“Attention must be paid.” The lines from Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller keep echoing through my head. They come from the funeral tribute to Willy Loman, in a play that was, at its time somewhat revolutionary. It introduced what we now refer to in literature as “the anti-hero”. It wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today, but at the time, plays, books, movies, operas – they celebrated people who were famous, larger than life, or at least had accomplished something extraordinary. Celebrating the life of an “ordinary man” was, well – extraordinary.
And today, I sit with my sister and her family, paying tribute to brother in law, Ron Chopp. These lines ring through my head. “Attention must be paid.”
Ron was not a hero. He lived an ordinary life. Two parents, four siblings, raised in a small post-war home in what was then Port Arthur. Married his high school sweetheart, my sister Christine. Finished grade twelve with average marks. Went to work for Ontario, Hydro. Moved up the ranks to what would be, at best, a mid-management job. Raised two kids, put them through school, took early retirement and lived in a modest house with my sister. He lived to see his grandchildren.
And a few days ago, he died.
The world will not be shaken. The news media will not send reporters and cameras. Friends will not be interviewed. Headlines will not be written.
And that’s a shame. Because attention should be paid.
Why? If you look beneath the surface, if you examine this life, if you look closely, you can discover more about life and it’s meaning than you will ever learn from those who make headlines. Much more.
What can we learn?
Ron knew he was an ordinary man. He knew who he was. He didn’t pretend to be anything more than who he was. He was happy with who he was. He didn’t want more than he had. He saw himself as a wealthy man in the true sense of what it means. And he was right.
He married his high school sweetheart. He lived with her, he loved her to his last breath – and beyond.
He raised two children who themselves have families and partners who love them. His children loved him.
No surprise there. He was a good father. Ron loved his own father, but in moments of candor would say that although he loved and respected his father, his dad never made time to do the things Ron thought were important. Ball games. Catch after work.
In a world where it has become somewhat fashionable to blame our parents for our failings, Ron didn’t blame his dad. He didn’t claim that he was hard done by. He just did what he thought was right.
So no matter how tired he was, no matter what else was going on, he’d make time to play catch, to go to games and recitals, to take the kids to see things – to spend time watching them enjoy life. He didn’t do this out of a sense of duty – it was a joy.
He didn’t push his kids. He didn’t coddle them.
I remember being at a baseball game. Ron’s son Dan was pitching. There was no relief pitcher on his team. As Dan got into the eighth inning of a very long game, he was flagging, in fact for a little kid, he was going past the point of exhaustion. I don’t remember whether Dan won or lost that game, and I’ll bet neither did Ron. He didn’t demand that Dan stay in. He trusted Dan to make the right decision, even at that tender age. I think he would have been just as happy to forfeit and move on. But when Dan stayed till the end, you could see he was proud.
Ron didn’t let his kids down. There was time when he’d had a few too many beers the night before a big show he’d promised to take Danny to in London – an air show of some kind. Danny was, like many kids, over the moon about seeing this big show Ron had promised to take him to. Hungover, tired – he did what Ron would do. He sucked it up and he kept his word.
Ron wasn’t the type of guy you’d see at the ballet. But he was there to see Sherri. And he was proud.
Whatever the event – Ron was always there, never out of a sense of duty, always with a sense of pride.
He did the right thing. Quietly. Without looking for a pat on the back or even thanks. With his kids and with everyone else. Whenever people needed him, he was there. I know many times, in a crisis in our family, Ron would get in the car and drive the 22 hour trip to Thunder Bay. He might not have understood our family dramas. He might have had opinions. But he kept those to himself. He was just there.
When I was a kid, he often got stuck with me. My family life wasn’t the greatest at time and yes, I guess he scored some points with my sister for taking care of her little bother (I mean brother, I think). My dad left when I was four and my brother was long gone by the time I was little, so to just get to have a role model like Ron was a treasure. And he never made me feel that he was stuck with me. He treated me like as if I was his own brother.
I treasured the time we spent together. He was so – normal. And at the time, with a Pontiac with a 383 motor, he was, and his kids will wince if I say this, but it was true – he was cool.
Ron took me to a drive in movie one time and as we turned in to buy our ticket we saw it. The movie was restricted. Ooops. Instead of turning back, Ron handed me a cigarette – yes he smoked in those days – and told me to turn my head out the window as if I was smoking it. Anything else? “Oh, and try to look older.” And he smiled. The Chopp grin.
The movie was an eye opener for both of us. My mom would not have approved. But I never said anything about it. Ron didn’t have to ask and I don’t think he would have. He wouldn’t ask me to lie. And I didn’t. I just didn’t mention it.
Not that he was worried. If my mom would have found out, Ron wouldn’t have broken a sweat. Ron was the kid that you took home and your mom instantly liked. My mom was no exception. Ron could do no wrong.
The Chopp charm was legendary and went far beyond my mom. You had to like him.
Why? I think it was in part because Ron was authentic. He was his own person. What you see was what you got. He didn’t try to win your favour. But he kept his word. He was always willing to help and he never expected nothing in return – nothing except – “take me as I am.” So you did.
This wasn’t an act. Ron never aspired to be what he was not. He was happy with his lot in life. Did he have the fanciest car? No. Cars were, to Ron – “transportation”. Did he have the biggest house, the fanciest furniture. He never bought anything with a sense of “showing off”. No. He made a good home, with food on the table. He went to work. He did his job faithfully and honestly.
There was nobody better to be with in a crisis. We were doing some big time repairs to my house, lifting it with some jacks in the basement. At one point, we were having some problems. “What if these things don’t hold the weight?’
No panic. Just that calm grin. Hey, if they give out, I’ve got life insurance.
Suck it up. Move on. Smile. Even in his last days, going home to face his final challenge – as everyone tried to figure out what to do, Ron’s words were? “Let’s get this show on the road.”
You took what life gave you and you made it work. Whether it was a crisis or just the day to day challenges of life his reaction was the same. Be calm. No complaints. No whining. Just smile and get on with it.
There was a lot of paycheque to paycheque, especially in the early days. But you never heard that from Ron. If the kids needed anything, lessons, school, weddings – whatever. It was there. Ron might put in some overtime, or just tighten his belt a little. What was needed was always there.
Ron was an old fashioned example of a “man’s man”. He didn’t talk about his feelings that much. If he did, you should be honoured. If he did share that with you, you’d know that despite that calm exterior, that grin and glib response to life’s setbacks and sadness, he was a man of intense feelings. He was, despite the placid exterior, a very sensitive man.
He took all people for who they were without judging them by their appearance. He had no time for the pompous, the BS’ers, and definitely no time for the cruel, the prejudiced or the small minded.
He was never “politically correct”. But he was never cruel or inconsiderate. He took you for who you were and he demanded that you do the same.
He was unabashedly the best example of what true masculinity was. He’d suck it up. He didn’t get emotional with others. He was in many ways, an ultimate stoic. In his last days when bureaucracy was swamping those around him, he didn’t complain, he didn’t get upset. He just firmly said, “let’s get this show on the road.”
I don’t know what he felt as he looked back on his life in those last few days. I’m certain that there were dark moments, moments of sadness. But I’m equally certain that as he faced his own mortality that, in classic Ron style, he did it with no regrets. He as a rich man, he lived his life to the full. He loved and was loved.
So what more could we learn from a movie star? A political leaders? A sports celebrity? Or even the person who’d climbed Everest? What have they to teach us about our lives that we couldn’t learn from Ron?
Frankly, I’ll take the lessons from Ron any day of the week. Live your life. Enjoy each moment. Keep your word. Do the things you should do, not with a sense of obligation, but with as sense of joy. Have compassion, but also have expectations. Help others without asking for anything in return.
The last time I saw Ron, he knew he was dying. He took my hand in a good old fashioned “man shake” – his handshake still firm.
We just talked. We talked about memories. We joked. He told me “I was still no Lorne Green, a reference to my long ago abandoned acting career. We talked like two guys – as we always had.
He still had the old Chopp charm as he greeted my wife, Linda.
But I don’t know how many of you had the privilege of Ron letting the curtain down and sharing his feelings. It was rare, it was always brief, but it was always – like Ron, intensely truthful. So his final words to me were that he was proud of me, and proud of my kids.
Neither of us had to say any more. We just knew.
I paid my respects. As I do today. I pay respect to an ordinary man. I pay respect to an ordinary life. I am honoured to have known Ron and to be one of those who loved him and can learn from his life.
Attention must be paid.