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This is Dad.  He was known to the rest of the world as Strachan Donnelley and to his grandchildren as Potsie.  But to me, he will always be Dad. Not my Dad. Not my father. Just Dad. Plain and simple.  Just like he was.  Kind of. Okay, not really. Dad died (or as he would say turfed it) last July after fighting a valiant battle against stomach cancer.  He was the sun around which we Donnelley girls orbited.  Needless to say, this has been an impossible year for us.  But we are chugging along, living life, smiling and laughing and yes, crying.

Don't get used to this.  There will be very little on this blog about Dad, the most brilliant insecure Ivy Leaguer I've ever known.  Why?  Because Dad was suspicious of modern technology. He would hate that my forthcoming novel is now called BlackBerry Girl (when he read it, it was still called Finding Prudence) and he would cringe at the very thought of a blog. And Dad was intensely private about his life and his family.  But about his passions -- humans and nature -- he was unflinchingly public and proud.

Today is Earth Day and my beloved alma mater Dalton is honoring Dad by naming the day, and today's Sustainability Day symposium, after Dad.  And perhaps as you are reading this, I will be standing on stage in the auditorium where I used to trumpet proudly.  My hands will be shaking as I speak into the microphone and try futilely to capture Dad. But everything I do say is fit to print right here.  And if you didn't know Dad -- and maybe even if you did -- my words will prove cryptic.  But if any of you other than my sisters spend the time reading them and you get a taste of who Dad was and what he was up to, then I have accomplished something.  And if you are intrigued (and you should be), you will visit the Center for Humans and Nature, and learn a bit more about Dad and the Center he founded all too recently, the only Donnelley baby he didn't get to see grow up.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Dalton School

On behalf of all of us Donnelley girls – and boys – past, present, and hopefully future, I want to thank Dalton for honoring Dad, his love and his life, his work and his wildness, on this important day.  I am humbled to return here, to this school I loved, where I laughed and learned for so many good years.  And I am humbled to return to this stage where I spent a handful of evenings playing my trumpet in the orchestra.  And on those evenings, Mom and Dad would sit in the audience just as you are now.  And no matter how we sounded as we fumbled through the 1812 Overture, Dad would listen.  And clap.  And hug.

This was Dalton Dad.  He believed in this school enough to send us here, one after the other.  He applauded the diversity of the Dalton ecosystem, the music and the ideas that emerged from that priceless mixture of good teachers, and good students, passion, and big ideas.

And Dad was all about big ideas.  One of his many mantras was “Ideas matter.” He spent his life exploring what he called Louisville Slugger ideas. And, fittingly, one of his biggest, baddest, most profound ideas was that of Orchestral Causation, the concept that each of us here, in this auditorium and in this world, is part of something much bigger than ourselves.

If Dad were here, he would urge us to, and these are his words: “Imagine a musical, orchestral performance, say Verdi’s Requiem.  What factors are at play?  There is Verdi, the composer; the musical score, the conductor; the orchestra and the chorus; the soloists; the members of the audience (each with different musical ears and personal concerns); the orchestral hall with its acoustics; the wider world in its present and cultural moment; and no doubt more.”

And Dad, the Metaphor Monger and Marginalist, would get riled up.  He would jingle the loose change in his pocket, and fiddle with his loyal Parker pen.  He would flip clumsily through yellow legal pad pages full of his illegible and brilliant scribble.  And he would look out at us and probably call us rookies, which would be both true and a true compliment.  And he would shake that fatherly and philosophical finger as he began a riff that would confuse and enlighten and inspire, “We humans still consider ourselves at the center of all things significant and meaningful, right in the middle of the frog pond… [and] there is a problem at the center of the frog pond, that small section of the natural orchestra which refuses artfully and harmoniously to blend in with the others, risking discordant cacophony in following its own tune…” His blue eyes fierce and his mustache dancing, he would deliver his final exhortation, “The grand symphony of life and its future is being seriously marred and degraded.  If we humans do not tune in, the pond might become frogless, humanless, soundless.”

But it wouldn’t be final and he wouldn’t stop there.  No, he would continue. He would call in reinforcements, his philosopher friends – Heraclitus and Leopold and Mayr and Darwin of course.  He would remind us that we are complex organisms, part of ever-evolving and delicate biotic communities, of Nature Alive.  That we should be plain citizens of the land and not its conquerors.

And he would tell stories, wonderful stories. About mayflies and Mother Nature and mountain rainbows.  About prairie ball fields and pintails.  About wild turkeys and Old Gobblers.  He would tell you just why Kansas was on his mind.

And in the end, you would be left a bit dizzy, delightfully disoriented and certainly invigorated.  And you would wonder what had just happened.

And I am Dad’s daughter, so I will not stop here. I will tell you what just happened.  I will do something that Dad would never do: I will offer a translation, a more earthly version of his lofty musings.  I will boil it down for you.  Here’s the deal.

What we do matters.  Who we become matters. We must think big thoughts and lead rich lives. Lives beyond the beckoning bottom line.  We are not just Daltonians, destined for greatness, but organisms destined for danger -- if we don’t get our act together, if we don’t adjust our moral compasses.  We are part of something bigger, far bigger, and far better than just ourselves.  Bigger and better than grades and graduations and Ivy League Schools and Wall Street stocks and high wattage careers.

Beyond the seats of this darkened auditorium, and the classrooms of this fine school, and the concrete of this great city, there is an Earth, a natural world, that houses and humbles us all.  A world that is full of intrinsic and limitless worth and wonder.  Worth and wonder that it is our sacred duty to recognize and revere.  To celebrate and sustain.

What I wouldn't give to be sitting out there where you are.  In the audience. Listening to Dad fumble profoundly through his Ignoramus Overture like I once did mine.  But, alas, here I am living and honoring the most inconvenient truth of them all: that Dad, my fly-fishing philosopher Dad, is not up here and I am not down there.  But as Dad would say, “No matter.”  And as Heraclitus would say “The way up is the way down.”

This Earth was a better place with Dad on it.  And now he is gone.  But his wise words and big ideas will live forever in the walls of this school and the winds of this world and the worlds of his Donnelley women.  His lunchpail legacy lingers in the continued work of cherished colleagues, in the laughter of loyal friends, and in the bottomless blue eyes of my baby girls.

Let’s take care of this Earth, its fundamental goodness and fierce wildness.  An Earth Dad loved madly and unconditionally.  And almost as deeply as a sixth Dalton daughter.

 

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