My eulogy for my father Claude Wyatt Dickerson buried today December 3, 2016:
There is a picture of Dad from a family trip we took to London in 1976 that has been on my mind this week. Dad is holding me on his shoulder so I can watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I’m eight. He’s 52. [About the age I am now.]
First off, we’re in London, perhaps Dad’s favorite city on the planet. He played tennis with Dunlop rackets, wore Church’s shoes from Burlington Arcade and the signature on the inside pocket of the suit he was wearing in that picture was made at a tailor just a couple of tube stops away from where he held me. London cab drivers take a test called The Knowledge that proves they know every street in the city. Walking through London as an adult with Dad, many years after that picture, he could have passed The Knowledge.
The people around us in that snapshot are trapped in fashion of the 70s. Dad, on the other hand, is wearing a dark gray suit– stylish in any era– it has no drastic lapels; the pattern doesn’t look like it belongs on a sofa. His tie is neither too thin nor too wide and it has a dimple right in the center where it is supposed to be. Somehow the cuffs on his shirt– though he is holding me on his shoulder with both hands– the cuffs are exactly a quarter inch exposed from the suit jacket as they are supposed to be. Describing this I am struck that one of my earliest memories was the click of his formal shoes on the wooden floors of the front hall as I lay in bed when he and Mom came home for the evening.
Though he was stylish this is not to say that at certain moments in his life, he didn’t succumb to fashion. In the 1980s he wore jeans with boots. In the 70s he played backgammon wearing a turtleneck and blazer. The 60s also caught up with him. In a Women’s Wear Daily piece about parties at the 1968 Republican convention, he is quoted. “Come on upstairs,“ says Wyatt Dickerson. “The party in 4-A is really swinging. It started in Virginia Gore’s apartment, but it was a dud and we moved it down to Julie and Bill McKelvy’s.”
Dad was not born into fancy clothes. And perhaps it was because he wasn’t that he cared about them. His father had not graduated college, though he’d gone to school to be a druggist. That’s what they called pharmacists in those days when they ground the powders and mixed the remedies themselves. His mother was a teacher. Dad’s early years were spent in the rougher part of town. When a teenage boy made fun of the lack of clothes in Dad’s closet, Dad got a job at the local clothing store where he could learn and also buy at a discount.
This was a crucial part of his character: the love of a good deal. This was true in business, but also consumer goods. When Costco first opened, he went mildly haywire at the opportunity to make bulk purchases– mustard in a drum big enough you could stand on it , steaks the size of manhole covers. He bought three sets of golf clubs because he was so excited that each set only cost $19 dollars. None of us really played golf.
Dad dressed up when he traveled the way people used to, so it’s not surprising that in that Buckingham Palace picture he’s at a tourist spot dressed as formally as a man can be without wearing a dinner jacket. But he could pull it off. That’s not a comment on his style. It’s about the way he carried himself. He was gallant and gracious. And always courteous. Of course he was holding me on his shoulder, so that I could get a better view. In my entire life, I don’t think I ever walked through a door after him. He always held the door open for me. He held it open for everyone. Just days before he died when we visited him in the Veterans hospital, he apologized for not being able to offer us a seat or some comfort.
This goes beyond manners. “You knew that if you walked into the room and Wyatt was there you were going to have a good time,” said one Washington acquaintance. So of course he would start clubs and restaurants. Everyone was a customer. He was a host even when it wasn’t his house. He made people feel like they were the most important person when he talked to them, whether they were the most important person in the room or not. He was a friend to waiters and cooks at his restaurants and clubs. Mr. Underwood drove a huge truck up from North Carolina and he and Dad would share a drink and walk around the house figuring out where the trees should be planted. Dad was not afraid to send a meal back to a restaurant kitchen, but if you cooked it, he told you it was the best meal he’d ever had. In our conversations over the last couple of years he didn’t always make perfect sense but he wanted to make one thing clear in nearly every conversation: how good my siblings and his wife Tandy had been to him.
Politicians in Washington have perfected the art of saying nothing. Dad had the opposite skill. He could carry on a conversation about something he knew nothing about and sound knowledgeable. Not because he was pretending, but because he was listening, which is why people felt like he actually cared about what they were saying. A few years ago he collected some of his thoughts as he looked back on his life. The lesson he put at the top: “When you talk, you’re not learning. So don’t talk too much.”
This is how he could teach himself about art and fashion and history and architecture though he’d never graduated from college. He was even a theologian. When I was a little kid I asked him how we knew there was a God and he explained the complexities of the different kinds Maryland crabs. The mating rituals, the seasonal behavior. A world that complex had to be arranged by some divine being. I can’t remember whether I was comforted but I remember being so impressed that he knew so much about the habits of the Maryland blue crab.
He was a wit. When he and his wife Nancy, my mother, hosted Nancy and Ronald Reagan for dinner he started his toast by saying “Nancy and I would like to welcome you. And so would my wife.” He would have loved the unintended humor of bad punctuation in one of the emails I got after he died. “You look just like him. My condolences.”
He loved a good pun and wordplay and when it came to birthday cards, he had an Iowa farmer’s instinct for the corny. He is the author of the first pun I heard. To straighten some books as a child, I used my head to ram them all into alignment the bottom shelf of a bookshelf. “That’s using your head,” he said walking through the room. This has infected my own family which he considered an important development. I used to send him pictures of what he had wrought. My son put a jar of Mayonnaise in the sink on Cinco de Mayo. My daughter put a label on a pot of spaghetti with the word pasta on it so that no one would think it was an im’pasta. To that, he wrote back “Good taste.” So Dad has passed on his love of awful wordplay into a second generation…the familial patter deriving as it should from the paterfamilias.
This brand of humor came from an hurrying and creative mind. He was always looking for some angle– on a conversation or a deal or a better way to design a room or arrange his back yard. He lamented that he had never been trained as a lawyer or doctor. That he didn’t have a proper occupation. But that made him an inventor and a tinkerer, not in the shop in the basement but with undertakings: he worked with Cherry Smash soft-drink company, Connecticut telephone and electric, The Philadelphia bank, a theater in Mrytle Beach, the maker of a thing you attach to light bulbs to make them last longer, Saudi Arabian oil, Japanese airlines, hotel construction and – based at least one one old letter– rifles in South America.
He did have practical skills. He grew up boxing and shooting marbles. He hitchhiked to Florida as a teenager. He knew how to shoot pool– when we were kids, to make it even he’d play us one-handed. He had a whistle that could be heard from blocks away.
In a third grade composition I summed him up this way: “My Dad was in the Navy. He has no trouble doing anything. He snores a lot. Hey Dad, you have arms like rocks.” This is not the best characterization of Dad though. One profile described him as a “bond Tarzan.”
The other reason that picture has been on my mind is that while I’m perched on Dad’s shoulder like a parrot, he shows no signs of strain. It looks as if I’ve been added to the photograph afterward– by Photoshop or something. There is no bend in his spine, no sign of effort on his face. His hair is just so. He’s like the guards we’re watching. Carrying out their duties despite those vast bearskins on their heads.
That was true of all the things he had to shoulder in life. He bore his burdens lightly. His father’s first heart attack forced him to leave Hollywood with his new wife to return back to Roanoke to help out. Eight years later his beloved first wife Ruth was diagnosed with cancer. For four years they shuttled to and from New York hospitals. When she died, he was left to care for three girls by himself. He did the work of both parents. He had setbacks in business and failures. But he carried on, writing out figures late into the night until the yellow legal pads curled from the pressure of his pencil. Sometimes the deals he’d worked on for years fell through but he carried on. Because he drank too much, he stopped. He never complained. He never blamed anyone else.
Over the last couple of years he had to endure surgeries and recoveries. My sister Elizabeth took him to endless doctors visits and he would always say about the next obstacle: I just have to grin and bear it. Grin and bear it. This was his mantra: not just to bear it but to grin while doing so. This is what a son can see that others can’t: the steady resilience that makes his charm so much more powerful than simple good manners.
He gave the recollections of his life the title “Next Time.” He wanted to collect the lessons that he’d learned and put down how he’d live if he had it to do all over again. It was a project that recognized that his example was not just in what he had done well, but in where he had fallen shot. He said wanted to give us a life where we could be better than he was. But he wasn’t sure about the benefit of that legacy. “What’s the best thing to leave your heirs,” he wrote. “Ten million dollars each?” If you don’t have that kind of money maybe it was the advice that you could leave or your example. He said of his grandfather Kirkwood. “He taught me by the way he lived.” That’s true of Dad too.
A friend who saw the picture I’ve been talking about wrote me: “What a memory to be held so naturally and confidently on a father’s shoulder, where I think we all want to be.” All of us who were his children– Elizabeth, Ann, Jane and Mike– and his wife Tandy of 22 years were lucky to have that memory. And he left an example for all of us. He stood tall, naturally and confidently, showing us how to endure with grace and lifting us up so that we could get a better view. The guards have changed. This is not an easy day, but it’s easy enough to know what Dad would have done. Grin and bear it. Though for a man who was eternally optimistic and loved a good joke. He would want us to bear it first but then move on pretty quickly and grin.