A father's death leaves a legacy of positive change behind

A week before Father's Day, my father John Noel Fox passed away in a congregate care facility in Bellingham, just one month shy of 90. I had the difficult but very real privilege of being there when he died, along with my sister and one of his nurses.

It is painful to lose a loved one - to sit back and helplessly watch him fade away. But I know that he lived a long and very good life.

My dad was born in a small factory town, Marion, Indiana, to John and Nellie Fox. His father was a lineman for the county and his mother a telephone operator. He grew up during the Depression, and it was a tough working-class existence. He helped his family make ends meet by working as an aide at the local veterans home.

Marion was known then and now as a basketball town. Every home high-school game drew over 5,000 people. My dad was a starting guard for that team. The whole town turned out.

The whole town turned out for other activities as well. In 1930, my dad's father dragged him to see a lynching of two black men. Reportedly 10,000 other townsfolk witnessed this. Recently I saw a historic photo of this obscenity. Historians write that it was one of the more egregious of hundreds of lynchings during the '20s and '30s. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, my dad never possessed a discriminatory or racist bone in his body. He lived his life believing in equal treatment for all.

My dad was an outstanding athlete. He played four sports in his teens and 20s - fast pitch softball, baseball, basketball, and football. To this day he is one of Western Washington University's only multi-sport letterman. At 17 he was the youngest player on a men's fast pitch softball team that won the national championship. Later he joined an all-star team that regularly played professionals including Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize, and a semi-pro team that squared off with black professional teams. He remembers playing against Buck O'Neill, considered one of the best baseball players who ever lived. Dad told me had he stuck to baseball, he'd have gone pro. I believe it.

During the war, my dad was a Navy Seabee building airstrips in the South Pacific by morning and playing baseball in the afternoons. He had it relatively easy, he said, but pointed out that he had tried to go to the front lines only to be turned away because of his eyesight. How was it that he could hit a baseball, he told them, yet they wouldn't let him go to war?

He met my mom Arlene at Western Washington University. They were married just before he went off to war, and remained married for 63 years until my mother died April 21, 2005.

My sister was born in 1947 and I was born in 1949. We grew up on Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula where my dad and mom both taught and coached. It was an idyllic existence for us kids with lots of woods, water, and fields to play in. I'd go to the high school ballgames and even my dad's team practices. After the games, I'd sit and watch the teen sock hops on the darkened gym floor.

My dad was a progressive and a labor supporter. Even after he became a principal, he would not leave the teachers union. In fact, it took a special rule passed at the state level barring administrators from the teachers union to force my dad out. He knew where his loyalties lay and his staff respected him for it.

As another expression of his belief in justice and equality, he pioneered equal access for women in sports - and this was before Title IX. At Mountlake Terrace (where we moved in the '60s), he made sure as athletic director that girls' sports got equal levels of funding and respect.

He genuinely cared about and encouraged the best in everyone he touched. My dad and mom throughout their careers influenced more than one generation and many hundreds of young people. My sister and I were privileged to feel that caring and support throughout our growing-up years. I lived and breathed athletics and no doubt developed my strong sense of social justice during this period of my life.

After surviving an aneurism and bypass surgery, my father enjoyed a long retirement with my mother - traveling, playing golf, socializing with lifelong friends and enjoying his family. They maintained a summer home in Bellingham and a winter home in Palm Desert.

My mom's passing in 2005 left a great hole in my dad's life. He lost appetite and many of his interests. Diabetes was discovered after it had damaged his kidneys and no doubt accentuated his heart problems.

During the last nine months of his life, he was in and out of Bellingham's Evergreen Treatment and Care facility. He also was hospitalized seven times, usually after he'd try to live at home by himself. He just wouldn't or couldn't take all those 17 medications, eat right, exercise and give himself the required diabetes shots. Even so, he repeatedly rebuffed the efforts of my sister and myself to come live with or close by us. His independence was important to him.

Finally after an April heart attack, he chose to remain at Evergreen where he found real friendship and support from the administrators, aides, and residents. In one sense his world had shrunk but in another sense it grew by leaps and bounds. In fact, the last real joy he experienced in his life was interacting with the staff.

In the last week, he remarked in frustration, "You are born into this world with nothing and you are going to leave it with nothing." Later and again in his last moments, I let him know emphatically what an important contribution he made to his family, his friends, and those hundreds of students and teachers he influenced throughout his life.

Our time here on earth is finite, but my Dad left an indelible mark on this infinite world of ours. We will always remember and love him.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter may be reached via editor@sdistrictjournal.com.[[In-content Ad]]