I learned about life as I watched my dad work


Much of what I know about my father as a man, I got from observing him at work. In our house, Father's Day was special, not because it was a day for our father but because it was a day for all fathers: a red-letter-day for his menswear store when business picked up (second only to Christmas,) when mother was called to work the cash register and I, even as a young boy, was called to man the broom, the stockroom and the tailor shop. The store, located in Canton, Ohio, was called Mr. Ted's and was tucked into a strip mall that was in walking distance of cornfields and catered to those who made their living with their hands. The store was named not for me but for my father. That we shared names was itself a breach of faith - my grandfather, a rabbi, could not have approved.

Much of what I learned not only about him but also the world at large, I learned in Mr. Ted's watching my father interact with those he had hired and those he waited upon. I would see him on bended knee, a yellow measuring tape draped around his neck, a square of chalk for marking cuffs clinched in his teeth, measuring the inseam of a plant worker from Timken Roller Bearing or Hoover Vacuum Sweeper -- he, a Harvard man, who, but for the call to duty of World War II, had set his sights on medicine. Instead, he settled for two years of college and the life of a merchant in a town of steel and grit.

From childhood on, the store was my other classroom. Under Father's tutelage, I was introduced to more than Ban-Lon shirts, Harris Tweed and BVDs. Even the drive to and from work with my father was a rolling course in economics, class mobility, free speech, justice and the responsibilities of citizenship, not that any of these were ever mentioned by name. Rather, they were embedded in the stories a father tells his son on the way to and from work. I was no more than 11 when this began - the age Father insisted I have a Social Security card as a fledgling worker.

I had much to learn. Once I forgot to lower the beam into the steel brace securing the back door, leaving it vulnerable to thieves. Father was not pleased. He explained to me that our "livelihood" depended upon the store and that it was my duty to safeguard it. I had let him down.

But I also remember the Sunday when, on our way to the Stark County Fair, we stopped by the store and discovered that it had been broken into. The drawer to the cash register was emptied and smashed in pieces on the floor, and a rack of suits was gone. Instead of fuming, Father calmly phoned the alarm company and off we went to the fair. We cheered the tractor pulls, sized up the prize bulls and marveled at gargantuan pumpkins - but not another word was spoken of the break-in. A few days later my father took out an ad in the local paper, The Repository, offering the robbers free alterations for anything that didn't fit and a standing invitation to return as paying customers. From that I learned that what really counted lay beyond the reach of thieves. And, yes, that humor could be found in unexpected places.

I liked working in the back of the store. My father made sure the bathroom detail fell to me. It was a message intended not only for me but also for everyone in the store who watched to see how the boss's son would be treated. With brush and Comet, I proudly scrubbed away the stains until the bowl and sink gleamed. I broke up boxes and piled them high in the back alley for removal. I wielded a wide broom around and under the tailor's shop and steam press, sweeping up fallen razor blades, bits of chalk, bobbins, severed cuffs, orphaned threads and discarded plastic coffee cups. It was also my chance to talk with the tailor, Remo, an Italian who always drove a new Riviera, and to steal a glimpse of his wall calendar that featured pin-ups. My father respected him and the hours he put in. Remo, my father explained, was an "immigrant," a word he uttered as if it were a title of nobility and a synonym for sacrifice.

Indeed, the store itself was consecrated to work, not as a burden but as a privilege. This was, after all, a trade that ran in our blood. A century before, my father's grandfather, Marcus, a Russian immigrant, had been a tailor to the Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala. For decades, a sign reading "Gup the Tailor" hung in Mobile's Dauphin Street. Never did I hear my father complain that he did not get to return to Harvard after the war, (his roommate, Harish Mahindra, would go on to become a billionaire Indian industrialist) nor that his future unfolded in unexpected ways. For him, work was precious, and there was no form of it that was beneath him. He taught me this not in words but action.

I was in charge of making gift boxes, the flattened crimson boards that my thumbs deftly unfolded, fitted with tissue paper and stacked as mountains readied for outgoing customers. Thousands of boxes. Tens of thousands of boxes. My hands and my brain learned to work light-years apart. At the end of my arms the boxes rhythmically sprang to life, while in my head ran films of pretty girls, hard balls sailing over distant fences and bullies pummeled into submission. But at night I dreamt of making boxes. From that I learned that I did not want my life to be contained in those boxes - which, I am sure, is what Father had in mind assigning me the task.

Those who worked for my father respected him. Some even came to love him. It was an odd cadre of young men he had recruited, none of whom had gone beyond high school. Many had been forced to drop out early. They had "gotten a girl in trouble" - which was to say, pregnant. They were now teenage fathers. My father went out of his way to hire them and recognized in them their willingness to work and their need for a second chance. In him, they found a surrogate and forgiving father. He was slow to judge others and recognized that compassion was good for both the soul and business.

He gave his heart to these boys though not all were deserving. One of his "second sons" was found to have been stealing from the till over the course of many months, maybe years. He had been one of my father's favorites, and someone whom he had trusted. But he could not bring himself to go to the police or ruin the man's future. So he sat him down, told him how disappointed he was, that he could never again work for him, and then offered him a repayment plan that would stretch across the years. In time, the debt was paid and instead of bad blood between them, there was a different sort of bond. My father told me of this, but without a whiff of sanctimony or condemnation. He believed in redemption, not vengeance.

My father's store opened at 10 and closed at 9 six days a week, though his own hours were longer at both ends of the day. (In all those years I never saw him take a seat in the store.) He ate lunches at the counter of a five-and-dime where the waitresses kidded him. The mall had a fancier restaurant - "fancy" is relative in a Canton strip mall - but he preferred the counter's company. For his birthday, mother gave him a set of Harvard buttons for his blazer, but Father never wore them - he had no appetite for impressing others and no stomach for other's arrogance.

Each night, when the store finally closed, Father would let me go through the cash draw and pick out any silver dollars, Indian Head pennies or buffalo nickels. I replaced them, coin for coin, and showed my discoveries to my father. Tired and hungry as he was, he always made time to see what I had found and share in my enthusiasm.

After college, I stumbled a bit. My father had gotten out of the business and was about to get back in. He asked me if I would give him a year of my life to help him open a new store, a Mr. Ted's. I was reluctant. I feared that, as a young man with my own dreams - of becoming a journalist and writer - I might get forever sidetracked, much as he did after the war. And I feared that would create friction between us.

But I resigned myself to giving him that year - I figured I owed him that and more. On Thursday, May 9, 1974 - a morning so cold I had to scrape the frost from the windshield - I drove him to the Akron-Canton Airport, handed him his overnight bag and wished him a successful trip. (I even said a prayer for his safe return.) He was on his way to New York City, to the garment district, to buy the last bit of inventory he would need. That Monday, he was to come into possession of the store.

Instead, he died the next day. A heart attack. He was 50. That was to be his final lesson - that it is fruitless to worry about things that may never come to pass, and foolish to put off plans on the promise of a tomorrow that may not come. On this Father's Day, I will be thinking of him, my Mr. Ted, and be grateful that he shared with me his name, and so much more.

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Author Information:

Ted Gup is a Boston-based author of several books about secrecy and is a professor of journalism at Emerson College. His work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, The Washington Post, Politico and elsewhere..

Special to The Washington Post · Ted Gup · OPINION, OP-ED · Jun 17, 2016 - 9:07 AM



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