Archive for July 24th, 2010

Calvin Nicklaus Steussy, MD Eulogies

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Christopher Robin Steussy: Three words; lugubrious, ineffable and eulogy.  These three words have been spinning in my mind the last few weeks.  Lugubrious is a word that I have some vague recollection of Dad telling me it was one of his favorite words.  I don’t think it had to do with his profession.  He just liked words.  He may have used it in one of the letters he wrote me and maybe I asked him about it.  I don’t know.  He did like words though.  In the house at 601 on a table built for a large book of Holy words, stationed prominently at the front of the house we had, instead of the Holy book, an unabridged dictionary, permanently open to some random page.  I can see Dad stooping over it now, looking up some word he ran into in one of his John Lacarre novels.

Ineffable, the second word, is one which has a meaning that I have reflected back on many times since our Mother’s event last fall.  It simply means that there are not words to express what one feels.  I have had, and I know all of us have had, something of a tightness in the chest, a longing and deep sense of loss, and also a profound joy at having had such a remarkable man be such a central point in our lives.  There just are not words to really capture that feeling though.  The third word; eulogy, or “kind words” is what this is.  What we have at our disposal for this day are words, and recognizing that they can not express all that we feel, they can still serve us pretty well.

Our Dad did love words.  His trips to the bookstore at Christmas time were legendary.  On one of his last trips he sent my son Calvin “Treasure Island” along with a story that he himself had read it when he was just six years old.  Legend (Robin) has it that his dear Mother Helen made the boys memorize 101 famous poems early in their youth and Robin clearly recalls Dad singing out by memory some heroic boy poem of a horse charging into battle.

Dad, of course, charged in to battle himself eventually.  He did his freshman year at Yale where he was hoping possibly to one day be the student manager of the football team and where he studied philosophy and literature.  It was the fall of 1941.  He had gone to Yale with his good friend Lloyd Pullen.  On December 7th 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked and Lloyd would enlist over winter break.  Three years later Lloyd was killed at the Battle of the Bulge, taken out of his specialized training in Missouri because the army desperately needed infantry.  Dad said he was used as so much cannon fodder.  Though Dad would go back to Yale for the Spring he enlisted in the summer.  I do not believe he enlisted because of any great patriotism or call to duty but rather simply because he thought he could choose his assignment more easily and thus be more likely to survive, if he was a volunteer.  He had even tried to get into officer’s training but that required good vision, which he did not possess.  Somehow though, undeterred, he managed to get hold of an early version of a pair of contact lenses.  They were made of glass.  He stuffed them in his eyes but they were so desperately uncomfortable his eyes watered up and he failed the exam anyway.

So, he volunteered.  He went Fort Collins in Colorado, where he climbed Pikes Peak on one bored day by himself got caught in a snowstorm and almost didn’t return, and to Carlton College where he studied meteorology.  Finally, busted back down to private E-nothing he volunteered for the infantry thinking his knee would surely give out.  It didn’t.  He landed in Europe where the site of little French boys running around speaking French would begin a lifelong love of travel, particularly overseas.  Eventually he would see combat in Czechoslovakia where his buddy next to him in the trenches was killed, just inches away, and Dad lept out of the trench, which somehow coincided with the commander’s decision on the ground to invade Cheb.  Cheb along with the rest of Czechoslovakia, would remain behind the iron curtain for the next 50 years, a terrible irony which I’m sure fed into our Dad’s pacifist leanings.  He told me once he would have sent our brother Nic to Canada had his name come up in the draft during Vietnam.
Another experience in the war introduced him to politics.  In 1944 he was 21 and could vote for the first time.  FDR was running for an unprecedented fourth term and Dad voted for the opponent Thomas E Dewey.  The Sergeant, seeing Dad’s ballot before he put it in the box, took the ballot, ripped it up and told Dad, “we’re all for FDR here”.  Dad thus became a lifelong (almost) Republican.

On returning to the states he returned to Wisconsin and the university in Madison.  After running around for four years trying not to get killed he told me, he simply did not want to be far from his family, especially his younger sister Mary whom he adored.  He also did not, apparently, want to be a writer anymore.  Though his love of books and words would never leave him his academic interests turned to medicine, a field which he would cultivate into an encyclopedic volume of knowledge.

In school of course he would meet the love of his life, his wife of 60 years, Gene Ragland Woodfin. Along with good words, sports, travel and Mother, somewhere along the way Dad would develop a fine taste in clothes, cigars and cars.  My very first memory of my life is sitting in the middle of the backseat of his Cadillac convertible with the top down near dusk at the end of one of those sweltering Indiana summer days returning from Dairy Queen with a nice cool vanilla cone and staring up into the sky.  Another early  memory, is me, just me and Dad, going to pick up his new gold Cadillac at a dealership in “Podunk”(Dad’s word) New Castle.  That was the last car he ever bought from Detroit.

With their many travels overseas Mom and Dad picked his real jewel of a car his 1972 Mercedes Benz 300sel, the first car I remember going 100 miles an hour in (he was racing a jaguar).  That was the same car on the way home from the horsetrack with Ed and Helen, and after a couple of Martinis at dinner, he got pulled over in.  “Slow it down Dr. Steussy” the officer simply said.  After that glorious car and the subsequent gas crisis Dad got into his diesel phase.  One day on the way to Lake Santee with my friend Mike he was going what seemed to be nearly 100 mph down this narrow country road that had an infamous “culvert”.  “No wallowing Cadillac could do this” he said as the little Benz swooped over the bump.  What he didn’t know was that the little needle on the dash that suddenly went to 0 was his oil pressure gauge, Dad wasn’t too knowledgeable about such things, and continued driving until he seized the engine.  “Grass”  he said.

On another trip to Europe, he bought his famous “London striped shirts”.  I couldn’t tell if he thought they were funny, or stylish but he sure wore them a lot.  (he would also always announce that he was wearing them.  “How about these London striped Shirts?  Aren’t they dandy?” )As we got older and moved away Dad started a brief tradition of taking me, and Ed when he was around, out for X-mas clothes shopping spree.   Mother would nearly feint seeing the receipt from Nordstrom’s.  In 1997 for our wedding he bought himself a custom cut Hickey Freeman suit and a pair of Ferregamo shoes.  He liked nice things, but he of course also liked us having nice things.  Mother’s enlarger for her darkroom, her annual collection of Lalique, the children’s elite and expensive educations.  He never flinched, that I saw, over money. (Except sneaking me in to the horse track, long after the age he should’ve paid)   Just a few years ago my old dog Felix got very ill and needed very expensive surgery, what would be thousands of dollars.  Ed had recently started his blog and so I decided to put up an entry musing about our decision to go ahead with the surgery or put him down.  The blog ended with my conclusion that despite the financial hardship we had to proceed with the surgery. A few days after that I got a check in the mail.  Mother had called Dad over to read the note and he had simply said, “send him a check”.  I imagine it was just like that and I imagine he tottered back to his chair and his cigar and his book.

Another thing he gave us all of course is our love of words and books.  The only book I have any memory of him reading to me is Yertle the Turtle.  “And turtles, of course,” he read, “ … all the turtles are free / As turtles, and maybe, all creatures should be.”  And then he went back to his cigar and his book.  He is not gone.  He can never be gone as long as we remember him.  Every time I say “podunk” or “grass” or look at a fine car or a fine pair of shoes I will think of my Dad and all of his generous gifts.

Edwin Eugene Steussy: I read Chris’ eulogy on a plane coming back from China three weeks ago. It was beautiful. I cried in my seat next to the window.

As Chris has three words, I have two pictures. There are literally thousands of pictures of my father, Calvin Nicklaus Steussy; many of them very good. But to me, there are two photographs that speak volumes.

The first is this, taken in the summer of 1977, at the top of the Heineken Brewery in downtown Amsterdam by Dad’s oldest child, my sister, Cally.

He’s 52 years young. He stands straight and tall. He overlooks a foreign city, far from home. And he overlooks it with just a shadow of smile, full of confidence and good cheer. The trials of youth, young adulthood and even early middle age are all over. He is at peace with his place in the world, and feels very much in control of it.

Let me talk to you about traveling with my father. There are few people in the world I know better traveled than my parents. They loved travel.

The year before this photo, Dad took Mom, Chris and me to Alaska on one of the first cruises through the panhandle and glaciers. A few years later, the four of us went on a family visit to Switzerland. We crossed the country several times, taking in Bern, Geneva, Luzerne and Zurich.

Two years later, the four of us again made a pilgrimage, this time on a trans-country train trip across Canada. In the midst of this journey, while nestled in pine trees of the Canadian Rockies, Dad’s second grandchild was born – David.

These trips were when I was a pre-teen and a teenager. It’s my great pleasure to have provided several destinations for Dad’s travels as I became an adult. He first came to visit me in Sweden in 1987, where we journeyed throughout Scandinavia.

He then came, with Mom and Chris, to visit me in Prague the summer of 1992. This was his most personal European trip, as we were able to re-visit the site of the battle of Cheb. He found the very building he and his buddy bivouacked in, the day before he has killed. And killed uselessly, as Dad would frequently lament, only days before VE Day.

He came to visit me in Moscow, in the early days of post-communism when I was working there. I made sure his hotel looked down into the Kremlin’s courtyards, towering over Red Square from across the Moscow River. It was a classic Dad location. In the days following his death, I bumped into this – a matchbook from that hotel, carefully kept in an upper bureau drawer seventeen years after that trip.

In his elder years, the only destination to give him was my home. He came to visit California on Christmases in the early part of the 2000’s, to personally see my young family start on its rocky road of growth. He stopped coming after 2005, when age simply wouldn’t let him travel anymore. And we reversed the transit, with my family coming to see him annually.

But this photo is how I remember Dad. And I’m so sorry that so many of you in this room never knew him at this age, at this point in his life. When I think of Calvin Steussy, this is the image in my mind. And this is the image I want to keep. This is how we all deserve to be remembered: vibrant, strong, confident.

The second image to leave with you is older, though I first saw it only nine months ago. To those of you who don’t know it, this is from the wedding. Gene and Cal are leaving the festivities, off to a brief honeymoon. When I show this photo to Cal or Gene, the story I hear is about the car. Let me ignore the car and talk about the picture.

It’s August 27, 1949. Richmond, Virginia; a town still haunted by ghosts of the War Between the States. It’s blazingly hot and humid. I’m a full minus 14 years old. In attendance are Dad’s family and friends, many now long gone. His mother, Helen Verna Freitag Steussy, who grew up in this house and is the reason we chose to be here today. Edwin Emil Steussy, her husband and Dad’s dad. Henry Steussy and his second wife, Ellen Kundert Steussy – only the second generation, born in 1874 here in New Glarus, to bare the name Steussy, with our peculiar spelling. And a spry, elegant, beautiful young 12 year old girl, Mary Ellen Steussy, who is here today.

Before I go on about the picture, let me tell you a story. The first time my mother was introduced to her future family, it went like this: Edwin, Helen, Calvin and Mary had just moved into their house on Nakoma Road. Calvin shows up from school with this beautiful, intelligent woman completely unannounced. No warning. He goes up to Edwin and Helen, who are doing the dishes, and introduces them to Gene, and says that he’s brought her home for dinner. He’s sure they won’t mind. How brazen. They find she’s a bridge player, and fall in love with her. Look at the photo. Who wouldn’t?

Let me tell you about the greatness of this photo. It’s not just that my parents are here, looking impossibly young; it is the only photo from that day where they are alone, only the two of them. Calvin is at the steering wheel, in control, driving, gazing ahead for any possible obstacles. He’s on a journey. Gene is with him, arm around her husband. Beautiful. Looking at the flowers. She’s on the same journey, but doesn’t look forward to chart any obstacles. She’s completely confident in Calvin. He can take her where he wants.

That journey lasted over sixty years. Calvin, my father, is gone now. His legacy will live on, for I’m part of him. His values are my values – intellect, honesty, perseverance. And I will dutifully pass them on to Daniel Solon Steussy, Camilla Nora Steussy, Aaron Dietrich Steussy and Veronica Nora Steussy.

Mary Ellen Steussy Shanahan (click to see the full, readable image):