My dad was always larger than life. A force in his family, profession and community, he was a formidable man. Even as a husband and father, he could seem austere and distant, but we knew he loved us.
He was the kind of father who had little interest in playing with us, but one who jumped right in to help, pretty much taking over our science projects or explaining the vernal equinox or how the pyramids were built. He seldom engaged in small talk but would be comfortable expounding on a variety of topics, if asked (and sometimes, even if he wasn’t). He was a genuine intellectual, a fierce education advocate and a lifelong learner.
Those attributes were neither in his DNA nor his upbringing. He was simply and inexplicably an exception. An unwavering drive to succeed compelled him. He described it as “I never wanted to be cold again.”
My dad grew up in a family that was just scraping by, trying to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables like many in the 1920s and ’30s. But somehow my dad was blessed with a resiliency and an overpowering motivation to create a better, more stable life for himself. One where warmth was assured. It was his “Rosebud.”
For my dad and his six siblings, there was no expectation that anyone would finish high school. But through his father’s many job changes and subsequent family relocations, to a house fire where everything was lost and a school year missed because of pneumonia, my dad figured out that education was the key to a better life.
So he excelled in school and was the only male in his neighborhood to graduate from high school. With no financial assistance and by sheer wits and determination, my dad went on to complete both college and law school at the University of Minnesota.
He joined a small practice in southern Minnesota in 1947. During his 50-plus years in the practice of law, my dad gave back to the community through membership on numerous boards and committees and earned great esteem from colleagues, as evidenced by his election as president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, president of the Minnesota State Board of Education and president of the Lea College board of trustees, along with recognition and appointments by the state of Minnesota and awards for community work.
And he never rested on his laurels. No. Through his 70s, my dad completed computer, humanities and ethics classes — because education was also the key to staying mentally alert, and he was determined to keep up, to be challenged and to learn.
But even though my dad seemed to be a man who had beaten the odds, Alzheimer’s disease stacked the deck against him. For a decade now, the insidious disease has been methodically assaulting his faculties. The man who was larger than life now shows few signs of life. He has lost the ability to speak more than a word or two or to open his eyes for more than a few seconds. His superior intellect and cache of knowledge is lost to all of us. But his legacy of lifelong learning and ongoing personal growth has been well instilled in my sisters and me and our children, and so it will be on down the line.
Against all odds, Dad, you found the warmth you were missing and have assured it for us as well. Thank you.
Patti Hareid lives in Albert Lea, Minn. Her father, Ralph Peterson, was born in Hunter, N.D., grew up in St. Paul and lives currently in St. John’s Lutheran Home in Albert Lea with his wife, Marjorie. He is 91 years old.