My Father Our Hero

My father passed away earlier this year. We postponed his celebration of life ceremony until this past weekend to be closer to what would have been his 90th birthday. What follows is an edited recap of my prepared remarks you may find interesting.

When a great human being passes, a void suddenly forms around every person they have touched. The loss of my father earlier this year remains difficult to process. Those who knew him can attest he was a great man and a great patriot in the best sense of the word. He lived his life with curiosity, certainty, ingenuity, duty, and love. Love of family, friends, witty conversation, animals, country, and learning how things worked.

Although we share in the grief of his loss, we must also share a joyful smile for the time we were privileged to be with him. He made us proud.

He was born in Siauliai, Lithuania, on August 8, 1932. My father was a WWII refugee who arrived in the United States in 1949 after Lithuania became savaged by Soviet Communists and then Nazi Fascists. In 1940, he experienced the propaganda of Soviet Communism firsthand, and his family felt the effects of the Bolshevik occupation as the communist government seized a room in his home and quartered Red Army officers there.

In the summer of 1941, Hitler’s Barbarossa campaign commenced, destroying much of his childhood neighborhood and killing close neighbors. His mother thwarted an attempt by Nazi SS troopers to separate the men from the women and children, and their spared family home offered shelter for the distraught. He lived under German occupation for about 3 1/2 years and witnessed that brutal war’s hardships, horrors, and atrocities.

In 1944, his father decided they would not be overrun by the advancing Soviets again, so they fled to the west, leaving Lithuania and skirting the boundaries of Germany and Czechoslovakia before reaching an alien refugee camp on the west side of Selb. (Years later, the family learned they had come within one day of being deported to Siberia.)

In 1945, they were freed by the Americans and then shuttled between various Displaced Persons camps in the American zone of Germany, where my father learned to speak English. In 1949, through the Displaced Persons Act, his family came to America.

Let me say a few words about his important career.

He graduated from Hyde Park High School and Northeastern University. He served as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and joined the Instrumentation Laboratory of MIT (renamed Draper Lab) in 1959. His entire career was devoted to defense work for his adopted country.

Draper Lab was involved in classified research and development for the U.S. Navy, designing and building inertial guidance systems for the Navy submarine-launched ballistic missiles. He began as a mechanical design engineer, progressed to the leader of the Mechanical Systems Division, and eventually became Director of Navy Strategic Programs. He was responsible for the complete mechanical, optical, and thermal design, conceptualization, documentation, and construction of the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident Guidance Systems. Now, that may seem like rocket science to many of us — it is! He was proud of his participation in developing and ensuring the continued viability of the world’s primary deterrent against Soviet aggression and keeping this country safe. It was his life’s work, and he did it exceptionally well.

Throughout my life, whenever I was introduced to people who knew him, they’d shake my hand and often refer to him as “one of the finest men I know.”

A plumber once mused, “Your Dad’s workshop is cleaner than most kitchens I’ve been in.” And other tradesmen adored working on his house, where everything was clearly labeled, and the problem was nearly solved.

My father’s wit, wisdom, leadership, curiosity, inventiveness, and patriotism inspired many who met him. He was a kind, sociable, caring, and generous man, quick to offer aid and comfort to those in distress.

One time we were about to sit for dinner when he noticed a boat docked across the river taking on water. He sprinted to “My Chippy” (the name of his boat) and staged a rescue mission as I breathlessly followed behind. He wasted no time boarding the sinking vessel and feverishly bailing it out as the owners approached with gratitude.

He loved being surrounded by family and friends to celebrate their accomplishments and to show off the latest contraption he fashioned for feeding birds or frustrating the squirrels.

Incidentally, it wasn’t long ago that I learned one of his squirrel deterrents, that large white half dome he used to protect one of his bird feeders off the deck, was manufactured in Chula Vista, California. It was part of a prototype casing for one of his guidance systems. Ever the utilitarian.

On one of my solo visits to my Dad on the Cape, I wandered about the house, admiring the various gadgets and carpentry he had devised over the years.

I went onto the deck and noticed a pot of dried-out flowers, perfectly placed upside down. I stared at it, looked around for context clues, pondered, and wondered, trying to figure out the purpose or meaning and why he had it the way he had it. Finally, I gave up, and as he came to the screen door, I asked him. “What does this signify?”

Without missing a beat, he replied, “It signifies the wind blew them over. Fix ’em on your way in, would ya?”

On a late January morning this year, the universe calmly and peacefully reclaimed a great force who learned a little something about guidance systems, gratitude, generosity and figuring things out. If you are like me and occasionally find yourself off course and looking for direction, you may want to pause and gaze upward because I know they’ve upgraded their systems, and by now, thanks to his expertise around guidance, there’s a better chance you’ll find your way.

In his book, Escaping War; Our Journey to Freedom, he wrote in part, “My father was our hero. Because he didn’t talk much about those days, I don’t know how he managed to make all the good decisions that got us to safety. What I do know is that he has been my model for what a father should be.”

That is a sentiment I think myself and my brothers share when remembering our Dad.

Leaders You Emulate

Maybe you haven’t given it too much thought, but there are leaders in your life whom you are trying to emulate. Like it or not, some studies suggest that we often mimic the characteristics of our last boss because it’s the most recent frame of reference we have. No offense to your previous boss, but let’s do better than relying on that as a default. Take control, explore the leaders who have positively or negatively influenced you, and hone in on their most admirable attributes. Then determine what actions you can take to strengthen those attributes in yourself.

1. Which leaders do you most admire? Create a list.

2. What attributes do they have that you most like? Brainstorm 10 or 12.

3. Of the attributes you noted, list your top 4–6 and then rate your level of achievement of each of those attributes.

4. What three actions can you take to strengthen these attributes in yourself?

Now you have a plan to manage better and lead well.

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Karl Bimshas

Karl Bimshas

Boston-bred and California-chilled Leadership Adviser | Writer | Podcast Host who helps busy professionals who want to manage better and lead well.