I want to tell you about my dad. Mike Flora died on Wednesday, May 31st, around 3:15PM of what we think was a massive, immediate heart attack. The ER nurse swears he likely felt no pain. Mike Flora was only 69-years-old, 17 days shy of his 70th birthday. I am grateful for 46 full years with my dad. In fact, the day before, May 30, was the 2-year anniversary of my working with him and my cousin at Nycote Laboratories. But naturally, I would have loved 10 more… 5 more, even a couple more. There was no time in my life, be it personal, professional, or as I began the most important relationship in my life with Erin, that I didn’t feel supported by my dad. Even when we disagreed or were even disagreeable, I never doubted his love of or hopes for me.
The first thing to know is that while Mike Flora was my biological father, he would never be anything but a “dad.” At a young 23, he was always a very agile and athletic dad, active in teaching me sports and playing with me. Our house during my elementary school years had a basketball hoop out front, and there were numerous games of HORSE. And it was only years later that I came to appreciate and feel somewhat embarrassed by the constant pounding that my parents endured inside the house as I practiced kicking the soccer ball against the garage door.
And whether it was little league, youth basketball, or soccer, my dad (and mom, too) never missed a game…even serving as my coach a few of those years. Even by the time of high school basketball, when I was largely a bench player, my dad would make it home from his commute even for afternoon games. He loved sports and we loved talking about them, especially baseball and college basketball. The model he and I adopted to make our way through the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament should be a national model. I don’t have time to discuss in depth here, but let’s just say it went far beyond just filling out a “bracket” and seeing where the chips fell. We made it fun. And of course there were close to 4 decades of Wiffle Ball for us to enjoy. We could create a makeshift baseball field anywhere and play, and we did in parts of the country as diverse as Tulsa, Oklahoma, Richmond Virginia, and at Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska, where we happened to be in June 2010 for our one and only trip to the NCAA College World Series. It touched my heart greatly when Brian, my best friend of many years, texted me just hours after my informing him of my dad’s death, the following: “There’s a wiffle ball sailing over the fence in Heaven tonight.” In addition, no one we ever met was genuinely able to best him in table tennis or billiards. But my dad, never one to enjoy a blowout, always let us make a game of it though he would adamantly deny letting up. He even had few rivals in cards or board games.
One of the earliest pictures of he and I, taken from behind us, was of a mustachioed, big haired Mike Flora reading a newspaper to me. The photograph captioned in the story was a big picture of Sam Ervin, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate. Certainly, a sign of things to come.
You know, politics and religion were welcome topics in our household. We are a Christian family that went in and out of “church phases,” trying different denominations as I was younger. One of the formative phases of my childhood, my parents joined a spiritual, world peace-focused organization. Through their close friends and families within that organization, I was first introduced to the world’s religions, particularly Judaism, which later came in handy as I didn’t seem like too much of a “rookie” with the family that would later become my in-laws. After I left home for college, my folks returned to our native, baptized home of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (don’t let the “Evangelical” fool you. These are the mainstream Lutherans).
I want to tell you about my Dad. He and I could have whole conversations, or at least “coded ones,” completely in movie quotes. We loved movie quotes. Whether it was The Cannonball Run, Fletch, Ghostbusters, The Hunt for Red October, or a litany of Billy Chrystal films, we either impressed, annoyed, or just plain bewildered many around us as we laced many a conversation or email to one another with a movie quote or two.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve called him “Bud.” In fact, I am pretty sure I used this nickname more frequently than actually calling him “dad.” In return, we could call me Bud, “Buster,” or perhaps my favorite – “Buddy-Buster” (the combo!) I’ll never get to call him Bud again, but in my grief, I found myself near tears of joy when two of my closest friends, Matt and Tom, each individually shared with me – not 24 hours since his passing – that due to the endearing affection my dad and I showed each other through these nicknames, Tom has adopted the practice of calling his son Koji “Budski,” and Matt calls his son Yosi “Buddy.” My dad knew Matt and Tom a little, and I know he would have been humbled by learning this.
My father didn’t talk much about Vietnam, not even after we went and saw Platoon on the big screen. The opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, though revolving around a different war, was all too real to him. Of course, he openly volunteered for service in the Army, believing rumors or propaganda at the time that if you bypassed the draft and volunteered, you would more likely be sent to Germany or some other seemingly harmless place. He of course found his gullibility laughable now. Because no, he was of course sent to Vietnam, where he was wounded, and earned two bronze stars. Vietnam certainly changed him in one very open way. He left for that war the Republican which he had been raised, and returned the Democrat he remained until his death.
During the 2004 Presidential election, then Senator John Kerry described the gratitude he had about life following his own heroic and well-publicized experience in Vietnam that had been followed for some years with shame and guilt. After settling his demons, Kerry explained that he saw every day he was home from Vietnam as a gift, saying, “every day is extra.” I thought I would just ask my father if he felt the same way, as my own intense curiosity wondered if he would finally open up. He didn’t extrapolate much, but he said that he definitely identified with Kerry’s statement. It was at that time that, after so many years, Mike Flora’s ambitious, never contented son could finally understand his dad’s own contentment. My father wasn’t an unsuccessful professional by any stretch. But he didn’t spend a life in mid-6-figures either. He loved solving problems and loved the detail-heavy work that came in his career as a real estate appraiser, construction manager, and finally, as Vice President of Nycote Laboratories. But he didn’t need big riches or prestige. He simply saw every day that he had survived that war as a tremendous gift.
I want to tell you about my dad. His ambitions and his satisfactions, I have come to realize, and have envied to understand, were simple… but wonderful. Mike Flora may have enjoyed the challenges of his professional life, but he didn’t live to work; he worked to live. He loved nothing more than spending time with my mother, enjoying life’s leisures, being an available father and father-in-law, and of course, doing whatever it took to keep his nieces and nephews laughing. He loved his neighbors and his extended family. He was the life of the party and his big laugh was infectious. He took in two aging grandfathers and helped care for them until their deaths. His scorecard didn’t include his bank account or political power. It was in love shared, hugs given, laughs created, problems solved, neighbors served. It was quality over quantity every time. And I am glad that several years ago, I came to finally understand that in so many ways and by most measures of human kindness and joy, Mike Flora may have been the most successful man I have ever known.