This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever written

My father, Kenneth Fox, passed away on June 20 at the age of 77. This is the eulogy I delivered at his memorial service.

My dad was a Renaissance man. He was the smartest man I’ve ever known. You’re going to hear that a lot today, so get used to it. He collected degrees and awards like some people collect stamps or baseball cards. He earned a bachelor of science in physics and mathematics, with high distinction, at age 21, then his master’s at age 22 and his Ph.D. at 26. He was a tenure-track professor at the University of Tennessee at age 30, commuting there from Maryland after he moved to Bowie and started a family. In addition to teaching and research he served as a consultant for multiple nuclear research labs as well as NASA, and in the middle of all that, he earned a J.D. at the age of 46, and was admitted to the bar in not one, not two, but three states. The only thing he wasn’t good at was retirement. As soon as he left the University of Tennessee he started teaching right again at Anne Arundel Community College, and hosted two award-winning science shows on Bowie public television. He ran for the Prince George’s County School Board in his 60s, he was appointed to the county board of elections at age 71 and 75, and somewhere on his laptop is an unfinished journal article about some minutaeu of nuclear energy generation that he was preparing to publish.

My dad earned all of those awards and accomplishments, and he was proud of them. But it wasn’t the highest accolades he was most proud of, it was the ones he worked the hardest on. In his home office there are four awards displayed over the cedar chest that contains all of our important family files. There is his B.S. degree in physics, with high distinction, from Wayne State University. Dad got into M.I.T., but stayed home in Detroit because his family couldn’t afford it. Instead, he encouraged all of us to pursue our academic interests to the fullest, and never second-guessed Rachel or I when we decided to pursue advanced degrees.

There are two Certificates of Appreciation honoring the 2000 selection of his Bowie Community TV show Science, Science as that channel’s “Best New Series.” That was his first post-retirement project, and he learned all the aspects of the TV industry, from producing to directing to editing to hosting, to make it a success. For a few years it was all he would talk about, the recent guest speaker or the contemporary topic he was going to fit into the broacast.

The fourth award is a proclamation from Martin O’Malley, appointing my dad to the Prince George’s Board of Elections in 2007. Chances are, if you ever went to a civic event in Bowie, or even just went to the grocery store, at least once you saw my Dad outside registering people to vote. He was there at Bowiefest this year. He got one person to register to vote, and he probably saw that as a success.

One thing my dad didn’t believe in, at least at first, was the sport of ice hockey. He hated that Matt and I played hockey. Who would have thought a man who grew up in Detroit watching Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and the Production Line in their prime could hate hockey? He wanted us to play anything instead. Hockey was too violent, and the broken bones and bruises Matt and I have accumulated over the years proved him right. For a few years he refused to take us to our hockey practices, and would sign us up for baseball, basketball, and soccer through the Bowie Boys and Girls Club, even after I begged him not to. He even convinced Matt to try his favorite sport, tennis, at least for a little while. However, once he saw how much hockey meant to us, the friendships we built and how we learned to work as a team, he started to come around, and even joined us in rooting for the hometown Washington Capitals.

In 1993, the Caps were playing the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. Going into game six, Washington was down three games to two in the series. The Islanders were leading late in the third period when Pierre Turgeon scored an insurance goal to guarantee the end of the Capitals’ season. As Turgeon celebrated, Washington’s captain Dale Hunter slammed him into the boards and injured him.

Hunter was condemned for the illegal hit, and rightly so. It was a dirty play. However, for my parents, Hunter wasn’t just a professional athlete, he was a friend. I’d played on a team with his son, and he showed up to as many practices and games as possible. While everyone and their brother was bashing Hunter, my dad wrote a letter to the editor of the Bowie Blade-News, saying that Hunter’s actions were out of character and that the real Hunter was an upstanding citizen and family man. He publicly supported for this person, who deserved a lot criticism, because he couldn’t stand to see a good man’s entire life slandered over one snap decision. That tells you the type of man my father was. He always spoke up for what was right, and he was never afraid to fight uphill.

He was so, so proud of all of his children and what we accomplished. We never had to dream big, because he’d do it for us. When I wrote a column for my college newspaper, he tried to convince me to talk to a publisher about a book deal. Any time there was a story about art in the Washington Post, he’d call me to tell me to look for it, and ask if there were any angles in it that could help advance my career.

He thought it was fantastic that Matt worked for professional and major college sports organizations, and always tried to get the inside scoop about the Caps personnel movements. He believed in us when Matt, I, and a few of our friends formed a charity to run a hockey tournament, and was one of our strongest supporters. He thought my wife Sara and Matt’s girlfriend Kiki were the best things to ever happen to each of us. Rachel is a world-class synchronized figure skater and Dad loved to travel across the globe to watch her compete, and to tell his friends about her silver medal in the world championships. Apparently, once he got started telling someone about any of his kids’ accomplishments it was hard to get him to stop.

He was stubbornly persistent in most things he did. There are a lot of people out there who thought he was a hard-nosed jerk sometimes. I certainly did. He always liked to be right. You can ask Sara, he passed that trait on to me. Even through all that stubbornness and intensity, he was a man who cared deeply. He cared about science. He cared about the law. He cared about society, and this city. And he cared deeply about his family.

He loved his entire family, my mom most of all. He was incredibly invested in her happiness and her success. In recent years his tough facade began to drop and he let the world see how much he and my mom cared for each other, and how much he depended on her. When she came home from work he’d ask her how her day went, and if it was a tough day, he’d cry while listening to what had happened. We took so many trips together as a family, and when it wasn’t easy for him to travel anymore, he’d encourage my mom to go places anyway and bring back stories. They depended on each other.

The great irony in all this is that, after several years of declining health, my dad had finally begun to take responsibility for his health again. His heart condition slowed him down, his spinal stenosis made it hard for him to walk, and he could barely hear. He’d had a cancerous mole removed from his temple a few years ago, and there was another nasty one growing on his arm that he was determined to ignore. Dad hated needles, hated anesthesia, hated surgery. Eventually we got him to go to the dermatologist, who took one look and told him it was malignant and he needed to make an appointment at the hospital. It took an intervention this past Thanksgiving to convince him to make that appointment. The surgeon told him she’d need to dig deep, and he didn’t want to do it. He was content to play out the string, to take his chances. It took another intervention by Rachel in May to follow through and schedule the surgery. She’s a medical doctor now, you see, so he listened to her advice. That surgery was scheduled for four days ago.

I have one last story to tell you, about how I’ll always remember my father.

This wasn’t my dad’s first heart attack. When he was having heart issues about seven years ago, he went in for an exam, and his cardiologist told him that his test results showed that he’d suffered a minor one at some point in the past, without even knowing it. His heart wasn’t in good shape even then, and he needed double bypass surgery. We scheduled the surgery for a morning up at Johns Hopkins.

It was an emotional experience, sitting in the hospital room waiting for dad to get taken in to the operating room. Double bypasses have a very high survival rate, but it’s not 100%. He told all three of his children, in turn, that he loved us and was very proud of us. Then he told my mom he loved her as well, and gave her his account book, with a list of all the people she’d need to contact in case he didn’t make it out of the OR.

We waited a few more minutes for the cardiologist, nurses, and anaesthesiologist to come to take him back. As they wheeled him out of the room on the bed, the four of us followed him to the double doors that led into the operating wing. We each said our goodbyes again, and stepped back to let the doctors take over. I’ll never forget what he said next. Maybe he thought we were out of earshot. I know he was scared. It wasn’t his usual commanding voice. This was soft and fearful. As they rolled him through the doors, he looked up at the anaesthesiologist and asked him a question. He asked: “Will I dream?”

I don’t know if he did or not. I never asked him about that moment, never even told him I saw it happen. I just knew I was privileged to witness it.

Dad, I don’t know if you are dreaming now, but I hope you are at peace.

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