Death of My Father: A Eulogy
Joseph Szimhart (1922 - 2014)
nem mindig édes;
mégis, édes apám.
(my ‘sweet’ father; not always so sweet; nevertheless, my dear father)
Szimhárt József (Joe Szimhart) grew up with three sisters in Hungary in what we today would consider poverty. He finished eighth grade before going to a trade school in Györ where he studied electrical mechanics. He studied under a Jewish mentor who dad always spoke highly of. (His teacher most likely was taken by Nazis to a death camp. Dad never found out what happened to him).
Dad worked as an electrician in factories until he was nearly 90.
As a young man, dad played organized soccer and I was told he was pretty good at it. During the war, dad was assigned to the Axis air force to refurbish and maintain engines for the legendary Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes. After release from capture by the Allies in 1945, dad remained behind in Germany as a cook for the Americans. It was there, at one of the refugee camps that he met his future wife, the stunning young Puhász, Ilona, our dear mother Helen. They lived with mom's family in Displaced Person camps for several years in Germany. I was born in one of those camps in Pöcking, in the Bavarian district.
Dad, mom, and I arrived in America after a stormy voyage with hundreds of European refugees on the converted merchant ship, General Langfitte in January 1951. We were blessed to be sponsored by dad’s aunt, Cella Néni and her husband Mészáros, István (Steven Meszaros) of Stowe, PA through Catholic Charities. Jeanette, my sister, was born in Pottstown in 1952. Dad and mom joined St. Aloysuis Parish and purchased their newly built home on 7th Street in 1954 where they remained since.
In 1957 at the time of the Hungarian uprising, dad sponsored his sister Anna Rose, our Aunt Rozsi, and her husband Andrew Koszo with their two young children, Agnes and Attila and brought them to our home in America. Dad's nephew Tom and niece Julianna were born to the Koszo family in America. Sadly, his sister Rose and nephew Attila passed away years ago.
While I was with dad in hospice, I thought about how to summarize my dad's life.
What was he about?
What came to mind is the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper, a fable by the ancient Greek, Aesop. You know, the story about the ant that worked hard, stored food all summer while the grasshopper played and had fun because there was plenty to eat. The grasshopper made fun of the ant for working so hard and not enjoying life. When winter came, the ant was cozy and had food in his home while the grasshopper was out in the cold starving.
There was more of the ant in dad than grasshopper. However, unlike Aesop's ant, dad was often generous when we, his children and grandchildren needed help, and we thank him for it then and now.
When I looked for a Bible reference, I kept in mind that dad was not about platitudes and slogans even if they came from the Bible. I think this practical passage from Serach in the Old Testament is something he would appreciate:
Serach 33:19 says:
Listen to me, important public figures, presidents of the assembly, give ear!
Neither to son nor wife, brother nor friend, give power over yourself during your own lifetime.
And do not give your property to anyone else, in case you regret it and have to ask for it back.
As long as you live and there is breath in your body, do not yield power over yourself to anyone; better for your children to come begging to you, than for you to have to go begging to them.
In all you do be the master, and leave a reputation unstained.
The day your life draws to a close, at the hour of death, then distribute your heritage.
Taking off work made dad anxious. During the seventeen years I lived in New Mexico, he flew out only once in 1985 with mom to celebrate my marriage to Becky. After the wedding around the third day there, we did some site seeing at Indian ruins and museums and he was getting grumpy seeing no value in a museum. “Why we spending all this money here?” he said to mom who not so politely ignored him.
Later back home, mom overheard dad retelling the story of his wonderful trip to New Mexico and how interesting it was. Underneath that somber ant exterior, dad had a sentimental side that could enjoy grass hopping now and then too!
As mentioned in his obituary, dad was a fan of the Braves baseball team since the early 1950s. He told me that he picked the Braves because he liked what “brave” meant. But dad never saw a Braves home game until he turned 75 in 1997 when I arranged everything to fly us to Atlanta.
When I approached dad with the surprise, he hesitated because he would have to take two days off work. But with a little encouragement, which was more like a scolding from mom, he allowed his grasshopper self to emerge and we went.
As we stepped into the lobby of our hotel in Atlanta, the fun began. Dad said, “Kik ezek a kis emberek? (Who are these little people)? I answered, “Ezek a Kis Emberek, apu! (These are the Little People, pop!)
The lobby was teaming with midgets and dwarfs. To our surprise, we were sharing a hotel with 1,300 attendees at the International Little People's Annual Convention!
We also had fun touring the Coca Cola museum and the CNN studios.
Unfortunately, the Braves lost to the Mets in a high scoring, exciting game, but what happened during the game was what made the trip magical for dad.
Before the game started we went to buy souvenirs. Dad was loaded with Braves' stuff and her wore a new Atlanta Braves cap as we exited the store when a young man with a badge approached him. He chose dad as the “Fan of the Fame”. Before the 7th inning a camera man videoed dad. 42,000 fans saw him on the huge scoreboard screen with his Fan of the Game cap on. The announcer said, “Joe Szimhart from Pottstown, PA is our Fan of the Game.
I thought to myself, there has to be a baseball God!
Nadia, my oldest daughter, came to visit dad from Australia for the last time over Christmas with her husband Felix and dad’s great granddaughters, Leela and Hana. Dad also has three great grandsons: Charlie, Alex, and Jack.
We all treasure that last picture of dad during Christmas with his immediate family around him and mom—even if dad looks a bit grumpy in it!
Dad also has five granddaughters: Chrissie, Nadia, Debby, Ana, and Lani. Nadia could not be here, so she sent this note from Australia:
Reflecting on Pop-pop and his place in my life and our family I realized that he has always been central to everyone. He and Mommom have been the only consistent relationship in my life, living in the same house, a familiar and safe place to return with a comforting routine, and it feels as if his passing changed everything. I wish I could be with you today, and stand with you at the funeral.
Indeed, mom and dad have been two strong pillars that kept our family thriving, each in their own way. Dad's way of doing things is gone, but he left us with an inspiration to try to give our children a better life in the best way we can with the talents we have.
The last place he worked for the past few decades was Universal Concrete in Stowe. Last week I returned dad's keys to a plant supervisor who told me dad has been very hard to replace. They have gone through three electricians since dad retired two years ago. He was a constant and reliable presence who would come in at all hours if something broke down.
I often thought he would die on the job and I think he thought he would too as a working class warrior, a Brave. As late as last month he wanted us to make sure his 1987 Chevy truck was running and would be inspected. He was planning to renew his driver's license! Part of him would not let go of the image of himself as a working man with a paycheck, and yet, despite all his efforts and struggle to surmount the odds, his 91 year old body was collapsing and he knew it.
While he was in hospice after his stroke, I took off work to be with him as much as possible those last six days.
During those last hours with him I played old Hungarian ballads accompanied by cimbalom and violin on my laptop. I found a YouTube site that had 200 old ballads in sequence. I think we got to song 54 when I noticed that dad stopped breathing. He loved these old songs.
Some of you here recall dad singing these old tunes at the Magyar Tanya, the Hungarian Club standing arm in arm in a circle with his drunken ex-patriots.
I imagine him in a place where he can sing songs with old friends again, songs about home with our Father in heaven.
Nyugodj békében, apa.
Rest in peace, pop. We love you.
*dad's funeral had a few significant guests including Howie Bedell, a former Braves baseball player who married our next door neighbor.
my portrait of dad's wire stripper from his bench
Homage to an Electrician Feb 5, 2014 oil 20x16