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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My father's legacy...

My father just died. My 98-year-old, fearless, outspoken father – who was devoted to fighting for the rights of workers – just died. He hung on for over a year, despite major organ failure, with incredible determination and will. Just the way he lived. Even towards the end, despite the challenges and limitations to his body and mind, he was energized by the protests in Wisconsin, as state workers – police, firefighters, nurses and more – fight to maintain their right to bargain collectively.

In the 40s and 50s, my father was unafraid to speak up for working-class people who toiled in factories. This was his organizing base, and as a child of the 50s, it seemed very foreign to me in my middle-class world. I was schooled by the antiwar movement, the women's movement and gay/lesbian rights movement, all a far cry from the world of factory workers who made auto or typewriter parts. 

Manny speaking before House Un-American Activities Committee 1964
But I absorbed my father's social justice values, even though I felt very separate from the people he was organizing. It was hard for me to imagine the unfortunate plight of the factory worker, but over the years, I began to understand the need to fight against inequities around workers' wages and working conditions. And once I was in the work world, I learned first-hand what it meant to be caught in a stratified social structure that appropriated varying amounts of power to its employees. In fact, a string of lousy work experiences was one thing that inspired me to study workplaces once I became a sociologist. I discovered first-hand that worker control is the key to job satisfaction, and many people don't have enough of it...

I was once on a plane with a factory owner, and over the course of our flight, discovered that this guy's plant - Remington Rand - was one that my father had organized. Listening to him talk about how he decided to move the company abroad, and how he couldn't understand why his workers weren't willing to move with him, I realized how out of touch he was with the reality of his workers. I knew more about him than he could have possibly known. My father had led the workers employed by that man in a successful strike against the company, and the workers forced the company to back down on cutting wages and benefits. I decided not to share this information, but found great satisfaction in knowing...

At my father's funeral this past Sunday, I told the congregation that if he were still alive and well, he'd be in Wisconsin. This was his fight, something to which he dedicated his life, through his organizing work, and then later through plays he wrote about worker-management struggles. The nature of the "working class" is different today, as factory work has moved to locations with cheaper labor. Wisconsin workers represent the "new" working-class, whose self-identification is folded into our broadly defined middle-class. They are service and professional workers who provide the critical supports to our society – regulating safety, putting out fires, teaching our children, maintaining our sewage systems, and caring for the sick.

There are far too few heroes these days, people who are willing to stand up against adversity to speak their piece and demand justice. My father chose to do just this. It wasn't always easy to have a father who prioritized the outside world over his family. In fact, I learned early on that if I wanted to be close to him, I had to speak his language. I tried very hard - sometimes too hard - back then. And the older and more knowledgeable I became, the more I realized where we differed. But at the very base, I valued his commitment to a set of ideals, even when they created adversity for him and for us. He always hoped that we would see he made the right choices. And in the end, as a daughter to a loving father who became more emotionally generous with age, I feel that he did.

Manny receives Joe Hill Award from AFL-CIO Labor Heritage Foundation


  1. EXCELLENT TRIBUTE, MINDY. He was larger than life, but still very down to earth. His "old-fashioned" commitment to the working class was a quality I found refreshing. The Wisconsin struggle is waking lots of people to the need to organize and fight for workers' rights. For Manny, it was in his blood, second nature. I thought about him last Saturday when I was at the solidarity rally in Hartford. He would have liked most of the slogans and chants, as well as the speeches. The Joe Hill award is fitting because that is a spirit that can never die, and neither can Manny's. It was my pleasure to get to know him on those holiday visits and to share our stories (more his than mine). We knew we spoke the same language. Bottom line, he was a mensch.

  2. A beautiful tribute Mindy. I didn't know your father, but from this piece I can gather that he was a very special man... with a very special daughter. Hope you are doing well.
    Thanks for sharing this,

  3. Thanks to both of you... In the sociology class I'm teaching about aging, we talk about "secular immortality" - in which an individual lives on through what they create. Could be their children; could be their body of work. In Manny's case, there is so much that keeps his spirit alive.

  4. Mindy, your father created a life well lived and I'm sure made a difference in the lives of many people. Your tribute captures the essence of who he was. My dad passed twenty years ago but there is still the connection between us that I am reminded of almost every day. He lives on in my work, my children, my thought and his spirit. I am sure you will forever experience that with your dad. Gary

  5. Thanks so much for sharing the story of your father. He sounds like a truly inspiring man, one who will live on in the hearts and lives of others. I love that he was 98 and still fighting for the cause!
    My condolences...
    Cindy Thompson

  6. Mindy, I'm truly sorry to learn that Manny is gone, but I know you count yourself fortunate for having had him with you for so long, and you can feel considerable satisfaction in his being well cared for in his last days. As you say, his large spirit and legacy remain vividly alive. --Elizabeth

  7. Thanks for sharing these great reflections and some of your memories of your wonderful father. I'm so sorry for your loss. -- Erin Kelly

  8. Mindy,
    What beautiful reflections by a beautiful daughter on her father's most extraordinary life! Yes, he was fearless. He also had a special talent to connect with all kinds of people. His legacy is large. You've aptly summarized it. His legend will grow as these times demand heroes of the people. Manny was and is a hero of the people.
    Kindest regards,

  9. Hi Mindy:

    What a beautiful tribute to your dad. I am sorry to hear about his death. I posted to you a couple of months ago when you did another blog post about your father. My father had just died (at almost 97) and I wrote about appreciating yours while he was still on earth. My father was similar to your dad in many ways-- an old style lefty-- but he served that cause as a social worker. I miss my dad, but am glad that he lead a meaningful life, as did yours. They are a dying breed-- literally.

    Best Wishes,

    (Jean Elson)

  10. Hello dear Mindy,
    This was a lovely reflection to share about your Dad and your relationship; thank you. I too got to see and experience a different relationship with my father in the last years of his life, and I treasure that and still miss him.
    Take care,

  11. Thank you all so much for your kind words and reflections on your own experience of loss. Of course, one of the difficulties of losing a parent is feeling alone - even when others are around.
    Hearing from you all helps lessen the pain of that, as does my own family...

  12. This is an amazing tribute -- Mindy! I am so sorry for your loss, but also have a better perspective on the things that make you into the wonderful, wonderful person and sociologist that you are. I'll be thinking of you and your family. Joya

  13. Hi Mindy -- What a beautiful tribute to your dad. He sounds like an amazing man, and I love the way you captured the nuances of him as well as your relationship with him.

    I'm so sorry for your loss. Big hug from Andover.

  14. Mindy, this is a beautifully written tribute to your Dad. "I think I saw Manny at a demonstration on the Boston Common last week." But that can't be. He would have been in Wisconsin with Joe Hill.

  15. His spirit was certainly on the Common and in Wisconsin!

  16. Mindy, my thoughts go back to knowing your father through his plays before I knew you... and then to the wonderful serendipity of becoming your friend and getting to meet Manny! I know you worked hard, especially during this past year, to make his life as comfortable as possible. I hope you can take comfort not only in the reconciliation you achieved but in knowing that your efforts mattered. But if you're like me it will be hard for a while. Let's get together soon. I'm emailing you separately but wanted to post this here. xo Susan

  17. Such a beautifully written tribute to your dad, Mindy. At times like this, it’s often both difficult and yet so important to articulate one’s feelings. It means a great deal to those who know you and your dad (or wish to have known him better). Thank you for sharing this.
    With much love,

  18. Kristen Tripp KelleyMarch 23, 2011 at 1:05 PM

    Hi Mindy. Thanks for posting this tribute. Just wanted to let you know what an honor and a pleasure it was getting to know your Dad through the theatre community in Buffalo. I had the chance to act with him on a couple of projects and was recently given the chance to perform in one of his short works at Road Less Traveled Theatre. He inspired me to be a better actor and a person, and was always so supportive of my work. I enjoyed every conversation we shared. I always listened in awe as he described his work as a union organizer. He had such integrity and determination, I could only hope to live a life with such purpose. I want you to know I attended a rally in downtown Buffalo recently in support of the Wisconsin workers, just a few days after your father had passed. I held a sign I made that read: "For Manny F: Stand Up for Workers." I hope it brings you comfort to know the powerful and indelible impact he has had on so many lives. Peace.