This post was originally written and published on Father’s Day in 2012.

My father was an alcoholic. With a permanent bar fight scar on his lip and several DWIs on his résumé, my father was an arrogant, argumentative, belligerent, blackout drunk – a fearful, resentful, self-seeking, self-pitying failure. But I never knew this man.

My father had his last drink on February 28th, 1975. I was four years old. With the exception of a vague memory from my toddlerhood of the smell of scotch and pounding on my daddy’s chest and crying because he wouldn’t wake up (he had passed out), I have no real clear recollection of my dad being drunk.

A little backstory… When my father met my mother in late 1969, he was a thirty-three year old bachelor, and my mother was a thirty-three year old widow with four children. Two weeks after their first date, he proposed. They were married several months later. On February 14th, 1970 (Valentine’s Day), a thirty-three year old bachelor suddenly had a beautiful wife, two little boys and two little girls. Nine months and one day later, he got another little boy… me.

When my dad’s drinking was coming to a head in early 1975, my older brother Michael, who was around thirteen at the time, had gotten upset with him. Dad promised Michael he was sorry and that he would never do it again. When dad did it again, Michael called him a liar. “You lied to me!” he snapped. According to my mother, who related this story to me several years ago, it apparently hurt my father deeply that he had hurt Michael, and he knew that something had to change. That change was up to him, and he did it. But he didn’t do it alone. He had help.

With the help of friends like Mr. Foley, Mr. Madigan and many other amazing sober men and women whom I still see when I visit home, dad went to meetings and learned about how to live a sober life. On many of those meetings, dad was asked to talk, sharing his experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics. I have no personal experience with my dad’s meetings. He was quite anonymous about the work he did on himself and with other alcoholics, and he never discussed any of it with us at home. But I do have many of his handwritten notes from those talks at those meetings. In sections of notes where he talks about how it was, he describes that arrogant, belligerent, blacked out, drunk-driving man I never knew. With regards to alcohol itself, he wrote:

“I resent alcohol and will never forgive it. It robbed me of my ability to reason… It stilted my thought processes… and it smothered my emotions and feelings under a 90 proof haze for the better part of fifteen years of my adult life.”

My father was an alcoholic, but I didn’t have a drunk father. Because he got help and got sober, I had a father who showed up. He showed up for himself, for his family, for his friends, for his work, for his life. He was a father who was always present, sometimes annoyingly present to a teenager who wanted to get away with things his friends got away with. In fact, because he pulled so many underhanded stunts as an active alcoholic, he was miles ahead of us children when we tried to pull our own various (and numerous) fast ones. When we were in high school, we had to kiss dad goodnight when we got home. The kiss goodnight was 30% affection, 70% sniff test. I got my first bust in eighth grade.

But dad didn’t just show up. He showed up with grand pageantry. When it was our birthday, dad made us feel like the most special children in the world. When we graduated, he cranked up the pride to such a volume, it was almost embarrassing. When each of us started college, he didn’t just drop us off. He clearly felt it was one of life’s biggest rites of passage, turning orientation and parents’ weekend into family events. And sure, we’d still have a wonderful dinner and open presents by the fire to the holiday sound of Andy Williams, but Christmas was never the same after he died.

It’s not to say that life with dad was always lollipops and rainbows. Part of showing up by dad’s standards required that we, his children, show up just the same. Whether due to falling grades, coming home late (or drunk), denting the car or any other suburban underage trouble we could find, dad’s demonstration of disappointment was crushing. With a disappointed stare from across a room, he could wilt you into the floor. But he was a man who gave everything for his family. In return, out of respect for ourselves and for him, he expected us children to do our best. Self-absorbed teenagers don’t see it at the time. But I sure see it now.

At the end of the day, we were undeniably and unconditionally loved, and dad made sure we knew it.

In 1974, dad faced open-heart surgery. In the notes from his talks with alcoholics, he wrote that it was his greatest battle, fearing that he might leave behind five children and leave mom widowed again. But he survived, got sober and spent the next fifteen years being the greatest father I could ever ask for. On March 2nd, 1990, two weeks after my parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary and two days after he celebrated fifteen years of sobriety, dad faced open-heart surgery for the second time. We lost him the next day. He was 53. It ripped a hole in my heart that still hurts, especially on Fathers’ Day.

I want to spend the day with dad, maybe have him visit New York. He came to the city for business often, and he loved it here. In fact, he brought me with him on a business trip to Manhattan when I was about eleven or twelve years old, taking me to see my very first Broadway show (A Chorus Line at The Shubert Theater). I’ve been in love with the city ever since. He never got to see me move here and do the things I’ve done since. I’d love to take him to dinner at Joe Allen, then to the theater, then to Bar Centrale for dessert. I’d love to tell him how proud I am of him because, having battled my own demons and been sober for many years now, I understand how hard it was. I’d love to tell him that if I had given him grandchildren, I would borrow so much from his playbook. I would be able to thank him for everything he did for me. All of those things he did for me were all possible because he was a sober father.

But for all the Fathers’ Days since 1990, and for all the Fathers’ Days to come, I am only able to remember. When I see a father walking with his son on Fathers’ Day, I have to admit that it’s still painful. But I also feel a tremendous sense of gratitude because for the first nineteen years of my life, I got to have that. And because my father was an alcoholic who got sober and showed up in all of the spectacular ways he did, I got to have that in spades.

Thank you, dad. For everything. I’m so proud to be your son.


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24 Comments

  1. Pat Roberts Reply

    What an amazing tribute for an amazing man. Our dad’s were great friends and this made me realize why. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post George. I’m a 50 year old Atheist/Skeptic, who doesn’t believe in the super-natural, but I still catch myself thinking about my late Father and saying under my breath “I love you Daddy”…like he’s listening. Happy Father’s Day gents.

  3. Joaquin Ramirez Reply

    Beautiful post George, thanks for sharing, I lost my father at 19 too.

  4. Wow… Amazing tribute to your father, George! Your writing truly made me feel your love for the man.

  5. A difficult holiday for those who have lost their fathers, including myself. Thank you for sharing this wonderful tribute.

  6. Elise (Hood) Thomas Reply

    Can’t believe I am just reading this amazing, heartfelt tribute. Thanks for sharing and opening up your soul, George. xo

  7. Mark Renton Reply

    I wish I was as good as that man. Lost my wife to cancer, now trying my best to bring up our two children alone and probably fit the “functional alcoholic” description. Never been abusive but the kids are quite used to finding me in the morning passed out on the sofa then having to wake up and sort them out for the school bus. Then off to my job as a company director….

    • George Reply

      There is help for you if you want it, Mark. The desire to change has to start with you. I can tell you that it never has to be that way if you don’t want it to. You don’t have to do it alone.

  8. Your father sounds like an incredible man and someone truly worth aspiring to be. My parents were just about to run out for breakfast and a few errands and I was going to stay behind, but your post reminded me why I should take the time to spend the day with my Dad. Thank you for that.

  9. I’ve read this every year since you first post it, George–and it stuns me every time. I’m sorry you don’t have your father with you now, to see the kind of man you’ve become; no doubt he’d be very proud. He’d be equally proud that you could so generously share what your relationship meant to you, and how much it really does benefit us all. Thank you so much!

  10. Julie Harper Reply

    George – I hadn’t read this until now. I loved your dad – my Uncle George – very much. You wrote so eloquently about him and how he did things in spectacular fashion. How true! I remember on my wedding day Uncle George arrived from the airport (plenty early for those who may wonder) in a gorgeous white Cadillac. When asked by some relative why he would rent such a fancy car, he responded: “Because we’re celebrating a wedding today!” And, wouldn’t you know, as my sister (also my maid of honor) and I were riding to the ceremony in a limousine, the limousine broke down. This was in the days before mobile phones, so, my sister and I were all set to panic when who should drive to the very spot where the limousine had broken down in a gorgeous white Cadillac ready and able to drive my sister and me to the ceremony in perfectly spectacular fashion but our Uncle George. Of course. We really weren’t even surprised that Uncle George would save the day so beautifully. It made perfect sense. That is really who he was. Love you George.

    • George Reply

      Oh, Dear Julie. I remember that story well. Thank you for the reminder! I love you.

  11. Mike O'Connell Reply

    Thank you so much for that George. My mother in law sent me this post. I think she truly senses how much I miss my dad…especially on Father’s Day. Most people who knew him, knew what an amazing man he was. I give him most of the credit for how I’ve turned out. But I have been blessed with a slew of amazing men in my life. All my uncles, my Dziadek even my Scout Master. I am so grateful for who raised me. That’s probably why it hurts so much. 8 years ODAAT. God Bless George.

  12. Hey George,

    I was one of your Dad’s post-grad, pre-marriage housemates. We rented homes together with other bachelors, partied hard, worked professionally, did pretty well at all that, and then went our separate ways to raise families.

    You and I met at his funeral, but have not gotten to know each other. Your Dad and I remained good friends and sometime drinking buddies after I married his first-cousin, Kathie Hammett, mother of my three children. You may know Dan, Caitlin and Molly. The girls live in Brooklyn, with husbands and children.

    My Silicon Valley son Dan pointed me to this posting of yours after our sharing dad-to-dad sentiments this past Fathers’ Day weekend. Thanks for your writing and sharing. It hits me in many ways, since I admired George and enjoyed our friendship.

    Part of that time, when I worked for that MadMen ad firm and he for a local Cleveland agency, we talked a lot of business, and when I broke out on my own, he introduced me to one of my first big clients.

    Your family has been important to me in many ways, and you have built upon that value to FitzFolks with your story about your Dad’s recovery.

    As the eldest surviving FitzSimons from the Cleveland contingent, I thank all the Hahns from all us Fitzes for the goodness and laughter we have shared. And, of course, your Dad was the most dramatic example of that, with the possible exception of his mother.

    But she would be the subject of another story, eh, maybe in May? [:-)}

    • George Reply

      Mr. FitzSimons,

      Thank you so very much for this note. It means so much to me to hear from old friends from dad’s early days. As I wrote, I miss him all the time and often think of the great conversations we’d be having these days. And I think he would have LOVED MadMen. In terms of the role at the agency, he was a Pete Campbell/account exec., no? I know he did time at Eaton, Marschalk and then went on to form Hahn & Coble in Cleveland. (I remember one of his offices in the Hanna Building in downtown Cleveland.)

      And, yes, my grandmother would be a whole new story unto herself. A grand dame.

      Thank you so very much again,
      George

  13. William Skelly Reply

    Hello George. Just stumbled on this amazing post. What a tribute to your father (and my Uncle George)! As you probably know, your dad was my father’s sponsor in AA. My mother Punky told me that her brother George saved my father, their marriage, and our family. I have no doubt that he did. Your dad was an incredible man who would drop anything and everything to help a friend (and a brother-in-law). His death was incredibly painful for Punky. We all loved him dearly. I still laugh when I remember those skits he would have us perform at your home on holidays… WJ

  14. Ann Beringer Reply

    Hey George, I remember this post…your Dad was amazing!! Hadn’t heard the story about Julie’s wedding! Not surprised that your Dad saved the day in style!! Haha! I remember when I was at our house on Georgetown staying with Nana and your Dad came over to take her out shopping! They came back and he had bought a dress for me!! I was so floored and touched
    that he would do that but not completely surprised:) As my Mom used to say…when George has money everyone has money!! Loved that and loved my Uncle George!! Annie

  15. BOB RILEY

    THE RILEY AND HAHN FAMILY WERE ST. JAMES PARISHIONERS IN GRADE SCHOOL. GEORGE AND I WERE COMPETITORS IN DIFFERENT AD AGENCIES IN THE HANNA BLDG BUT HAD SEVERAL SECRETIVE SESSIONS ABOUY MERGING OUR TALENTS. GEORGE WAS AN IMPECCABBLE DRESSER AND TALENTED MARKETING STRATEGISTS AND POLITE PERSON.

    • Wow, Mr. Riley. I cannot tell you how much I love hearing old stories about dad. I remember his agency in the Hanna Building (Hahn & Coble – with Paul Coble). I have one of his business cards. As fate would have it, I’m now doing some freelance writing with Great Lakes Publishing, located in the Hanna. It gives me chills walking through the same halls dad did. I wish I knew Hahn & Coble’s suite number (it’s not on the card). Thank you so very much for leaving this comment. It made my day. George

  16. I have tears running down my face. What a lovely way to honor your father.

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