My father, Don Giffin, died at 3:30 am on September 3, 2009, at the age of 82, after a long struggle with emphysema, diabetes, and leukemia. He had labored long and hard over the last several years and his body was finally spent; his lungs simply could not gather enough oxygen to sustain his life. He drew his last breath peacefully with my brother and sister at his side.
At about the same time, aboard a 757 red eye flight at 37,000 feet over the heartland of America, I woke up. As I looked over the plains of my ancestors under a waxing moon, I wondered if my father would still be alive when I arrived and what would I say to him. Would I be the one to give him permission to go? And could I do it? What words of comfort does a son give his dying father?
Ah yes, words, the placement of words in strings of sentences-well-considered, thoughtful, carefully chosen words. Examined for their nuances of meaning and the poetry of their sound. Words were the very basis of my relationship with my father.
As a young child of divorced parents, some of my earliest impressions of my father were the detailed letters he sent to me from across the country about the seasonal changes on the East Coast, with bits of information on what his life was like as well as questions to me about mine.
True to form, out of a life long habit of consideration for others, my father made it comparatively easy for me to say farewell. By the time I arrived at his bedside, he was already gone.
He was so ready to go. He had told me as much several times. Despite his best efforts, he had become bedridden in the last few days of his life and he had said, “Being in bed and being bored isn’t going to work for me.” I asked how he was doing and he replied that he’d been crabby all day. I told him how much I admired him. Not seeing much to admire about himself in the state he was in, he replied gruffly, “Yeah, why is that?” I said, “Because you’re determined to remain in control of your own situation as best you can until the very end. You are in command of your attitude and you are taking such immense efforts to be in charge of your life until you can’t. That’s why I admire you.” His tone of voice relaxed and softened and he said quietly, “Well, those are pretty good reasons, I guess.”
Dad was cognizant all the way up to the end, even sorting his mail the day before he died. Given a choice between the demise of the body or the demise of his mind, he was thankful that it was his body that was giving up on him first.
He had what some would consider an idyllic childhood, growing up in Goleta when just a few hundred people inhabited the village, with maybe a thousand more in the whole valley. His parents had moved here in 1928 at the very beginning of the Ellwood oil field boom. His dad, my grandfather, was in charge of a welding shop that serviced the local oil industry.
Housing was tough to find for the new influx of workers and the family felt fortunate to find a little house on Chapel Street to rent. It is still there today. A warm welcome for the workers was even harder to find. Fortunately for the family, the Federated Church was down the street from the little house and, as a little boy, Dad was intrigued by the activities. Soon enough, the church ladies got to know him and eventually my grandmother. Through Dad, the family was welcomed into the close-knit community of locals. This became one of the themes of Dad’s life. It pays to be a warm and friendly ambassador you just might get a couple of cookies and a cup of punch for your efforts.
Dad’s paternal line was Scots-Irish, with the original William Giffin setting foot ashore New Jersey in 1762 and quickly moving to the frontier of western Pennsylvania. Succeeding generations continually moved west, always at the frontier’s edge, always looking for a little space and independence, until my grandfather made the long move from Kansas to California in 1924, where he met my grandmother, in Signal Hill.
Dad’s maternal line consisted of ancestors named Lark, Cowart, Cornelius, and Proctor who came to the United States in the late 1700s, arriving in South Carolina. They too migrated west over time, the rich bottom lands of northwest Arkansas being the last homestead before California.
In 1928, as a couple of young kids from subsistence family farms, Dad’s parents knew the Goleta valley was paradise on earth. My grandfather bought the welding shop business from his boss, and, after the Ellwood oil field had lived it’s life, the family was inculcated in the valley well enough for them to have purchased commercial property in old town Goleta as well as 10 acres of farmland where they grew first walnuts and then lemons. More importantly, it was where they had a family-Dad’s two brothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins-as well as a whole community of early Goleta friends, including the Hollisters and Cavalettos.
The themes of my father’s life that he inherited from his parents, and their ancestors, were simple living, hard work, and the immense value of both friends and family. Perhaps the one thing hat growing up in Goleta did not prepare him for was the future intense bureaucratic turf fighting that would take place at the university where he spent his career.
Whereas his father was a welder, Dad was a reader. He graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1945 and served 13 months in the Navy, honing his typing skills producing the mustering out papers for thousands of active duty servicemen and women. Years later, his secretary would tell me that Dad was one of the fastest typists she had ever met. It was good government training.
He graduated in 1950 from UCSB State College, up on the Riviera campus, where he met my mother. They were married that year and, after her graduation, went on to Claremont where he attended the graduate school and she taught high school home economics. Both of them then taught for two years at Honolulu’s King Kamehameha school-a great adventure.
Dad thought he wanted to be a diplomat so they moved to Washington, D.C. where he completed a one year program to become a Foreign Service officer. He resigned just short of being commissioned, having decided that a lifetime spent stationed around the globe as a lower level diplomat positioned in third world countries wasn’t that appealing to him. Yet he would continue to use the skills of diplomacy throughout his life.
After I was born, Dad’s marriage to my mother did not work out. I went to live with his parents on their lemon ranch on Walnut Lane for a few years, while my mother sorted things out and Dad went back to graduate school at Vanderbilt, eventually getting his PhD in history. There he met Page Lacey, his second wife, and in the mid-’60s, my brother and sister came along. He was offered a position at the University of Maryland in 1963, in the History Department, with some administrative duties. The teaching was important to him and he had lifelong friendships with some of the graduate students who studied under him. However the leadership and organizational skills he developed turned into a love of administration.
He moved up through the ranks at the university and the pinnacle of his career was serving as director of admissions. He loved it. In those dark ages before computers and air conditioning softened up life, the challenge was getting 28,000 students enrolled in their classes during three days that typically occurred during a Maryland heat wave. Dad always took a professional interest in how Disneyland orchestrated people moving through lines. More importantly, Dad took a strong interest in the academic growth of people and the institutional growth of the university. He did his best to combine the two. A consummate organization man, he worked to make his department effective and efficient.
He contributed to his community of College Park, serving two terms as City Council member and then 22 years as a Housing Authority commissioner. He practiced consensus building in all arenas. Thoughtful dialogue and considered debate, backed up with action and results, were his hallmarks. He preferred not to take credit, giving it to others. Yet, somehow you always knew Dad’s bottom-line position and when push came to shove, his Scots-Irish traits of self-determination, stubbornness, and independence would make themselves clear.
The early ’70s were trying times. The fallout of the turbulent late ’60s and its social upheavals were reflected in university politics. Dad worked hard to increase black student enrollment at the university, yet it was deemed that the institution was failing at that. Cries of racism went out and were echoed in the campus newspaper. The internal politics of a university can be cruel and ultimately he fell on his sword to protect the chancellor’s reputation. Diplomacy had lost this battle, and his trust in the principles of fairness and merit were seriously challenged.
He switched campuses, continuing his career at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (where among other things he oversaw the introduction of both air conditioning and computer systems to the art of registering students). Dad eventually retired out of the University system in 1991.
Yet, at the age of 64, his personal growth was just accelerating, continuing on a path begun a decade earlier. In 1980, his second marriage was over and, typical of men of his generation, he had children that in many ways he did not know. He began working hard on his own personal growth and reaching out to his children and his friends. Over time he developed the skill of giving whoever he was with his full undivided attention. He honed the practice of listening closely and asking about the lives of others. He gave the most important commodity that any of us have his time to being fully present with people. Thanks to his persistence in this, he eventually won his children over. It is a testament to his growth as a person that he and Page ended up lifelong friends, both very loyal to each other.
For the last 29 years, the focus of his life became people, whether it was researching lost generations of family, meeting far-flung cousins, or simply chatting for an hour with his grandchildren. Whether you were young and old, he expressed an interest in knowing what mattered to you. There was no judgment attached to what you were doing or learning, as long as it meant you were contributing to your knowledge or the advancement of our culture.
Dad illustrated that a small town kid from a working ranch family in the Goleta valley could succeed in the greater world through education and dedication. It’s fitting that his ashes will be returned to Goleta, to be laid next to his brothers and parents, people who worked the land, built businesses, and created community. Like his kin, Dad lived simply and modestly. Yet, in the end, as in the beginning, he lived a life that was rich in relationships with family and friends.