My father was the embodiment of resilience, grounded optimism, tenacity, and service. Dad could be both insensitive and compassionate - a loner and loyal friend - structured and silly – fierce and the life of the party. He miraculously transcended a terrible childhood, significant challenges in his career, a heart attack, and the untimely death of his wife – but he thrived.
Dad was originally named Arne Nordstrom and born in 1926 to immigrants from Northern Europe. His mom Esther was from Finland and came to the US in 1923. As an adult, she worked as a maid. Oscar was from Sweden and arrived in 1917. He was initially in the US Army then became a longshoreman.
Dad grew up as an only child in the Bay Area of California. In a journal about his life he wrote in 2011, he recalled:
In 1932 the start of the Depression, I remember my dad getting beaten up because the unions were competing on which would represent the longshoreman's union. During the summer my mom worked as a maid for a wealthy San Francisco family. I went with mom and had to sit .. the whole time she worked. There was no running or walking around the house. My father Oscar was on strike, and so we lost our house and had to move into a one bedroom apartment where I slept on the sofa.
Both parents drank heavily as a way of coping with the poor economic times. Esther tragically died of liver disease in 1937 in her late 30s. My father was only eight years old at the time. He then moved in with his Dad and lived in the Embarcadero district of downtown San Francisco.
Life with his father did not last long given how poor and desolate Oscar was. Oscar gave little Arne to friends along with most of his furniture as a form of payment for his son's care. Esther’s sister Anna visited him and ultimately began taking care of Arne along with her two sons Rudy and Dagner. Unfortunately, living with Anna and her husband John did not last given their limited financial resources. Arne somehow survived on his own, surviving in a house without electricity, food or money. His future was bleak since 12-year-old children that spoke broken English were not readily adopted.
That is until two people crossed paths with Arne and miraculously changed the course of his life.
Don Jensen was a young social work student at the University of California at Berkeley. His sister Connie lived in the Bay area and worked as a legal secretary. In a 1985 article Don wrote for the Miami Herald, Don explains:
My assignment was with the Children's Protective Agency in San Francisco two days a week off campus. I was assigned a youngster about 12 named Arne who was without a mother or father. It was an urgent situation, but nothing could be done until the child was made a ward of the court. Someone had to assume responsibility for the orphan. I had to move fast, and did. I pulled together a case history of Arne and a report to the judge of the Juvenile Court. I got on his calendar after I had the facts assembled. At 7 in the evening, I called Connie and hollered for help. She took my dictated record and flawlessly typed the lengthy report for the court. Connie was married and had no children at the time. Sight unseen, she fell in love with Arne from my description…my sister told me she had talked it over with her husband, and they wanted to adopt the boy.
Connie described the experience in an article she wrote in 1969 for a professional magazine. She explained:
He couldn't talk like others; he was strictly a ‘dese,' ‘dem' and ‘dose' boy and so was immediately
marked as different whenever he spoke. He had not during his lifetime used a knife and fork to cut or eat meat and knew nothing other than picking it up in his hands and gnawing on it. I asked him if he would like me to teach him to eat as we did, and his shy and thoughtful answer I still remember, "yes, I want to learn to be a gentleman." So every Saturday morning I set the table with dishes, silver, napkins, and we practiced and practiced and practiced. In time we talked about school and grades, and I asked if he was at all interested in trying for a college education. "College?" He was in a state of shock - he had never thought about it at all.
During World War II, Dad joined the Navy at the age of 17 in 1944 as a midshipman. He explained,"I knew I had to go into military service. I wanted to get some college and checked into the various military services and decided on the V5 program in which I would get a college education." After a short stay in Peru, Nebraska, the Navy decided to send Dad to UCLA as part of a highly competitive NROTC program, and eventually he graduated as an ensign in 1948.
During the late 1940s, his parents Jim and Connie bought Wally Hot Springs Resort in Genoa, Nevada. Managing the resort was overwhelming for his parents, especially Connie who struggled with an intolerable marriage, social isolation, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide. His parents asked Dad to come home to help with all the work associated with running the resort. Given his strong sense of service and responsibility, he temporarily ended his Navy career and came home. He noted, "I felt since they saved me by adopting me at the age of 12 I should somehow repay them and I’m glad I did."
The Wally’s experience was not all negative. Wally’s was a destination for movie stars who came to experience the natural hot springs. It also provided the perfect context for developing new skills. Dad refined his gift of gab and unique ability to read people when became a bartender on the resort on his 21st birthday in 1937. Later in his life, he often described how his ability to talk with strangers played a critical role in his career success. Often a jokester, he described how during the Christmas season, he rigged a pulley system with a sprig of mistletoe over the bar. If a beautiful woman sat at any place along the bar, he could move the mistletoe over the unsuspecting patron and request a kiss.
Among the women that Dad met as the bartender was a slender young woman named Maggie Nelson. She had driven down over from Carson City with her high school friend Deb to have a cocktail. After a brief courtship, they then married in 1951.
Resuming His Navy Career
My father’s parents eventually split and sold Wally Hot Springs resort, freeing him to resume his Navy career in 1952. Life in the Navy involved a continuous series of assignments at sea, geographic relocations, and promotions. The Navy assigned my father to Washington, DC, Rhode Island, Tacoma WA, Newport News, and Norfolk. One of his final assignments lasted five years in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Those years in Hawaii represented a peak period in my father's Navy career as well as our family life.
One of his most important assignments consisted of the Bureau of Naval Personnel in DC where he reviewed fitness reports for promotions. This experience allowed him to discover the essential leadership skills and experience it would take to advance in his Naval career. He subsequently served on the USS Sturdevant, USS Blair, USS Charles Brannon, and ultimately his promotion to Commanding Officer on the USS Bolster and the USS Henley.
As Navy wives often do, Mom played a critical role as his partner, attending formal functions, preparing to move, unpacking from moves, and reaching out to new neighbors. Without Mom’s support, Dad could not have achieved the success he did.
As a Navy officer, Dad was a transformational leader who engaged and listened to the opinions of his men on the ship. As a result, he achieved significant successes including the recovery of an 8,000-ton ship that went aground on a reef near Australia. For this and other achievements, his ship received the Excellence Award for this work, also known as the "E" award. The Navy recognized his ship as the best in his squadron for overall operations. After being passed over for a promotion to captain, Dad realized that if he was going to have a second career, he needed to act. He eventually retired from the Navy in 1969 and returned to civilian life in Hampton, VA.
My father landed a job with the VA State Health Department in Smithfield VA in 1970 as a health inspector. At first glance, it seemed an odd next step in his career and yet it was a great fit for his personality. The job enabled him to build relationships, improve the lives of others, and have a fair amount of autonomy in his role.
I recall a trip he and I took to Smithfield several years back. As we drove through the rural community, he recalled with pride his impact on this community including how his job contributed to the development of the community as well as the relationships he built with residents and business leaders. He enjoyed his co-workers and allowed his playful jokester identity to emerge. When some of the women in the office announced their intention to start a diet as a new year's goal, Dad would go out and buy a dozen donuts to tempt them. They responded by hitting him with fly swatters and devouring the donuts.
During this period of working for the health department, Dad took on the role of Scoutmaster for Troop 13, the Boy Scout troop I joined after cub scouts. Dad enjoyed playing this role, although he could be a bit prickly if the boys woke him up in the middle of the night.
After formally retiring from the health department in 1988, my father was not ready for a rocking chair. He continued exploring his interests, maintaining his health, learning, and building friendships. Dad discovered the game of golf early in his Navy career and became an avid player in retirement. He loved being outside in nature, enjoyed the challenge, and build strong relationships with friends he met. Dad loved the competition and at times cursed his limitations when he missed a putt or hit a mulligan from the tee, saying aloud to himself "Come on stupid! How could you screw it up!" Often he suggested to me the importance of playing golf as a means for building connections with others to help my career succeed.
Recognizing that he needed to keep his mind sharp and keep learning, my father took on a part time job doing taxes with H&R block and exploring electronics. Dad filled one room in our home with oscilloscopes, soldering irons, and transistors – looking very much like a mad scientist. His passion and emerging skill allowed him to build a color television from scratch and start a small business repairing the TVs of friends.
The final chapter of Dad’s life began with my mother’s untimely death from lung cancer in 1996. He and I frequently met for breakfast in Hampton on Saturday mornings to talk about our lives, hopes, and disappointments. My father had a difficult time with her death. He shared with me many times he wished he had complimented her more and told her what she meant to him. He also shared with me that one of the toughest aspects of losing his wife was the loneliness he felt eating dinner alone. He wrote in his journal about this period, "It was tough to be alone and was lucky to have my kids support me."
Eventually, Dad began to adjust back to life as a single man and find ways to stay active, learn, meet new people, and maintain his health. It was his daily and weekly structured regimens, established during this Navy career, which helped him thrive. A major part of later years was the weekly dinner routines with my oldest siblings – dinner together on Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday night. In particular, he relied upon on my sister Carol, brother Kenny, and our beloved family friend Ralph. I believe one of the reasons he lived as long as he did was their loving support.
Dad exercised several days a week at the gym, including swimming – a passion he had since getting his life-saving certificate as a young man. Tuesday and Thursday were golf days. He embraced technology and invested much time in staying in touch with friends and family across the USA through email. My father also made numerous trips to Arizona to spend time in the warm climate with my sister Robin.
One of most meaningful experiences for him in his later years was his volunteer work teaching financial management for the Hampton Veteran’s Hospital Center. Dad incorporated his passion for financial responsibility with his desire to serve his fellow veterans. This experience consisting of teaching financial concepts to veterans, many of which had never reconciled a checkbook or created a budget. Dad was immensely proud of the impact he was having on the lives of his students. He would often share the post-training evaluations with powerful acknowledgments from his students about the impact of his classes. Apparently, he connected to these veterans using his direct, no-bullshit language in ways that transformed their lives.
Our father lived a life of impact on others. He was a role model for taking care of ones' health, resiliently navigating tough times, being in service to others, sustaining relationships with others, and keeping a positive attitude. I’d like to conclude with a quote from a letter I received in Dad in 1993 that so authentically captures his philosophy of life:
As you grow older … having a positive outlook toward life and trying to remain healthy plus trying to enjoy life here on earth will become more essential. I am so happy at my age to be able to get up and do what I want; I appreciate life so much because of good health. It is such a great thing to get up and eat a breakfast, read the newspaper and take a good crap and look forward to life. Being able to help others who are less fortunate and giving of yourself. That is what life is all about.
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Author's Note: My father, Commander James Arnold Nourse USN Retired, died on December 14, 2016 after a long illness. He was 90 years old. I wrote and delivered this eulogy at his funeral on December 21, 2016 in Hampton, VA. Click here for a video of my father's graveside military honors.