Prime Time: Dad: An American Dream realized
As Father's Day approaches, I reflect on how lucky I was to have a father who was, for me, a role model, a mentor, a self-made man, and my personal idol. From the farthest recesses of my memory, I can recall nothing but complete love and adoration for the man I call Dad.
My dad (Ted Langhoff, 1914-2006) grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, one of 10 children, living in a drafty house, sharing a bedroom with two brothers, and taking on his share of chores and responsibilities as a young boy. He was hardly pre-destined for success.
He took the sheep out to pasture, cleaned the barn, split and hauled wood. Some of his stories were idyllic - like his tales of days in the pasture with the sheep when he and his brother made slingshots to shoot blackbirds that they could roast for lunch. Other stories were less romanticized and involved long days of farm work, injuries, his sister's death from "black diphtheria" when she was just 14, and the subsequent quarantine of his entire family while neighbors dropped off groceries and supplies at the mailbox.
He and his siblings attended a country school, but hard times led the older ones to quit school to find jobs. His sister Tiena was the first to leave, finding work in Yakima, Wash., as a housekeeper for a wealthy family that managed to remain unaffected by the depression. Dad's brother Emery followed and got a job as a maintenance man for the same family. Both sent money home to help keep the farm going and the family fed. My father, too, went west to Yakima.
He often told of his attempts to make money during the Great Depression. First, he tried hustling pool until one night when he was robbed and all his winnings were taken. Next, he tried to get a job at an orchard. When the supervisor asked if he knew how to prune trees, Dad said yes; but the first time the boss observed my dad at work, it was obvious that he knew nothing about pruning trees. It was also obvious, however, that Ted was a hard worker and quick to learn, so he was taught to prune trees.
Dad also worked as a carpenter and, for a while, in a coal mine in Washington before returning to Minnesota, where he met my mother on a dance floor and vowed he'd marry that little lady. The friend in whom he confided this told him he was nuts because "that little lady" was already engaged to be married to the guy she was dancing with.
Dad was not one to be easily discouraged. Once he set his sights on something, he pursued it with all the energy he had. Within a few months, the little lady had broken off her engagement, and within another year, she married my dad.
He worked as a farmhand for a local farmer who happened to be on the draft board. Not wanting to lose his right hand man, the farmer made sure Ted was not drafted. When his two brothers went off to war, Dad remained on the farm.
Like most young couples in the mid-1940's, he and my mom started out with next to nothing, but with hard work and careful money management, they moved from a small apartment to a small house and eventually to the dream home that Dad envisioned. With a little less than an eighth grade education, Dad managed to work his way from farm hand to truck driver to the manager of the Cargill plant in St. Peter. He was a Horatio Alger story personified.
He was not rich, but he had everything he wanted. He worked hard and played hard - fishing, hunting, golfing, bowling, dancing, and spending time with family. If he sounds like a workaholic, he was; but somehow, he managed to find time for everything he loved, including his family.
He was not an extravagant man, but he always had money in the bank, a good car, a well-maintained house, a manicured lawn, a membership to the local country club, and the respect of the community. He avoided debt, choosing instead to save up ahead of time if he wished to buy a new car or a fishing boat.
With limited formal education and having grown up speaking a mix of German and English, he struggled with reading; but for work, he needed more knowledge of numbers than letters, and this he had. He also knew how to talk to people - and how to listen. He was genuine, kind, and caring. People trusted him, liked him, and established long-lasting business and personal relationships with him.
He was a self-made man, the American Dream come true, a success story from the 20th century; yet he never forgot who he was.
In today's world, Dad might not have realized his dream. Without an education, his opportunities would have been limited. In a world where people buy success and power, he would still be relying on his own skills and work ethic.
For his sake, and for mine, I'm glad he belonged to the 20th century.