Eulogy

It’s a hard thing for a son to eulogize his father properly. How do I distill in a few minutes the legacy of a man I’ve known my entire life, whose existence utterly and profoundly affected the man I’ve become today? How do I acknowledge the many roles he played, the many hats he wore, the many lives he touched in a short oration? Perhaps the best thing to do is to focus on the one role he played that I remember most when I think of him.

Robert Paul Kowalski — Bob to most of us — was a survivor. He survived his childhood, raised in a home governed by the equally stern and equally conflicting Catholic and Mormon orthodoxies. He survived war, serving his country in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. He survived professional extinction, evolving from a structural artist to a computer-aided draftsman to a computer systems specialist. He survived parenthood, helping to raise from little babies to young adults five utterly different children. He even survived the coronary imperfections that are a lamentable part of the Kowalski legacy.

From this, he taught me to persevere and adapt, to take from what I have been given and to build of it something more. He inspired me to do my best, and to persist in the face of adversity, a mindset that has served me well my whole life.

But that’s not how I remember the man.

Bob Kowalski was a jack-of-all-trades. He was our household carpenter and electrician and plumber, all in one. A weekend grease monkey, he would tinker and toil with his motorcycles and cars on his days off. Dad could disassemble and rebuild both an automobile engine-bloc or a computer circuit-board… and he did, over and over. He enjoyed making music, from playing the accordian in this youth, to picking on the banjo in his teens, to strumming surf melodies on his guitar in his later years. He was an innovator and an entrepreneur, perpetually devising small inventions and side businesses, partly as a source of extra income, but mostly because he was too creative and too do-it-yourselfer not to.

“Learn a lot about some things,” he always told me, “but know a little about everything too.” From this he taught me to try new things, to seek out new ideas. He inspired me to try even when there was a probability of failure, because that also meant a possibility of success. It’s an axiom that continues to serve me well in my research, my teaching, and my life.

But that’s not how I remember the man either.

Bob Kowalski was a smart guy. You’d never hear from dad himself, of course. He’d dismiss the idea with a self-effacing shrug, but dad had a great appreciation of art and science. I’d spend hours looking with him through his books on astronomy or figure study. His fiction of choice was science fiction, and I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with him, just as my younger siblings did with Stargate SG1. I would be fascinated by his own science fiction stories like The Stainless Steel Man. He was fascinated by the universe around him, and together we’d spy it through the lenses of telescopes and microscopes.

From this, he taught me the value of wonder and inquiry, that to ask and learn was one of life’s singularly rewarding experiences. He inspired me to study, and to this day I teach my students the same way Dad taught me — through delight and wonder.

But that’s not how I remember the man.

Bob Kowalski was a funny guy. He always had a twinkle in his eye and the hint of smile at the ready. His was a face full of mischief. When I was a kid, I thought my dad was as funny as Robin Williams; as I got older, I realized that Robin Williams was almost as funny as my dad. He laughed all the time, a distinctive explosive “HA!” followed by giggles or guffaws. He appreciated both a sharp witticism and an awful pun, and he always had one ready for any occasion. I still sing to my daughter that “she has freckles on her but(t) she is nice.” No one could tell a joke with a straight face like my dad… it wasn’t until high school that I realized the nursery rhyme wasn’t “Hickory dickory dock / The mice ran up the clock / The clock struck one / But the other two got away with minor injuries.”

From this, he taught me the value of humor and silliness, that to take things not too seriously did not undermine their value – — it merely put them into constant perspective. He inspired me seek out laughter and, whenever I could, to create it as well.

But that’s not how I remember the man.

Bob Kowalski was a talented artist. For much of his adult life he was a structural draftsman at a time when that field was more about pen-and-ink artistry than about computer manipulation. As a kid I would marvel at the templates and armatures of his drafting table, watching him create from the blank blue nothingness of paper the skeletal workings of a structure.

From this he taught me how to draw, to capture the world around me and render it for others. He inspired in me an appreciation for detail and spatial structure that would become the hallmarks of my mathematical profession.

But Bob was more than a draftsman. He was an avid photographer. He studied it in school, and practiced the craft throughout his life, from developing family portraits in a make-shift dark room to creating interactive immersive panoramas with sophisticated software. He was also a talented cartoonist, lampooning the inanity of the world around him in a two-dimensional microverse populated by Quando Island birds, Desert Rats, miniature aliens, trick motorcycles, and brick-footed cubicle drones. Together we’d read through the Sunday funnies or pour over anthologies of Bloom County or Calvin and Hobbes, laughing and taking notes.

From this he taught me to cartoon, of course, but also how to breathe three-dimensional life into a two-dimensional picture. He inspired me to immerse myself in art in high school, and to inject creativity into every aspect of life.

But that’s not how I remember the man.

Well, they are, in part. These are some of the many facets of Bob Kowalski, and maybe the way you remember him.

But not me.

How I remember the man is simpler than that.

Bob Kowalski was my dad.

First and foremost, Bob Kowalski was my dad.

Everything dad did, he did to take care of me, my sisters, my brother, and my mothers. He worked long hours to ensure that we were well-clothed and well-fed, and though we never lived in the lap of luxury, neither were we in the belly of want. He was a disciplinarian who taught me to take responsibility for myself, and for my family. When we talked about his cancer, it was clear that he was concerned less with the cancer would do to him, but what it would do to us. He wasn’t worried about dying; he was worried about who would take care of his wife and his kids after.

That was Bob Kowalski. That was my dad. First and foremost, Bob Kowalski was my dad.

He was a big goof of a kid, eager to play and spend time with his his children. I remember one Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts. Though dad could have easily engineered a winning racer, he let me shape it and mold it and build it. It was a colossal mess, and I was embarrassed to have built such a thing, but dad knew what to do. He added an cockpit, and then an engine. Together we added tailpipes and painted flames on the side and labeled it the Fuzz-Buster. And though it placed last, it placed last spectacularly, and it was by far the coolest car there, and won an award for it.

That was Bob Kowalski. That was my dad. First and foremost, Bob Kowalski was my dad.

He loved all of us kids, me and Nicky and Kellie and A.J. and Francie. He wanted the best for us, and did everything he could to provide it. He always let us know that he was proud of us when we succeeded, and he always gave us support when we failed. Dad was there for every graduation, and even when it was old-hat to us kids, he would still beam with teary-eyed pride. Perhaps nothing says this better than my very last conversation with him. We were shooting the breeze on the phone, talking about my wife and my daughter and what they were doing. Dad was happy to hear about how well they were, and then he said “I know it sounds weird to say, but Travis, you’re a good kid, and I love you.” Even though I was in my thirties, a father and a husband myself, I was still his kid, and he was still telling me that was proud of that.

That was Bob Kowalski. That was my dad.

Thirty-some hours after that conversation, my dad passed away in early hours of the morning, January 31. And while it hurts inside to not have him here with us now, I take comfort in the fact that he’s not gone. I have only to look at my siblings and see his handiwork to admire. I have only to look at my mothers and see his love to share. I have only to look at my family and see his footprints to follow. I have only to look in the mirror and see my father’s son.

I love you, dad.

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