My Dad mesmerized everyone in the room the moment he walked in the door. With a great big smile, shining like a bright beam of light! While a good looking man to be certain, it was his personality that would not be denied. He was confident. Charismatic. Strong. Funny! People were simply drawn to him.
The son of Clarence Nilles and Lillian Olson, Dad lost his mother at age nine and his father a year later at age ten. My Dad never recovered from the loss of his parents. At any point in his life; whether otherwise joyful or not, the mere mention of his fathers name melted him into a puddle of tears. Later in life, the same could be said at the mention of his aunt Florence Tennis or his brother John “Jack” Fougerousse. He loved them so! Despite his rough start in life, Dad excelled at turning tragedy into triumph. My Dad considered himself a lucky man in particular for the extraordinary friendships made in his journey of life. As an underclassman at Angel Guardian Orphanage, a young boy then was subject to any and every whim of an upper class-man and could not complain. Today they call it hazing, and at Angel Guardian boys suffered a year of it. Enter Johnny Thill. John was an upper class-man who liked my Dad and made him his “J”. John was the best man at my parents wedding, and my Dad his best man. My Dad remembered his time at Angel Guardian quite fondly, always with a twinkle in his eye and a story of the antics he pulled. He proved quite a handful for the priest and nuns charged with his care. The time he wore red from head to toe to Sunday service. The time he threw a fork at Sister Stella and it stuck in the wall. That fork had consequences. Eventually Dad had to pack his bags and load onto a bus heading to Mercy Mission. Enter Dave Baer, who became my Dad’s life long friend and partner in crime. They may or may not have tried to steal a car when they were 14 because they were bored. They may or may not have failed in that attempt because it ended up being a stick shift that neither knew how to operate. Dad graduated from Old St. Pat’s High School in 1961. He would like me to mention to you that he excelled at basketball and on the boys swimming team. In January, 1962 he enlisted in the US Army. He was proud to be a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division as proven by the tattoo on his right arm. Of his 32 jumps he had one close call, coming in backward during a night jump. “I hit feet first, then ass, then head. I had a headache for 17 years”. He was stationed out of Okinawa and a designated sharp shooter on the M-14. He was awarded the extremely rare Presidents 100 Badge for target shooting, good conduct metal and of course earned his airborne wings. He was honorably discharged in January 1965. His unit would be deployed to Vietnam that May. He was certain he would get called back but the phone never rang. Instead, my Dad started his career with 7-up and quickly became a top salesman. And make no mistake, he was cocky about it. The story goes he was peacocking another top salesman who repeatedly refused to engage with him. Finally, the other guy had enough and punched Dad square in the nose. Meet Ed Ford a.k.a the “Old Sock”. Dad’s best friend. Ed and Dad spent time together regularly, even through their late life respective illnesses, even if just to meet up for a cheeseburger. They were kindred spirits. Ed passed away earlier this year. I’ve been thinking about my Dad’s three best friends a lot lately, Johnny, Dave and Ed… and believe I found the common element that drew my Dad to them and vice-versa: STRENGTH. “Strong Like Bull!” My dad was a bit of a badass in his day. So were they. I think they recognized that in each other and respected it. MORE, they drew emotional strength from each other founded in their deep shared experiences and mutual loyalty. From growing up in an orphanage to making their way in the world, they turned tragedy into triumph. They did it together. They were truly brothers. That is one of the lessons I take with me from my father. Life will not always go your way. Bad things, unspeakable things will happen. But even in the darkest of times a ray of light can find you, if you let it. And when you do, you can be that ray of light for someone else, too. So smile, and make your presence in the life of others known! Shine brightly when you walk through that proverbial door!
I want to acknowledge and thank again my Dad’s wife Carolyn (Fowler) Nilles. She brought to their marriage her son Robbie Hoyer, who Dad always said may not have been his biological son but was in fact HIS BOY. I smile thinking of my sister Tricia Nilles and her special relationship with Dad. He loved all of us equally and with his whole heart, possibly matched only by his love for his granddaughters Megan Knoth and Nicole Hoyer. Through them, his light will live on.
I’ll never forget Dad. I love you.