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!