A Tribute to My Father

Eleven years ago today, my father died.  Below are the words that I spoke in farewell and tribute to my dad at his memorial service on January 25, 2001, in Roseville, Minnesota.  Speaking them before 600 people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  The first part of this tribute was written at 30,000 feet above the North Pacific Ocean as I flew home from a vacation in Thailand.  

This is my annual tribute to him.

The call you dread and fear and never expect comes.  It’s mom.  “Joann, your father died this morning.  Please come home as soon as you can.  I need you.”  Like an arrow out of no-where, somewhere, it hits first the head, then the heart, and slowly the pain sinks into your bones.  One day you’re relaxing on the beach, washing off the stress of a difficult term, and 24 hours later you’re wandering in a daze around international airports—Phuket, Bangkok, Narita—all jammed with people, and yet feeling so incredibly alone.  The words keep shouting in your soul.  “Joann, your father has died,” slamming against your bones and your organs and your skin like a bullet ricocheting around a steel cavern.  You try to drive them away with polite conversation, with reading, with hymn-singing, hoping against hope that driving the words away will drive the reality away as well.

But then the words and reality force their way back and the pain starts again.  “Joann, your precious father stepped into glory this morning.”  “Joann, your wonderful father went home to be with his Savior.”  With every fiber of my being I believe these words, but don’t want to believe them at the same time.  He was a precious father, but now he is lost in wonder, love and grace in the presence of Jesus.

Yet here at 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I feel just plain lost.  Lost in sadness.  Lost in pain.  I know he’s with his Savior, but I want him here with us.  How will I get through the next ten hours on this plane? How will I bear to see my mom and sister and her family at the end of this long journey?  One hour at a time, one grace at a time.  “He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater; He giveth more strength as the labors increase.  To added affliction, He addeth more more mercy; to multiplied sorrows, He multiplies peace.”  Then it hits me.  Despite the pain, I too am lost in love and grace.  Sustaining grace–John Piper describes it like this:  “Not grace to bar what is not bliss, nor flight from all distress, but this—the grace that orders our trouble and pain, and then in the darkness is there to sustain.”  Will the sadness and the tears and the pain ever go away?  Probably not.  But then again, neither will the grace.

So, my beloved dad is gone.  What to say?  The words that scream loudest from my soul are simply, “please come back.”  I know he’s in a better placee, but I still want him back here. There are too many words and no words.  But following are a few—just a few of the special things I remember about my dad.

He had a sense of humor.  He loved to laugh and make others laugh, and he was never in danger of taking himself too seriously.

He was a servant.  He would do anything for anybody anytime anyplace, from bringing coffee to my waking mom every morning to fixing church roofs to shoveling neighbor’s driveways.

He was humble.  In a stuffy academic world, he was just himself.

He was generous.  If there was a financial need, he gave. His giving to us seemed limitless and it gave him great joy.

He was compassionate.  His heart was tender and easily broken by the pain and suffering in the world.  Last month in Beijing, we visited a clothing market that the government was ready to close down.  The peddlers were selling their goods at rock-bottom prices.  In a crowd frenzied over the best bargain, he kept asking, “what will happen to these poor people?”

He loved Jesus.  Quietly and simply, he ordered his life grounded in that love.

He was a wonderful father and I miss him so very much.

Perhaps the greatest tribute I can give will be when I come to the end of my days and people say of me, simply, “she was just like her father.”

Goodbye Dad.  I love you and miss you more than words can express.


My dad was an ice-cream lover. In his honor our family will make a run to a local Dairy Queen this afternoon.

If you knew my dad and have any special memories, please feel free to leave a comment. (For those of you receiving this by email, you need to click open the site in order to leave a comment)

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5 thoughts on “A Tribute to My Father

  1. I only got to meet your father in person the last time he came to Bejing, but I feel that I have gotten to know him in your (and Gracie’s) stories. As the one who was with you when you got that call, my world was altered as well and I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet him again. It’s too cold in Beijing to go out for ice cream, but in honor of your father I will think fondly of Pepsi all day and not drink a Diet Coke. Amy

  2. Jo, we met your dad and mom in 1956 when we sailed together for 5 weeks on the Steel King. From that time onward we were very good friends. We loved your dad’s sense of humor. His love for the Lord and for others was plain to see. He endeared himself to us when we learned that he liked gravy on his biscuit/roll. This was a southern custom and none of our other colleagues had ever heard of this! To this day we miss him and memories of our times together keep his spirit alive.

  3. I have some wonderful memories of your Dad, and my family, co-workers, friends, and clients have heard me quote him numerous times. One of my favorites;
    In Philosophy 101, a classmate raised her hand during class,and asked “Dr. Pittman, this question is a bit off the subject, but-”
    Your Dad graciously interrupted her “Miss, in philosophy, is a person ever really ‘off the subject’?”
    35 years later, in my mind’s eye and memory, I can still see the twinkle in his eye and the slight smile – almost as if he KNEW this would be “food for thought” for someone.
    Philosophy, Logic, Christian Thought; it was my privilege to have him as a prof in all three. A great man, leaving me with some great memories!

  4. ah, dear uncle sam. my weeks in your home were all too short. i remember well the ice cream, and the ice tea! his sense of humor, his amazing knowledge, his love for his students, his acceptance of me and his help when i needed it. he is missed by the orgeonians, too. Carrie’s son, samuel michael, is scheduled to be born february 13. your father is one of the “family” samuels he is named for. we miss you all!!!

  5. Wow, the years have flown by, but the phone call of your dad’s passing was one of those moments in life that you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when it was received. Memories are so many between camping, family dinners together ending in chocolate chip ice cream with butterscotch chips in it, college classes, the Israel trip with the endless “happy birthday” songs, and learning that manna is indeed really ice cream, not to mention so much laughter! People come and go throughout your life, some leave a mark, you dad and family is one of those for me. Thanks for the reminder of his 11th anniversary in heaven!