Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Eulogy for Jack Tongour

My amazing Dad died on October 20, 2012, in Washington, DC.  He led a long, productive life.  He remained very active, and maintained his mental acuity and his wonderful sense of humor until the end. What follows is a link to his obituary and the eulogy I delivered at a memorial service for him in Washington, DC at our church, St. Patirck's Episcopal.

                                    A Eulogy for My Dad, Jack Tongour

               St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, 11/4/2012


Thank  you for coming today.  Our family has been  overwhelmed with the support of our friends. I especially thank  Kurt, Andrea, Adele, Karen, Jean Luc, and Dorian for their efforts at making this service so meaningful.  We do have a great church!

I just have a few minutes.  I won’t go over the details of his obituary.   Instead, and especially for our children, I want to talk about how my Dad lived, and his core  principles.  I hope they serve to guide their lives.

Life isn’t easy. Expect that there will be hardships. To get through it, have a good sense of humor-- no matter what comes your way.  You gain respect by keeping your word, working hard, and paying your debts.  Try not to ask for favors or be an imposition.   Try to exceed the expectations of others in all your dealings in life.  Study hard. Be a good student. Be a good son, a good father, a good husband, a good provider, and a good friend.   Be charitable and civic minded. Love America. Give back to your community and to your church.

As Aunt Nadia said, when you think about Grandaddy Jack remember that he didn’t start life with the kinds of advantages that you have. He wasn’t born in a free country. He didn’t have the chance to attend wonderful schools like St Pat’s and Lab.  He didn’t have a nice home. Even food was scarce.  He had none of the things that  you  might take for granted.  But he did have a dream.  He did have pride, and   integrity. He was smart, resourceful, and he was willing to work very hard to make sure his future children and grandchildren (you all) had better opportunities than he had.  Today’s Gospel, talks about  the good shepherd who was willing to sacrifice everything for his sheep.  Grandaddy Jack was like that. To better deal with life’s challenges, God gave him a special armor—a quick, endearing sense of humor which served him very well his whole life, up until the end. I want to celebrate that gift today. 


He never lost his heavy accent, which stood out in our South Carolina town where he and mom lived for over 60 years.  Of course, there were “old timers” who were proud of their comparative pedigree.  In the first few years , a  ponderous, elderly lady regularly stopped him at the PO and would ask him the same question:  Where did you come from? Without giving him much time to respond, she’d  interrupt and recite how her family had come over in the 17th century and had resided in SC ever since.  After her inquiries got too repetitive, Dad’s retort  one  day became a Barnwell classic:  “We came over on the Cauliflower, not the  Mayflower.  But the difference between us is that when I came here the immigration standards were much stricter.”   He also liked to respond to the “where are you from”   question with obscure countries, like “we are from Outer Mongolia or Upper Volta”.  The truth is that having a Russian heritage at the height of the McCarthy era (especially in the Deep South) wasn’t something to be advertised.   Instead, he’d use humor and move on.

They did their best to learn the local culture, but made their share of mistakes--- which they laughed about for years.  Dad was a great host, and it was always his European style to offer any visitor a drink.  When the Baptist minister came to call to recruit the  new family in town to  his church, Dad offered him a cocktail.  The preacher quickly and uncomfortably left our house,  but the story quickly spread.  Of course this left an opening for the local Episcopal priest, who, in the vernacular of the day, certainly enjoyed a good highball. When he visited, Dad  had learned his lesson, and assumed all clergy in the south must be teetotalers.  He only offered the priest a soft drink. The priest didn’t stay long either, but he did spread the word that Jack Tongour was a very odd man---- stiffing him for a drink, but offering one to the  Southern Baptist. 

Despite the rocky start, they did become active members in the local Episcopal Church.  Dad always said having faith was hard and no matter what religion you chose, you should never criticize any other’s beliefs or undermine anyone’s faith.  But by the same token, he always searched for the humor in life, and he had a natural comic delivery.  For example, before Mom got sick,  he said:  All religions are good.  But, I worry  if the Mormons are right.  You know, they believe that when you die, you stay married to your spouse for eternity.   I really think 60 years with your mother is enough!

Although my Dad did tease her, like some  Borscht Belt comedian, they  had a strong marriage. They were devoted partners for nearly 67 years, in sickness and in health.  They shared a love of travel,   languages, books, music, art, and history.  They were lifelong learners.  After retirement, they loved taking Elderhostel trips. Most of all they shared a deep love for Nadia and me.  Then later, Dana, Lalie,  and our children. Side note: They really thought Lalie was an angel here on earth, and that the absolute best thing I ever did was to marry her.  Of course, they were right about that, too.   Mom and Dad were married in a civil ceremony in Turkey in 1945.  Fifty years later Mom insisted on a Christian wedding and a renewal of  vows.  Prior to the ceremony,  Dad told their assembled friends:  Stella is concerned we have been living in sin, which really doesn’t bother me, but if this  helps make the children legitimate, it’s OK with me.

Mom didn’t like to cook, but she could make a good pecan pie.  But she only made the pies for others in our community who were  sick or had lost loved ones.  Dad used to say, if you see Stella on your street with a pecan pie, pray it’s not for you.  Dad would think it was funny that we are serving pecan pie today as a dessert in his honor

 I would often hear about his humor through others.  Just a couple of years ago, one of Dad’s friends died.  At the funeral home viewing, a friend of the family walked in and she said:  Jack, I haven’t seen you in so long.  How have you been?  Dad turned to the corpse and responded:  “Better than him!”

In Mom’s last year,  the local priest would drive Dad to Aiken to her nursing home every Tuesday, and give her communion. Dad would also do his errands while in the big city. On one visit, he was shopping for some shoes, and the sales clerk saw the priest nearby.  She approached the priest and asked if he needed anything as well. Dad interjected:  He’s not a customer.  At my age, comfortable shoes are very important.  Whenever  I buy  a new pair, I want a priest to bless them.”

Dad was Mom’s primary caregiver.  Her long illness and death had been very hard on him.  So moving to DC was  a respite  for him, and he loved his time here.  There were so many fun things to do, much less stress, and he loved being with his family, and our friends. He especially loved reconnecting with his grandchildren, and being a regular part of their lives.    He enjoyed   his independent living home, and the new friends he met there, too.  He called it a “hotel”.   Just before he died , a Barnwell friend emailed me about a letter he’d  sent to his SC priest.   He asked him to pray for his soul because  “90 year old women are chasing me down the hall, and I just don’t know how long I can resist.”

I would ask him to join our family at church here at St Patrick’s.  He’d tell me:  The Sunday champagne brunch is the best meal of the week at the hotel and I just can’t miss it. 

He lived a full, interesting life.  He joked about his longevity as if comparing himself to a grocery item.  He liked to say: “I am way beyond my expiration date.” 

I also learned how to leave this earth from Dad.  To him, every day was a gift. He loved cards:  poker, bridge, gin—you name it.  He continued to play bridge until the end.  I would take him to competitive games at the University Club with players half his age.  After a game a few weeks ago, he proudly reported to me that he had bid and made two grand slams, which I understand is a pretty big deal. 

Just three weeks before he died, he was at a Nats game celebrating Alec’s birthday.  He told me how much he enjoyed being with our friends Stephane and Brooke Carnot, and speaking French with them

The day he went into the hospital, he had enjoyed going out for lunch with Nadia to a Turkish restaurant.  By the way, in an abundance of caution, the food after this service is not from that restaurant.

A couple of days before he died, he was helping me plan the guest list for his 95th birthday celebration in SC.

At the end, he was on oxygen, but  he was tough.  He was alert and maintained an awareness for the feelings and perceptions of others.  He specifically told Lalie and me not to bring Jack, Stella, and Alec to see “me like this”.

He was a regular witness to Mom’s decline and suffering.   He told me more than once, “I don’t want to sit around in a wheel chair waiting to die”.   I believe he successfully willed himself not to spend a day in assisted living, or being what he called “an imposition” on his family.  He succeeded.


Dad loved America, and the opportunities it provided, and he was a giver.  He gave back to his country, his community, his church, and to his family.  He exemplified what we now call “the Greatest Generation.”  He came to rural SC, as an outsider, with modest means and  speaking broken English, but he ultimately lived his dream in this great country.  I’ll fast forward from 1950 to today.  I received a condolence card this week from a long time Barnwell Community leader, a SC scion.  He is the senior partner in the oldest law firm in the region, city attorney, etc.  You get the picture.  In his reflections on my Dad, he wrote: “Your father was a giant in this town”.

To lose both parents in one year is hard, but I’d like to think that heaven is a place where you are at your very best for eternity free of pain and suffering. Notwithstanding Dad’s humor, I’d like to think that Mom and Dad are once again together, joined with their many friends who have gone on before.   I have faith that  a  merciful, forgiving God who does have  a sense of humor,   has embraced my Dad  in  Heaven.

I am also thankful for the fact that for 56 years, my Dad was with me.  We had a rich, deep, and loving relationship.  As an adult, I can’t recall having cross words with him.  Most importantly, he was my friend, and I loved his company. So, this is a loss which is very painful.  I don’t think I have ever wept as much. But he died with class, and leaves behind a huge group of people whose lives he enriched.   I am so very proud of him, and am blessed to be his son.   

May God continue to bless you, Dad. Thank you for being such a good example, a good shepherd, to us. Thanks for giving us so much opportunity, joy and, laughter.  We love you!   



Monday, July 30, 2012

Jack's Solo

                                                     JACK'S SOLO AT ROCK TO BACH
         Rock to Bach is a mini-camp for young artists held in Bethesda in the summer.  At the end of the camp week (July 27) , the kids perform.  Jack, our eldest, who is 11, has a good stage presence and a strong voice (with all parental modesty aside).  Here is a snippet of Jack's solo in his camp's  Glee Club's version of the ubiquitous Journey hit "Don't Stop Believin'".  Pretty good, right?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Details from Senator Al Simpson's DC Book Signing Event

On Thursday, February 16, I cohosted an event in honor of the publication of a book about Senator Alan K. Simpson,  my former boss,  entitled:  "Shooting from the Lip".  I served as his Chief Counsel during his last six years as Senate GOP Whip. It was  a tremendous experience.  We remain great friends today. The book was written by his former chief of staff, Don Hardy, who had unprecedented access to Al's diaries and other personal documents. This was the first major "roll out" of the book in DC.  Lots of friends of Ann and Al Simpson were there--both Democrats and Republicans, and media folks, too. It was great fun! A link to an article about the event is below.  Also the link contains an entertaining video of Al's comments that evening.  His wonderful humor and candor make him a beloved figure in America.  (There is even an unauthorized Simpson for President in 2012 movement!) .  Al talks about the importance of bipartisanship, why "compromise" shouldn't be a a bad word, and does shout outs to a variety of friends in attendance like former VP Dick Cheney, Congressman John Dingell, former DOT Secretary Norm Mineta, former Senator Chuck Robb, journalist Nina Totenberg, and even my wife and me.  Am also attaching a photo taken of me talking with Sam Donaldson, Secretary Mineta, and Congressman Dingell.


Friday, February 10, 2012



                              February 8, 2012

It’s  so very hard to adequately capture the fully led life of such an amazing  person as Stella Tongour in just a handful of minutes.  When I look back on her life, I am sure that she helped keep me fed, gave me rides to activities, sewed on Scout patches, and did all those  things that mothers often do: cook, chauffeur, nurse, tailor, etc..  But it is not those things which will keep  mother’s memory alive.  She will continue to inspire my family and me and shape our lives, and hopefully shape the lives of others whom she touched,   in the variety of ways that made her life so extraordinary.  

To her, life wasn’t about business ambitions or budgets or those kinds of practical things which tend to consume   so much energy every day.  Instead,   she was a life-long student, a life- long teacher, a deeply spiritual person, a lover of books, art, theater, history, and poetry.  She was a linguist. She had so much compassion for others, and manifested that by being a lifelong volunteer to adults who had learning disabilities, or to the frail in the nursing home, or to shut ins. 

I will always remember that her tradition was to bring what she called her “famous   pecan pie” to a family who had lost a loved one or to someone who was sick.  Dad used to say that if you see Stella coming with a pecan pie, pray that it’s not for you. 

She will always inspire our family to never  be satisfied with the current state of our own education.  She believed that   unselfishly sharing your education and talent are not only gifts to others, but to yourself.    When she came to Barnwell in her 20’s she obviously didn’t have an American college degree.  The war in Europe, marriage, and children delayed that.  However, over the course of two decades she put together course work at USC-Salkehatchie, the Columbia campus at USC, and SC State University and ultimately  obtained  her B.A., Phi Beta Kappa, and her graduate degree by the time she was in her  mid 50’s.

 All she wanted from all of this work was to have the opportunity to teach others.    If she had been told that a potential job as a teacher would pay nothing, that wouldn’t matter  to her.  Her great source  of pride were her students. In her memoirs, she recounts how proud she was that students dedicated a yearbook  to her .  She always would be thrilled when   approached   by   her  former students who told her that she had made a real difference in their lives.

She also writes in her memoirs that being a student at USC Columbia was one of the happiest times of her life.  The interesting thing about that experience was that mother and I were undergraduates at USC at the same time.   Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good concept for a sit com: My Mother/My Classmate.  My mother’s love for me was powerful, and she showed  it,  sometimes, to the point of some personal embarrassment.    I recall returning to my fraternity house after class and finding “Michael’s mother”, which is how she introduced herself  to my friends, regaling my incredulous fraternity brothers on how much she enjoyed a certain  professor and although his course was challenging, she would highly recommend it to them.   Or the time when I was in an auditorium style class with at least 100 classmates, and the professor was interrupted by a knock at the door.  His embarrassing announcement followed: “If there is a Michael Tongour here his mother would like to visit with him about some obviously important matter.”   I think she had a flat tire and felt she needed my help immediately.

 Mother was always a voracious reader.  In fact, at the end, when she stopped reading, we all understood the gravity of her illness.  And what an amazing  mind she had before she  became so ill!  Yesterday, I received a note from a dear friend in Washington who reminded me of this, and I am quoting her:    “That great mind of Stella’s!  She would remember every detail about me and my extended family when she saw me – even though years may have passed between that moment and the previous time. “

She never quite lost her European accent, and was often asked where she was from.  Her response was that she was Russian by birth, French by education, and American by choice.  Mostly, she loved her Barnwell, and the people here.  To her and to Dad, this warm and welcoming community was the place that allowed our immigrant family to live out its American dream.   In her memoirs, she writes how happy her life here was and that she wouldn’t have wanted to live elsewhere.

But that didn’t mean she didn’t continue enjoying the adventures of  travel, and the world beyond here.  Her recollections are full of wonderful details of trips abroad and to other  parts of the United States.  But for Mom, it always felt good to come back home to  Barnwell  from their travels.   She had a zest for life that she enjoyed manifesting   in this beloved town, and that included community theater (her favorite acting role was Yenta in Fiddler on the Roof), volunteering at this Church, being a girl scout leader, book clubs, discussion groups, and being a loyal friend who was always there for anyone who needed some meaningful , heartfelt conversation about  life.  She especially cherished those friends here who shared their deepest thoughts and emotions with her.

For the most part, I didn’t talk to her in that way.   In a letter I received from her 30 years ago, she expressed her regret that I was always so busy and that our conversations were too often brief and what she called “purely factual”.  She said we primarily talked about “logistics”: my job, my activities and what I was doing at the time.  Her idea of conversation, which she yearned for with me, was how I felt about things, and was I happy, etc---communications not focused on shallow things, but rather, from the heart.   I think that little snippet from that long ago letter is a real window into her life.  

She had more depth than I. I was often too impatient, too “practical” to realize  that her life and the things that she most cherished were the parts of life that make it God’s divine gift to us.    She loved her booklet of devotionals   called the “Daily Word.”  It is published by an organization called the Unity School of Christianity.  I am not an expert, but its premise is that we all have an inherent divinity which is the Christ inside of all of us. Our lives here are really daily opportunities to manifest this divinity, this light of God.   I know that Mother lived her life based on those principles, and that she was fully embraced by the source of that light early last Sunday morning.  

In her last full day, my family was blessed to be able to tell her how much we loved her, and always would.  We told her how thankful we were to her for taking the time to provide us with her memoirs, and that we would make sure that her grandchildren and those who came after them knew about her life and her contributions.   I told her that I knew that no one would ever love me more than she did.  

During our life, I did occasionally have moments when I followed her example and spoke from my heart to her.  Those times gave her much  joy.   When Lalie and I were married, and during the wedding’s “Mother/Son” dance,  I shared with my mother  that “Lalie  is a lot like you Mom.  She is smart in the very best ways, and  has a huge heart.”   I have never seen my Mother happier.  Mother  knew  then that I loved her,  and I understood the gifts she had been trying to give me, an appreciation for the things in life that really count, and that I sought out those values in my own life partner.  To her it was a validation of the way she had lived her life.

Of course, after we were married, Lalie wound up having long weekly conversations with Mother about the meaning of life, books, and feelings .  It worked out perfectly.  I’m still not good at it. Lalie is and Mom loved  it.  She told me that the best gift I ever gave her was Lalie as her daughter in law.

She had a lot of other blessings, too: a devoted husband of nearly 67 years, two children, four grandchildren, including, our daughter, Stella who is very proud to be her namesake, many  friends,  many of whom are here, but many  have departed this world, and a strong faith .  My prayer, and one that I think is already  answered is that when mother left this world, she did so knowing that she was deeply and profoundly loved,   and that she left behind countless people whose lives are better because she  lived such a full life and that she truly contributed to the quality of theirs.

Thank you, Mother. God bless you.   We love you.