May 31st, 2008 marked the end of an era for the Toner Family. Jim Toner died that day. On the anniversary of his passing and with Father’s Day approaching, I find myself reflecting on how much his life influenced mine. I was honored to have written his Eulogy. While I feel pretty good about the effort, I also feel like it’s nearly impossible to pay proper tribute to the man in 800 words or less. Today, it feels like there’s more to the story.
He was just so many things bottled up into one human being. He was my father, my math teacher, my coach, my mentor, my golfing buddy, my sports watching side-kick, and my friend.
As a father, he was an absolute rock. He had a vision of his parenting strategy and never wavered. I struggled with the inflexibility of the plan at times, but I can appreciate that he was a man who knew what he wanted and didn’t execute his parenting role based on what was popular at the time. I think I was the last kid on the block to get approval for having my hair grow over my ears. The rebellious nature of kids in the 60’s and 70’s didn’t set well with him and he had a secret, no-nonsense plan to deal with it. He was ready.
A lot of his parenting decisions were very principled. He just believed certain things to be correct approaches to life, modeled those behaviors himself and then expected the same from his kids. No ifs, ands, or buts. This included a no swearing rule, (a product of his Catholic upbringing), which he took very seriously, especially around kids. I’m sure he took a little (very little) liberty with that rule when the kids weren’t around, but still, he didn’t like hypocrisy, and took his credibility seriously, so he acted the way he expected others to act.
Dad was a practicing Catholic his whole life, though I believe his attendance at mass fell off some in retirement. There is a rule about divorcees not being permitted to take communion ( or maybe it was if you remarried outside the church, I wasn’t paying that close of attention ), which is the main focus of the mass, so I think he reckoned that if he couldn’t partake in the main event, what’s the point? It’s the one area where he might have had a minor bone to pick with the Church, but kept it to himself for the most part. But while he was in charge of raising us kids, it was mass every Sunday and it didn’t matter if we were camping in Southern Oregon near the beach. If it was Sunday morning, he’d be figuring out where a church was to get us there. He never wore his Catholicism on his sleeve. I believe it was deeply personal to him and not something he liked to be very overt about. If anything, he wanted people to know he was a Christian by his actions, not his words. He was never very big on ‘big-talk’. In fact, when he’d see one of us making big plans, perhaps setting unreachable goals, he might chime in with those exact words — big talk, which was just his way of saying “show me”.
Looking back, what I admire the most about his parenting approach was the personal sacrifices that came along with following his principles. He believed private education was better than public education and somehow managed to find money on a teacher’s salary to send 4 kids to private schools up until 1972. By then the private school system had deteriorated significantly, and he felt that my best interests might be better served over at the Middle School where he taught. I thought maybe I had just caught a lucky break but it was not to be. He worked a deal with the principal to get me in the class of the strictest teacher in the building, Mrs. Miller. Just when you think you’ve made easy-street, you realize the game is rigged.
If I do the math on that commitment, it just doesn’t add up. I remember it being a pretty big milestone when his salary reached the $10k mark. Even in 1970’s dollars, that’s not the kind of dollar figure that’s usually associated with being able to afford private school for your kids. There were personal sacrifices involved with that decision.
Dad didn’t like stupid. In fact, he hated stupidity, especially in his own family members. We provided him more examples than he probably cared for or was expecting. This just strengthened his resolve to stamp out stupidity. He would joke about having to share a last name with one of us who embarrassed the family name in public. It’s not a stretch to suggest he dedicated his life to correcting stupid within his own family. Speaking only for myself, I would say he was only partially successful.
He had a very special way of showing me – through an analogy or a comparison of sorts, how stupid my idea or action was. His method usually involved holding up a mirror, and humor to take the sting off, but it had the same effect. He was also not a big fan of lazy. One such remembrance, was the nick-name he came up for me when I was about 8. My sisters and I used to get a list of a few chores on the weekends. Assuming the role of Quality Control inspector, he quickly found a few quality issues with my work, and in some cases, tasks were only partially completed. He’d call me over to discuss. (Getting called out in this manner was usually pretty embarrassing, especially if any siblings were present, but extra hilarious for them. This was no accident. Dad employed public embarrassment as a tool of choice on many occasions. In retrospect I would say it was very effective). The questioning would begin. There was no getting out of it. At the very end, he’d say something like “Why we’re going to have to start calling you ol’ half-job Toner”, and then laugh like it was the funniest thing ever.
That nick-name strategy worked pretty well because it made you think the next time you were taking out the trash or whatever that task was. Miss a garbage cans and someone might bring up the dreaded nick-name.
Dad loved sports. As a participant I think he enjoyed golf the most. I think his ‘career’ round might have been a 73 or 74. I hope I’m not short-changing him there, but when he used to play a lot with his old golfing buddy Dick Pokorny, they would often-times get up early and play 36 holes out at Top ‘O Scott or Glendoveer. I think his low score was at Top ‘O Scott if I recall correctly.
He played baseball in High School at St. Mary’s in Eugene. I remember him telling the story about his Junior year at St. Mary’s the weather was so bad, they only got in 3 games for the season. And one was a double-header. It just poured all spring.
Ever the strategy guy, he liked to out-smart the situation and make the dumb strategy guy pay. He recalled being a baserunner on 3rd base one time and watching the opposing pitcher go through some funkified double wind-up where he took all day to get through his motions. This got Dad to ‘thinking’ that maybe he could steal home. So without a signal from the coach, he gave it a try. There was a play at the plate. “SAFE!” I guess his coach questioned the wisdom of the attempt but he just explained that he was pretty sure he could make it. Anyway, as a Freshman at Oregon he tried out but didn’t quite make the cut. The fact that he was even trying out always impressed me because my in High School I knew where my skill level was at in baseball and I saved myself the embarrassment of being cut and went out for golf.
As a spectator, Dad liked baseball for its strategy, basketball for its athleticism, and college football for pretty much the same reason. He loved his Ducks and was a frequent visitor to Autzen stadium. He could get super excited about a 1-0 baseball game and completely understood all of the little chess-moves each coach was making to ‘play the percentages’. And he loathed stupidity in coaching moves too. Especially in clock management. Man, he’d get mad if the coach let time off the clock, or failed to run the clock down when his team was ahead.
In retirement, He had a killer TV setup with picture-in-picture on a big screen TV and was one of those guys who would be watching two games on TV, and then also have the radio to catch a third game.
His other favorite activity was playing duplicate bridge, which he played his whole adult life and I believe around the age of 40 or so, started playing competitively and was a well-respected player in the Northwest. He played in tournaments in several states and it was not uncommon for him and his partner to win or place in the top 5. I believe the draw for him was the awesome combination of being a participant in a very strategic, thinking man’s game plus a social aspect that came along with that. I never really understood that fully until I attended his wedding reception when he married Verda Hicks about 20 years ago ( give or take a few ). The place was crawling with bridge friends. The dance floor was full and everyone knew Jim Toner.
Jim Toner was one hilarious human being. I’ve seen him bring a room to hysteria more times than I can count. Often times it was with very few words, too. He didn’t require a lot of words to be funny. He would just shine the light one a situation at just the right time with just the right thought, and the next thing you know, everyone was cracking up. He was a master at using self-deprecating humor, humble man that he was. I think he secretly loathed parents who bragged on their kids so he took the opposite approach, at least publicly. I know he was proud of us all in his own way, but he was more inclined to keep our heads from getting too swollen than to boast about our latest accomplishment.
One memory that comes to mind is from the 6th grade. We had an annual “Presidential Physical Fitness” test at school. If you could pass the various physical tests to a certain standard, you then got the Presidential Seal, which was a pretty big deal because very few kids could pass all of the tests if I recall correctly.
Anyway, my best friend Doug Rowe was/is a far better athlete than I, and he always passed the tests and I never did. I was a competitive sort, so I reckoned that if I practiced up, maybe I could get there, but it just wasn’t to be. Anyway, back to Dad. One of the events was you had to run the 50 yd. dash in under 8 seconds or somewhere around that number. I was always coming in close, but no cigar. Sprinting was never something I was good at. If anything, I could usually pass the longer distance tests, but sprinting, no.
So Dad got home from work and I asked him if he would time me in the 50 yd. dash out in the street, just to practice. “Sure”, he said. “You go get your tennis shoes, and I’ll go get the calendar”.
A family friend recalled a funny story about Dad during his teaching years. Harold Oliver Middle School was unique in that it had a fairly high percentage of male teachers. They were very social outside of work as well. The main group activity seemed to be attending High School ( Centennial ) sporting events, especially football and basketball. Almost every friday night, he’d “go out with the guys” and watch the game and then often times stop at The Lariat Tavern on the way home to have a few beers.
So the story goes that Centennial wasn’t very competitive in the late 60’s and early 70’s due to being in a very competitive league. But that changed in ’72 or ’73 and they started winning. Centennial made the playoffs in ’73 and eventually won the State Championship as the underdog in each game. It was a real Cinderella season as I recall, with drama down to the final minutes. Anyway, before the success of ’73 happened there were some losing years and a high school teacher named Don McCarty was the coach. There was a district function were all the teachers were gathered together and Dad felt it might be time to put some ideas in Don’s head about his coaching strategy.
Jim: “Hey Don, how many students do you have up there at Centennial?”
Don: “I don’t know, about 1700?”
Jim: “How would it work to put a couple of them out in front of the ball carrier?”
As an 8th grade math teacher, he had no issue leveling natural consequences. Before he passed away he told the story of a former student, a girl, who, up to the 8th week of the term turned in no assignments. The last two weeks she turned in her assignments. He said that when he was making out report cards “I gave her a well deserved F”. The day after she received her report card she approached him and it went something like this.
Student: “Mr. Toner, I turned in my homework towards the end, why did you give me an F?”
Jim: “Because they didn’t have a G”
Last but not least, I’ll leave you with this little gem from about 1970 or so which illustrates Dad’s disdain for the hippie movement as well as his perfect timing on a comment. Dad and I were sitting in his car one morning and the radio was on. A Beatles song was on and he actually liked it.
Dad: “Hey, that’s pretty good. I wonder who wrote that?”
Me: “You mean the artist?”
Dad: “Um, no. I mean the clown that wrote the song”
So that’s a sampling of what it was like growing up as Jim Toner’s son.
As I reflect on Dad’s influence on me today… I hope that his spirit is aware that even though I’m quite different that he, I think about him daily and reflect on the things he said all the time. His impact on me is immeasurable. He was one of a kind and I consider myself a lucky guy to have so many vivid memories of the man.