or standing on the deck of my parent’s Vermont home, a Marlboro dangling from the corner of his mouth, eyes twinkling.
Dad never met our two daughters, but they’ve met him, in family stories shared during holiday celebrations. In fact, “Gunther stories” crop up just about everywhere when we see relatives and old family friends. He was just too big a personality to bury and forget.
Gunther Lanson was born Gunther Lichtenstein in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 19, 1909, the only child of a bank executive and a mother so imperious that we called her “the duchess” as boys. But there was nothing stuck up about Gunther, as all my college friends called him. His was an American story.
He fled Hitler’s Germany, hiking over the mountains into Czechoslovakia in 1935. Though he’d earned a doctorate in German law, once he found his way to America, he learned English by working as a movie usher for $14 a week. He joined the U.S. Army in World War II, serving as a staff sergeant for a propaganda unit whose main mission was to break the will of German soldiers by sending broadcasts behind enemy lines.
Back home, he took a job as sales promotion manager for his uncle’s lighting company in the era of three-martini Madison Avenue lunches. He bought a prefab Levitt house in Carle Place, Long Island, for his family, paying $14,000, and did his best to catch the Penn Station train that got him home at 6:31 for dinner. But if this was a Leave It to Beaver life for my brother Dennis and I, Gunther, I suspect, would have preferred something more exciting, more international, more bohemian.
Still, if he sacrificed to support us all, he never lost his essential self. That is the man I remember, a rotund, white-haired, mostly bald gentleman with a thick German accent who loved to bend the rules (unless he’d set them), could be generous to a fault and periodically left us all trembling when he “blew,” family shorthand for his temper tantrums.
Sometimes bending the rules was something as simple as the thrill of sneaking into more expensive seats at the ballpark. Dad seemed to enjoy that challenge as much as he did the game on the field.
Sometimes it was something more serious. So, for example, when in the days of segregation my family took a boat ride across the Chesapeake Bay, he sat us down in the empty “colored” dining section rather than standing in line for the crowded “whites only” one. After a bit of heated fencing, he got served. I’d like to say it was a blow for social justice, but suspect Dad was simply hungry.
Still, having gone to college under the spreading cloud of Nazi law, he didn’t hesitate to do what he considered right rather than what was required, a few times taking personal risks to help friends of my brother during the turbulent Vietnam era.
Gunther Lanson prided himself in helping. When I was a kid, he would drive us all over the greater New York area on the weekends to visit the old German ladies — friends, family, his mother. After he’d retired to Vermont, he’d regularly drive two hours to Boston to pick up a neighbor or one of us at the airport. When the Connecticut River overflowed its banks, he won the trust of his reserved Vermont neighbors by helping one of the toughest and poorest families in the community.
It was not that Gunther Lanson was a do-gooder. He’d have shuddered at the mere thought. He was as politically incorrect as they come, openly flirting with waitresses in front of his wife and kids, sometimes talking too loudly or too crudely, embarrassing us with more frequency than I’d like to remember. But he cared about people and would always take them for who they were, not what they were worth or their rank or stature in society.
That, to me, was his greatest gift. On this day, three decades after his death, I miss him still.