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Eulogy for my Father, Joe Pfeiffer (1925-2010)
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On behalf of my family, I thank you all for coming today. We’re all here, family and friends together, to remember and celebrate the life of Joe Pfeiffer, a husband, uncle, cousin, grandfather, comedian, mench, kind of a klutz, and, speaking for me and Ilene, a humble man and loving father.
I also wanted to thank friends and family who have come such a long way on short notice. But so many of us, even those close to home, have come a long way. … We’ve come a long way.
Most of us here today carry the spirit and DNA of a people who traveled the Earth for thousands of years, stopping in many places, seeking little more than some dirt to call home. From no matter where we’ve come, from whatever city or suburb or schtetl, we also carry the potential for greatness. Yet few of us achieve greatness. Rabbi Loss pointed that out to me the other day. Few of us achieve the feats of, say, Shakespeare or Spinoza, Heifetz or Kofax, Einstein or Darwin. Fame comes to few men.
By the most traditional and misguided measures of today, Joe was not a man of impact, a man who achieved greatness. He never made a ton of money. He did not rise into the upper echelons of power. He didn’t shake the Earth or leave a legacy of wisdom for future civilizations.
But we all know what he did achieve during his 84 years.
First, he had good timing. The timing to get beat up solely for being a 13-year-old Jew in Romania in 1938, which prompted his parents to leave Europe for America before the Holocaust.
He had the good timing to be born too late for D-Day and too early for Korea. But he served in the armed forces in occupied Japan. He always said he spent more time peeling potatoes than tossing hand-grenades.
When he met Betty Lewis, the two of them lit the world on fire. Literally. Their first date, interrupted early, was the night of the big fire at Edgewater Beach in Detroit. Their wedding hall, the Belle Aire, burned down some time after Joe and Betty’s ceremony. And the Thunderbird Motel on Miami Beach burned to the ground after their honeymoon. “Wherever we went there was fire,” my mom said last night.
Joe went on to success in employment. It wasn’t enough for him to sell shoes or furniture, spend a day at the store, and then go home to his family. He had to be the best possible salesman on the floor. But not as a swift talker or confidence man. Our dad excelled with courtesy, respect for anyone who walked in the door. And, above all, he excelled with unfailing honesty. That honesty served him well at work … and in life.
Joe also had the good sense to retire early, at the age of 58. He was one of the few men who actually retired, as the saying goes, so that he could spend more time with his family. He wanted to be there for his sister, Gusta, during her final days. And his retirement, a pivot in his life, did indeed allow him to devote even more to his family — more time and more love.
Joe loved bread. He loved our dog, Licorice. He loved Cheerios with banana every morning. He loved Costco. He loved the Detroit Tigers. He even loved Brandon Inge. Above all, he loved his family. Oh, I should point out that the dog – we called her Licky – although she humped the legs of everyone in the house with impartiality, the dog loved our dad more than any living thing. She would rise and dash to the front door even before he would pull into the driveway at 24041 Moritz in Oak Park. I think she sensed that his kindness was on the way home.
I guess the word that goes most often with love is devotion. Devotion accompanied our dad throughout his life. Ilene and I knew it as his children. We saw it later in his loving bonds with in-laws, particularly for Selma and Minna when we lost Irv and Sam. And, until his final days, nothing gave him more pleasure than his grandchildren, Alec and Emily, and the love and attention they received from Dave and Ilene.
Joe wasn’t necessarily the kind of guy who would light up the room when he walked in. But when he walked in, everyone in the room sparked a little fire inside him. To our dad, everyone else came first.
But he saved his best for the love of his life, our mom. For 54 years they were married. It wasn’t always perfect. I think, in marriage, every spouse gets the best and the absolute worse of his or her partner. It’s easy now, when it’s so fresh and painful, to think of the worst. No one deserves Alzheimer’s disease, least of all the caregivers. But only a bond of lasting love, little else, can account for the care our mom gave dad in his final months. Our father gave love and got love in return. It prolonged his life. Just long enough. And he could not have stayed at home this long without Cliff Glover. With my mom and Ilene, Cliff cared for Joe with the sensitivity and compassion of a family member. And for that, Cliff, we will always be grateful.
Although we all struggled with his illness, Joe himself never lost his spark and sweet sense of humor. It often found a way to touch us, despite his advancing dementia, until the very end. After all, in his mind, until just a few days ago, I was a famous doctor and a lawyer. I was married and a father of two. All of these are rather unpleasant images for me, but they suited my dad just fine. So be it.
Joe’s life began and ended with struggle. But throughout it all, he found a passion for living, to love himself, to love his family, and to love the world. I don’t think any of us can ask for much more than that. Joe’s was a journey of joy and giving and meaning. For that very reason, as comfort and inspiration to the rest of us moving forward from this day, Joe Pfeiffer, in his life, did in fact achieve … greatness.