Things My Father Taught Me: Jeff Link

Jeff Link is a listener. When we first met, I thought he found our conversations dull. I came to find out, as he’d recount elements of past conversations I’d barely remembered that he was intently listening, taking note of every word, every gesture. Jeff’s a kind man, and he’s become a great friend. One day, I’d like to meet his father. He sounds like Jeff, a humble man with a good work ethic and a big heart — not to mention an enviable record collection.

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All that is Unspoken: My Father’s Silent Lessons in Gratitude, Frugality, Family, Humility, and Pride

My father is not the sort of man you often read about on the internet. The thought of reading a tweet about my father is funny to me. He is a quiet, humble man, a banker who spent the majority of his working life—more than 40 years—working at the National Bank of Detroit and the various entities it assumed after the buy-out frenzy of the late 90s and early 2000s. He was a banker before the rise of hedge funds and investment banks and credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. He dealt in the world of the actual, of paper-and-pencil budgets, assets and debts, money owed and money due.

For most of his career, personal computers didn’t exist. There was no such thing as Microsoft Excel, no spreadsheet tools or pivot tables. Now imagine this for a moment. Really imagine it. My father and his team of analysts balanced the budget of a major U.S. financial institution on what was essentially legal paper. Around Christmas, near the end of the fiscal year, I remember watching him unfold reams of the stuff on our kitchen table. Sometimes, if I was up late, I’d sit and listen to the clicking, machine gun-like report of his adding machine. When he made a mistake, he used a pink eraser and flicked off the dust with a swipe of his hand.

My father was a marathon runner. Each morning he’d wake at five, lace his lightweight Brooks running shoes, and run seven miles in the predawn darkness. Afterwards, he read the Detroit Free Press before a plate of oat bran muffins and a cup of Folgers Crystals. He liked checking the box scores and reading Mitch Albom’s column. He generally ate in silence while my mother, brother and I raised a ruckus around him. Although he was never much of a storyteller, I’ve learned over the year about the rich life he’s led.

He grew up in a neighborhood of Irish, Italian, Polish, and Russian immigrants miles from the Jersey Shore. His father worked at the DuPont film plant and, for a short period of his childhood, he went to the bathroom in an outhouse. He ate fish sticks on Fridays. The rest of the week it was pork chops, hot dogs, noodles and ketchup, and macaroni ala Johnny Marzetti. His father liked it that way. Of all the lessons he’s taught me—often silently and by example—none is more salient than this: be grateful for what you have and from where you come.

photoAs a teenager, my father amassed an impressive record collection—a soulful mix of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Dr. John, B.B. King, James Brown, Willie Nelson, Sergio Mendes, Wes Montgomery—and was one of the only white kids in Winston-Salem to turn up for the rock and roll show of a lifetime. That’s Chuck Berry, Big Joe Turner, Bo Didley, Laverne Baker and Fats Domino live at Herndon Stadium in Atlanta. Bear in mind this was during the racially volcanic Civil Rights era of segregated schools, nightmarish lynchings, neighborhood blockbusting, and lunch counter sit-ins. And there I was trying to convince him the Beastie Boys were breaking boundaries.

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 7.29.18 AMAt Georgia Tech, his Sigma Nu nickname, “Dink Alias Bob,” was one of the more flattering of his brethren’s, at least compared to poor heavily bearded “Fly Face.” Did you ever go to any toga parties? I had the nerve to ask. “Yes.” How did they compare to Animal House? “It was like the movie.” As I said, not much for stories. Then again, I suspect some parts of his life have been deliberately, if imperfectly, edited for my benefit. Understanding a father is always his son’s idol, he wanted me to emulate the finer parts of his life, not his lesser moments. I’ll remember that when I’m a father.

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