Thursday, July 07, 2005
We’ve come to celebrate the life of John Bell Henneman Jr.— Johnny to his mother, JJ to his wife, and Dad to me, Jack, and Laurie.
I’ve had to consider the possibility that in speaking to you today I am violating the wishes of my father, for he left detailed instructions on how we were to attend to his various arrangements.
In 1986 I was a senior in college sitting in the broadcast studios of WRUR FM opening my mail. You can imagine my surprise to discover a letter from Dad the sole subject of which was his death. It seemed that his chronic distaste for travel had taken on a new element, the resigned certainty that he would be the casualty of terrorist attack while under the care of one of the airlines, all of which he actively loathed. He wished his affairs in order, just in case, and had prepared this letter for his three children.
It was quite straight forward and business-like, uncluttered with sentiment of any kind. He wished that religious observances held in connection with his demise be “entrusted to a properly ordained clergyman armed with a copy of the King James version of the Bible and the Episcopal prayer book that was current around 1950. I shall positively return and haunt anyone who defiles my memory with a colloquial translation or feminist version of these sacred texts, or includes pithy comments from a joyful partisan.”
Dad tended to express himself with a certain clarity that left me feeling quite comfortable that we could comply with his wishes easily enough. Only, after more reflection, Dad decided he should add to the list of practices banned from his services. His follow-up included feminist hymnals, former whiffenpoofs, eulogies, inclusive language, and interpretive dance.
So you see I face some risk that what I do today might be interpreted as a eulogy. I’ll just have to take my chances but you’ll know I’ve crossed the line and committed a hauntable offense if we start getting inexplicable whiffs of bad cigar smoke.
Dad wished to be remembered as a professor, scholar, medieval historian, and librarian. His lifetime of work studying 14th century France is well represented in his books and articles, which combined with his career as chairman of the history department at the University of Iowa, and as history bibliographer here at Princeton, ensures his academic legacy. Dad was under no illusions that most people would find any of this particularly interesting, which is probably why we are not to call this a eulogy. On the bookshelf in our family camp in the Adirondacks is a copy of Dad’s first book, Royal Taxation in 14th century France volume I. It bears an inscription from the author that reads “Notice to camp owners: if you find your babysitter reading this book, send her to a shrink immediately.”
So that’s all I’m going to say about his professional achievements. What I’m going to share are personal recollections that capture the father I knew, and perhaps some of the John Henneman you knew.
When I think of Dad I remember a gardener who loved his yard, and it was there he could often be found when he wasn’t reading or writing in his smoke filled study—shirtless, out in the sun, a baseball game on the radio and a stub of cigar never too far out of reach. He planted beautiful flower beds, grew vegetables, and devoted an enormous amount of time to building a better lawn, with rather mixed success I might add. Dad liked doing it the old way, and used a manual lawnmower long before they were chic and featured in the Smith and Hawken catalog.
Like many fathers, Dad tried very hard to instill in his children an interest in yard work, and like many fathers was irked to find he had to pay us to guarantee service without complaint. When I was five years old he resorted to offering me 4 cents for every dandelion I cut out of the yard.
It seems I wasn’t satisfied with the level of compensation and was caught cutting the big ones in two. While outraged at my fraud, Dad apparently had second thoughts and gave me an additional cent per dandelion, accompanied by a humbling lecture about honesty and how I should be very happy with the 25% raise I had just received, since it exceeded by a factor of ten what a professor at the University of Iowa could expect.
This was not atypical of lessons from Dad to his children, which he gave at the most inopportune times. Often, when one of us would ask whether we could do this or that, he would reply by saying no. Feeling this was extreme injustice we would ask why. Rather than respond with a reason he knew we would reject, Dad’s explanation was that discipline is valuable for its own sake and that we had to experience it if we were to grow up with character. Well this was outrageous. We were very fortunate to have a higher authority to appeal to on the issues of upmost importance. Thanks, Mom.
At these times it seemed that Dad was much stricter than the fathers of my friends, and its also true there were times I wished he was one of those fathers who shot baskets or threw a baseball around. He was not.
Yet, I now appreciate his encouragement of intellectual curiosity of almost any kind and his remarkable indulgence of peculiar interests and hobbies that I don’t believe would have been encouraged in other families.
In the second grade I became interested in chemistry. Dad built a laboratory in the basement and entrusted me with, among other things, the formula for gun powder, which can be easily made if you can find a pharmacist willing to sell sulfur and salt peter to an eight year old.
This was probably a mistake, but Dad liked to reward the inquiring mind. His teachings in pyrotechnics made me a hero among my classmates when the model volcano we made produced a six foot column of fire in my third grade classroom, and aside from one incident when I melted a shower curtain I acted very responsibly.
When I was a little older I developed an interest in nature. Dad and I would look at National Wildlife magazine together, and it was there we saw the cool article about creating wild backyard garden pools. As a lover of snakes, frogs, crayfish, and newts, the idea of my own wildlife pond seemed a wonderful, impossible day dream. Imagine my surprise and delight when Dad liked the idea as much as I and began digging a pond in the middle of our backyard.
There he was pouring concrete into this big hole in the lawn, and then digging a trench to the house in which we could bury a hose. When it was done and filled with water it had to be stocked, so we took strainers and jars and went off on what he called squiggly hunts, sifting through the mud in various Iowa City wetlands in search of what else? Squigglies!
We usually brought home plenty of dragon fly larvae and tubifex worms, but Dad desperately wanted a frog for his lily pad and wouldn’t rest until we hit tadpole gold.
When I hit junior high I got diverted a bit from the backyard pond, but Dad never gave up his squiggly hunts. This caused some moments of adolescent embarrassment, especially when we would stop at the City Park ponds on the way home from church, and I would pray I wouldn’t encounter anyone I knew while Dad, still in his church clothes, scooped strainers of mud into a jar. The first thing he did after moving to Princeton was to dig another backyard pond, and his station wagon right now has a jar and strainer under the front seat, just in case he happened to encounter unexpected access to some stream or pond.
I have also always enjoyed what is best described as horror: monsters, vampires, haunted houses, ghosts, and all things supernatural and scary. In these days of lurid media reports of teen devil worship and heavy metal murders these interests are probably no longer encouraged by most well meaning parents. But one of my favorite activities was to decorate the house for Halloween and while Dad generally did not participate he always looked on with interest at what I was doing.
One year, however, I mentioned off hand to Dad that I could really get that haunted house look I was striving for if I only had a coffin to put in the living room. Dad happened to have some old plywood around so he got out graph paper and a saw and I watched him build an enormous black casket. On Halloween it sat in our living room with a candelabra and a bowl of candy corn on it, and trick or treaters ran from our house in terror. I’m not sure Mom was thrilled at this use of the living room but it was certainly one of the great Halloweens and I owe Dad a lot for that.
Of course Dad did far more than indulge children’s hobbies. He expected us to think and work hard. He was an educator at heart and would provide long winded and excruciatingly detailed answers to a child’s innocent query such as “What’s air?” “What makes lightening?” “Dad, what’s a commie pinko?”
He sensed early on that I wasn’t as academically motivated as Jack or Laurie, and he was concerned. I remember his frustration when he asked me if I knew how to calculate the volume of a cylinder, and I replied, “no, we haven’t had that yet.” This was an unacceptable attitude to Dad, who expected me to learn no matter what happened in school.
When he thought I needed more educational oversight, Dad got involved. When my handwriting skills needed improvement he made me practice. When my verbal scores needed raising he assigned me a reading list and asked that I read at least 40 hours a week, to think of it as my summer job, and to record my hours of reading on a time sheet for his review.
These seemed like onerous assignments to me but at least Dad was consistent. It was never mediocre grades that upset him. It was questions about my effort or self discipline he was concerned about, and he was satisfied if he thought I was giving my best no matter what my grade.
I have learned a lot about my father since I left home and first became the lucky beneficiary of his correspondence. Those of you also on that list know exactly what I’m talking about. He wrote with flair, honesty and humor, and going through 15 years of letters from Dad is an incredible experience.
His letters express so much that we know about him: his love of Bobby Thompson and his bittersweet relationship with the game of baseball, which broke his heart nearly every season; his hatred of airports and the evening news, and especially the weather report, which he ridiculed relentlessly; his love for my mother whom he cherished and hoped to live up to; his pride for and concerns about his children, who he never stopped worrying about; the pleasure he took in his dogs; his continual longing for Indian Gap; the deep loyalty and nostalgia he held for Princeton University and his class of ’57; and of course his special contempt for those who would infringe upon liberties that he believed unassailable.
Dad would never have referred to himself as an activist, and in fact used the term with considerable derision. But when he believed his freedoms infringed upon, he responded in his own unique way. No one in my family will forget the period of time when cigarette smoking was still permitted on airplanes but cigar smoking was not. Dad’s response to this injustice was to wrap his little cigars in cigarette papers and bring them aboard in a Marlboro box, daring the flight attendants to catch him. And while the reviled anti-smoking lobby was always a target of enmity, even beloved Princeton was not above criticism.
On November 14, 1991, Dad wrote “I hope to pursuade my classmates to boycott annual giving as long as the university keeps meddling in our use of alcohol at the reunion. I’ll probably just irritate people without achieving any results, but as long I am irritated, why shouldn’t others be?”
But I don’t mean to poke too much fun. He hoped his letters would serve as guidance for a successful life, and whether you agreed with him or not, it was always very clear where he stood. He valued responsibility, patience, deferred gratification, hard work, and initiative. There were times he feared I would lose my way, and he would tell me, as infuriating as he knew this would be.
My successful graduation from business school seemed to put him at ease about my approach towards academics and adult life. In praising my accomplishment he let me know that to him I had done far more than complete four semesters of coursework.
He wrote “One can argue, of course, that you have had advantages and privileges that a lot of poor souls do not have, but I think that makes it all the more important to make the most of those advantages and not squander them, as so many people in your age group do. I am so grateful that you have never succumbed to the urge to indulge in some orgy of “self discovery” or drop out of the mainstream to pursue some pleasure or fantasy.”
This quote should not be taken to mean that Dad didn’t understand the desire for new experience. He did, to a degree. Like many in his age group, he experienced his own “mid-life crisis” in the 1970’s. Not having had one yet, I imagine a “mid-life crisis” to mean a sudden feeling that there is something missing in one’s life, a desire to stretch one’s boundaries in an unconventional way, an urge to take some chances while there’s still time.
In Dad’s case this meant an uncontrollable impulse to take up carpentry, a hobby for which he was not well suited.
I helped him build an outside deck and a room in our basement, and holding a piece of lumber in place while he tried to hammer remains one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. The results were functional but never quite right, with corners not quite flush and surfaces not quite level. It was hard for him, he had no mechanical ability.
But I respect him all the more for that, because he knew he wasn’t good at it and he did it anyway. He pushed himself to learn something new, to do something difficult, just as he taught us we should do. At the same time he was able to exorcise some mid-life demons in a way he found fulfilling without abdicating any of the responsibilities he had taken on earlier in life.
Dad approached the end of his life with dignity, honesty and few regrets. He was pleased with his accomplishments and the way he had lived, and he used his time left to get his affairs in order and to say goodbye to the people he loved.
The day after he died I felt the loss, as I do today, as though my life was a puzzle with a piece conspicuously missing. I know the missing piece can never be recovered but I also know that the puzzle is larger and more beautiful than if that piece had never been a part of it. I realize how lucky I am to have known John Henneman for 33 years. I’m sad that he is gone and I know many of you feel the same way.
I wish I could say more. There are classic stories to tell you about my Dad—his misadventures in canoes, on motorcycles, or with the toggle operated mainsteam stop-valve. The time he was hit in the face with a pie during his lecture and still finished the hour to a standing ovation. But Dad would be appalled to have any part in holding up the cocktail hour, so I’ll finish with this.
We’ll miss you John Henneman, goodbye and good luck.
UPDATE (from TigerHawk): Thank you 'Villain. I've been thinking about the reaction Dad would have had to today's attacks in London, and wishing he were here so I could see it.
I posted my eulogy last year on this date.
I read TH's piece last year (and will read it again this year). I regret that I did not know your father, but from these posts I can see a lot of him in the way you guys approach the world. I will also pass this on to my father, who was a classmate of your dad.
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