In early 1993, my dad and I were bopping around in the car to Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al”. It was a favorite of ours, and though at the time, I thought we just liked it because of its catchy tune, I would soon realize that it was my dad preparing me for the next man who would come into my life and take over his role as my dad.
Al Grotz entered my life shortly after my dad died in April 1993, and though I wasn’t really ready for him to be there, my dad had ensured that when my little heart had healed, I would have someone in my life who would also know all the words to “Call Me Al” and wouldn’t mind that my early memories of that song were from my first dad. No, Al Grotz was sent by my dad to take care of my mom and me.
Of course, it took me awhile to recognize that. For the first few years, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with Al. My little broken heart took a long time to heal, but he waited patiently until I was ready to build a relationship with him. That’s just the kind of man Al was. Patient. Compassionate. Kind.
Looking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment when my heart changed. We were sitting at the bowling alley one evening (he and my mom played in a local bowling league), and I was reading. Al, genuinely interested, asked me, “What’re you reading there, Sara?” I didn’t look up and instead answered with as much contempt as an eleven-year-old could muster, “A book.” I refused to elaborate. By the time my mom and I got home that evening, I was overcome with shame. I immediately pulled out the phone book and began searching page by page for “Grotz, Al”, although I didn’t know how to spell “Grotz”. I finally found him, however, and I tried to call and apologize. The line was busy for hours though. My shame only grew; here was someone who made my mom happy again, and I was trying to drive him away. Eventually, I got through to him and he accepted my apology. He didn’t lecture me, judge me, or even tell me, “Hey little girl, regardless of what you do, I’m sticking around.” Instead, he treated me with kindness – when I deserved it the least.
Throughout my life, Al showed me the true meaning of unconditional love – and it didn’t just extend to me. My stepbrother Eric struggled immensely with the demons of the world. Each time he fell, Al (and my mom) would pick him up and help him put the pieces back together. While others would have given up after so many tries, Al knew it was his duty to carry his son, and he never gave up on trying to help him. Watching the way Al loved his son taught me that Al could be counted on to navigate the tough situations, and so I turned to him, too. In 7th grade, that came in the form of a $1,500 phone bill. (There was no free long distance then!) In 8th grade, that came when I applied to boarding school without telling them, completing the entire process until I got to the financial aid forms – which I finally had to admit that I could not complete on my own. Nothing rattled Al. He would simply sigh and say, “Sara, you know we have to tell Carolyn, right?” but by we, he meant that he would take care of it, and those problems would quietly go away. His calm demeanor undoubtedly saved me from the wrath of my mom on numerous occasions, though as I look back now, I’m sure he simply took the heat for me.
By the time I was a freshman in college I knew that Al Grotz was a man worth emulating. By that time, he had retired from Sentry Insurance, earned his teaching certificate, and had been teaching in Kennedale for two years. I remember being at a party at Texas Tech and meeting a few KHS graduates. I serrpetiously asked them if they knew Mr. Grotz. “Oh, Mr. Grotz made history interesting! He isn’t like all the other teachers; he genuinely cares about us. How do you know Mr. Grotz?” I smiled very politely and said, “Oh, he’s my dad.” That night, I realized something extraordinary: I didn’t have to know what I wanted to do. I did, however, want to wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed, ready to head to work every morning. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives like he did. I wanted people to respect me as much as they respected him. I wanted to be as humble as he was, never realizing how much he affected people every day. But most of all, I wanted his passion. He wasn’t teaching because it paid a lot, because he got the summers off, or because he didn’t have anything better to do – he was teaching because he loved history and wanted to share his knowledge and passion with others. He, even in his “retirement” was living a deliberate and purposeful life – which allowed him to make a sincere difference in the lives of others.
“There are things you wish before big moments.
I wish my friends were here. I wish my parents were different.
I wish there was someone who got what was happening and could tell us that we weren’t crazy,
that we weren’t being stupid, someone to say,
I’m proud of you and I’ve got your back, no matter what.”
After my dad died, I counted the moments that I would miss.
Learning to drive. Graduating high school. Going to college. Graduating from college. Getting married. You know, the milestones that we’re taught that are important – the rites of passage.
Because of Al, however, I didn’t miss any of those moments. Al was the person who taught me to drive in an old Kmart parking lot when my mom didn’t have the patience to do so. He was there when I graduated high school and later when I graduated from college – never complaining that I changed my major at least four times that we know of – and that I ended up settling on the longest degree plan with the most requirements in the subjects I was terrible at – the ones that required me take and retake classes more than once (sorry about that) – never complaining that it took me six (long) years to graduate. And, at my wedding, he gave the most beautiful tribute not only to my husband, but also to my first dad – the one he never knew – but did know – because he allowed his memory to live on in our life as a new family. Al never sought to replace my dad – that was never his intent. He wasn’t threatened by him and the larger than life shoes he seemed to fill in our family. No, Al was content with who he was, what his role in our life was supposed to be, and he embraced both my mom and I exactly as we were – from the moment he set foot into our lives until the very end.
In the last few years, I have relied on Al’s wisdom and character. The one and only Fred-man is the person I reference the most as I work with high school students and train my staff on how to work with our kids. How would my dad treat the kids? What lessons can I learn from the way he runs his classroom? And, if all else fails, how has he treated me when I am having a hard time? Because he began his second career in teaching after retiring from sales, he was able to teach a lot of things by example, the least of which being the importance of following one’s passion… though his fiscally- responsible side taught me the importance of saving money, budgeting, and being able to support yourself AND follow your passion. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait as long as he did to follow my passion but listening to him talk about the importance of avoiding the teachers’ lounge taught me a lot about how to appropriately interact with students to ensure that I am able to make a positive difference in students’ lives – just like he does with his students’ (and my) lives. He is the only person in his high school to continually be nominated and recognized by students as their most influential teacher (even two years after his departure) – because of the kind of person he is. He’s the best person I know. (I would be a lot better person if I emulated him more.)
Fred could imitate a walrus like nobody’s business. (There’s a difference between the seal and the walrus – and if you ask me, I’ll show you – just how he showed me.) He barely believed in cell phones but he was starting to embrace the internet. He took dance lessons for my wedding because he “didn’t know how to dance.” He loves my husband as much as he loves me, my mom, and my sister Jena. And, he was always excited to see us… however often (or not as often) as that may be.
It may seem a little crazy to say, but I’m pretty sure my dad knew what he was doing when he sent Al to us because it’s only through some pretty divine intervention that I ended up with two amazing dads… and as my brother-in-law Omar told me on Monday night, “There aren’t many people who I can absolutely confirm are in Heaven, but I can promise you this – Al’s definitely one of them.”
There’s an old Quaker saying that says, “Let your life speak.”
Let your life speak in such a way that eighteen-year-olds (the most fickle of creatures) give you a standing ovation as they did for Mr. Grotz’s last act as their commencement speaker in 2013.
Let your life speak in such a way that dogs talk to you. (Yes, Al made me take pictures of a dog he was considering adopting because he wanted to make sure that he wasn’t getting a pig in a poke – it was important that he get a dog that he could talk to.)
Let your life speak in such a way that you never forget to tell your spouse that you love them – just as Al did, every night, for 23 years.
Let your life speak in such a way that when you aren’t sure what to do that you look to the heavens and the stars for guidance – as Al did – every single morning.
“All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems… But all these stars are silent.
You-You alone will have stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night. You, only you, will have stars that can laugh!
And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me… You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky! Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’ And they will think you are crazy. It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…”
Let your life speak as Al Grotz’s did. Let your life speak with patience, compassion, and kindness.
And don’t forget to read the jokes on the Laffy Taffy wrappers.