He reaches for the glasses.
'He knew I worried'
As he drove to work that day last May, he heard on the radio that a helicopter had crashed in Iraq. Arriving at his office, he rushed to his computer, hoping to find an e-mail from Matt. "Whenever something happened over there, he'd try to let me know he was all right. He knew I worried."
There was no e-mail. Instead, daughter Maria appeared at his door.
"It was Matt's helicopter," she said.
In that instant, Gene said, he remembered the face of the surgeon who told him that Jay had died on the operating table. He heard the voice on the phone telling him that Fernando had broken his neck.
Becky got the horrible news about Matt at the same time. "My son is dead," she said to someone as she raced from the State Capitol, her immediate instinct to get to Gene, knowing how devastated he would be.
"She's much tougher than I am," Gene said.
At the funeral, he sobbed in his wife's arms.
"We know how each other grieves," Becky said, "and we've learned how to support each other, how not to trigger each other's buttons.
"We've lost three sons, we've lost two businesses, and we've had a farm auction. Those are things that can destroy a marriage. The intensity of the grief ... he is struggling. But I love him so much for who he is."
Gene had been a code breaker at the National Security Agency. Disturbed by the course of the war in Vietnam, he left to do software work for schools. Later he got into health care, helping local governments maximize their federal funding. That led to creation of the family business, the Nemadji Research Corp., which employs 70 people.
They bought most of their 2,000 acres by Kerrick relatively cheap because only a few hundred acres could be farmed. But the land's value has multiplied and provided the equity to develop their company and buy empty school buildings in Askov, Bruno and Sandstone, where they're creating a sort of regional small-business incubator. Old classrooms, labs and kitchens will house a music studio, silk-screening business, organic greenhouse and fish farm, wood products company, salsa operation and upholstery shop. Employees will have access to insurance, day care and other benefits.
"It's pretty good, rewarding work for a knee-jerk liberal like me," Gene said, smiling.
"I'm trying to make a great community for my grandchildren to grow in."
Five children, two sons-in-law and two nieces work at Nemadji, and Gene's office overlooks an outdoor play area attached to the day-care center. "Most of the time, a half-dozen of my grandchildren are playing out there," he said.
A father's tearful pride