Tribute to my Father, Harold Fred Groothuis
What can I say about my father—so long gone, so impossible to forget? Harold Fred Groothuis was born on December 28, 1927 in New York. He died in a small plane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska on this day in 1968. Walter Cronkite ended the evening news that day with a short comment to the effect that "Alaska labor leader, Harold Groothuis, was killed in a plane crash in Alaska today along with several others who were serving on a government commission to investigate labor abuses." I watched that in my bedroom on that dreadful, world-changing day. I was not quite twelve years old.
Dad was leaving Point Barrow, Alaska along with other volunteers who were part of the Governor’s Employment Advisory Commission, created by then Governor Walter J. Hickel. They where investigating charges of the mistreatment of Alaska native workers there. Only one of passengers of the propeller plane survived. Not long ago my mother sent me a letter from Alaska native leaders in Point Barrow, which expressed their sorrow and thanks for my father's commitment to their people. At Dad's funeral, a Presbyterian minister eulogized Harold Groothuis as a man who represented "people who worked with their hands." So he did. Many of these people were African-American, Native Alaskans, and Hispanics. First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, Alaska was filled and overflowing with mourners.
Dad came to the territory of Alaska in the mid-1950s (it became the forty-ninth state on my second birthday—January 3—in 1959), worked as a laborer, and lived in a packing crate with a few other men. He then went back East for a visit to friends and family. There he met a young Italian woman named Lillian Cominetto, who would become my mother. It was love at first sight for both. He returned to Alaska, but wrote Mom love letters. They married in New York 1955 and then traveled back to the frozen north, leaving behind all their relatives.
Why write of my father now, thirty seven years after his tragic, unexpected, and unforgettable death? I am a man of many written words—too many, perhaps—but I have never written of my father in anything but personal letters. I want to pay a short tribute to his short life of forty years, without becoming maudlin or sentimental.
Dad was a big man—big in size (six feet, four inches and well over two hundred pounds) and big in personality. Many were drawn to his love of life, his strong opinions, and his commitment to causes and friends. As my mother said today on the phone, "He would do anything for his friends." He was a union man all the way, and a staunch Democrat. This, to my mind, was the right thing to do at that time. The Democratic party of that day—the party of Hubert Humphrey, for example—was a far cry of what we see now. Dad campaigned for Humphrey's candidacy for President in 1968 by delivering two speeches on Anchorage, Alaska television, which were broadcast live. I remember that Dad mentioned that Nixon refused to debate Humphrey. This was a character defect in Dad's eyes. I agree. Well, HHH (as Hubert Horatio Humphrey was called) lost, and Dad was killed a few weeks later. "There is a time for every purpose under heaven," as Ecclesiastes reminds us.
Dad had a fierce love for his family, for his job, for his friends, for Alaska, for food, and for life. He was an avid sportsman (hunting and fishing) and camper. He once shot a huge Kodiak Black Bear that was charging him. That bear (or part of it) ended up on our living room floor. (For those who don't like hunting—and I don't—this can be construed as self-defense; although they were on a hunting trip.) He was an intense man who neither suffered fools gladly nor could be accused of being low key or nonchalant. Because of his strong opinions, he had a few enemies. One of his enemies (a union malcontent) once threatened to blow up our house. We spent the night elsewhere. Dad had a temper that could get the better of him. He had attended a Presbyterian church as a child, but only attended sporadically as an adult. I was sent to Presbyterian Sunday School for a few years. However, Dad believed in God and had deep moral convictions. As a Christian, I can only hope he made his peace with God before that small plane hit the ground. Dad was a faithful husband, a good provider, and a loving—if sometimes imperious—father. I loved him deeply and I miss him every day of my life in one way or another. He wasn't there for the turning points in his only child's life: the graduations, the wedding, the achievements (such as they are). My dear mother says—and she is the expert, of course—that he would have approved. In any event, I can claim the truth of Romans 8:28 for my life no matter what.
This is my tribute to Harold Fred Groothuis, who died on this day in 1968, serving the laborers of Alaska and loving his small family. I will never forget him, nor will anyone else who knew him well.