On My Mind: Thanks, dad — for everything


Sunday is Father’s Day. The day is a celebration honoring fathers and fatherhood, paternal bonds and the influence of fathers in society.

I was lucky to have an incredible dad. Though he died many years ago, I still think about him when I’m awake and in my dreams.

He was an artist and taught sculpting and ceramics at the university level. Quiet, respectful, a good listener and a prolific reader, he continually amazed me with his keen insight into humankind and the ways of the world.

He had no tolerance for nonsenses talk, put downs or falsehoods. There was no place in his life or our family’s life for racism or mean treatment of others. He showed enormous respect for the underprivileged and downtrodden.

Not that every word out of him was brilliant, but he was a very sharp wordsmith. He could squeak by in Russian, spoke fluent Finnish (not an easy language), and Swedish and could slip by in German.

Born in 1916 in Akron, Ohio, he moved about in various fragmented family arrangements. His dad was a violinmaker, among other things. My dad, Walter A. Hannula, eventually moved to Brooklyn where he ventured into manhood. He told me he was really poor and barely made it through several brutal winters. He said he terribly envied people on the streets that had big warm coats and scarves and furry gloves. He and his pals, in winter, would often duck into a large department stores just to soak up some of the heat before trudging back out into the snow.

Eventually the draft caught up with him. He moved to Finland, then to Sweden, then back to the U.S. where he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to New Guinea during World War II. He worked for four years in a radar tent. Eventually he cracked under the pressure of endless nights of having their camp bombed from the air. When he got out of the Army he moved to Santa Barbara where, under the GI Bill, he studied art at UC Santa Barbara. That’s where he met my mother, on a bulletin board, where she was selling some of her textbooks. He spotted her last name and knew it was Finnish, like his own. Thus, a marriage and four kids were in the works.

As my father’s career got under way, after he claimed a masters at the University of Oregon at Eugene, his engagement with alcohol also began to take hold. He ended up drinking heavily as the years piled on. We moved around a bit, from Eugene to Washington D.C., then to the little island of Guam where both my folks worked at the Univ. of Guam. That’s the place, as a teen, I really started to see how alcoholism was a major part of our family. And it was never addressed. Everyone looked the other way as my dad stumbled about the house, red-eyed, stoned on booze. He was a running joke around the neighborhood with all my friends as they snickered while he tried to walk off the booze in a staggering gate. I cringed at the teasing and pretended it wasn’t really happening.

But still, I looked up to the man because he was so warm and funny and helpful. He helped me get going in music, in drawing, in ceramics and learning to love books. Our father took us kids to the library all the time, even when we were really young. I still recall heading home on those warm D.C. nights with a pile of books under my arm, so excited have something to read.

Dad eventually walked away from alcohol the last two decades of his life. He did it on his own. One day, as a teen I asked him if it was hard to quit and he simply said, “No, not really; you just have to want to do it.”

He wrote me mountains of letters in my college days and deep into my adulthood. He was an amazing writer. His letters were loaded with inspiration, advise (not pushy), jokes, unique observations and philosophy. I still hold onto to those letters and yank them out now and again and still glean great ideas.

He had a major stroke in his 80s and for six years he had to deal with being on a cane, losing his voice and his ability to read or understand much. My amazing mom largely took care of him in those trying years. His last two weeks were spent in a care home and then one day he was gone. An hour before he died I was lucky to have kissed him on the forehead and say out loud to him, “Thank you, dad.”

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“Mother and Child” is a sculpture created by my father, Walter A. Hannula.  — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Included in this article is a photo of a sculpture my father made of sandstone back in the late 1950s, the “Mother and Child.” In some ways it made him kind if famous. Its image appeared in Life and Time magazines and he got letters from all kinds of famous people thanking him for the beauty his art added to their lives. The piece was widely reproduced for decades and he was enormously proud of that. I guess that is one of the truly great treasures I have to thank him for: an appreciation of the arts. I just wish now I could show him some of the photos I have accrued over the years. He played a big role in getting me interested in photography as well. So thank you and happy Father’s Day.

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Contact Register-Pajaronian photographer Tarmo Hannula at [email protected]

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