A Eulogy for my Father, James Francis Collins

My father died on Saturday, July 6 2013 after a thankfully short second battle with an extremely aggressive cancer. I gave this eulogy on Tuesday, July 9 at Christ the King church in New Vernon, NJ.  Maybe something like this should be kept personal, but I feel like sharing it.  As a kid, everyone called my father “Franny,” which he despised.  As a teenager, a group of friends came across the baseball card for the lefty first baseman of the Yankees and from that point onward he would be “Joe.”  Until he got to Guatemala…

The '62 Card for the Yankee First Baseman, Joe Collins

The ’62 Card for the Yankee First Baseman, Joe Collins

Before I say one word in praise and honor of my dad, I want to thank my Aunt Mary, Judy Baker and the entire Baker family, and Suzy Moran for making dad as comfortable as possible during the last months of his life.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done without their help.

It feels like the world’s made up of simple and complex people: not in terms of intelligence, but in terms of how easy or hard it might be to understand a person’s motives and true thoughts and beliefs.  My dad was undoubtedly a complex person – and that’s neither good nor bad, it just is what it is.  On the complex side of the coin there are those who are talkative and open, ones you can come to know rather quickly through their loquaciousness despite their complexities versus those who are quiet and guarded and tough to get to know.  My dad fell into the later category.

He was a great man and someone I hope my own children will forever look up to, but he was definitely a quiet, complex character and it took me my entire 43 years to have a better idea of what made that guy tick.  I loved my dad’s complex character and I think it’s important we all remember him with his complexities.

It would be easier, of course, to just focus on the last decade of his life and praise him for his work in Guatemala.  That work, without a doubt, deserves praise and is an achievement that will always be remembered from other writings and from the continued efforts of the institution he founded and loved, “From Houses to Homes.”  Dad’s death, in keeping up with the decades, has gone viral. Thousands upon thousands are now posting and blogging and tweeting about his passing.

But, although I don’t think he was particularly proud of them, there were a full six decades of complex life before he could even point to Guatemala on a map.  I myself can only speak to a few of those decades, but obviously dad was first a son and sibling.  Whether he’d admit it or not, his brother Michael and sisters Mary and Peggy shaped him like a ball of clay.  And, lest we forget, he lived under the roof of Michael Collins Sr. and one of the most remarkable women who has ever walked the face of this earth, my grandmother Josephine Collins.

Dad with his mother, Josephine Collins, circa 1985.

Dad with his mother, Josephine Collins, circa 1985.

Dad was also a husband, two times, twice divorced, and it would be easiest to dance around what might be called failed relationships.  I certainly will not hold them up as model relationships, but I know there was tremendous love and adoration in both of them and they resulted in, well, me and a lasting and important friendship.  I like to think of those things as fundamentally good.

And dad was, of course, a father.  Yesterday I took a run in the sweltering NJ heat and ran through my childhood neighborhood, past my Aunt Peggy’s house, around the Parsippany Hills high school football field, and ended at the baseball diamond of Littleton elementary school. I‘ll never forget jumping into his arms after the last out as my team, the bottom-of-the-league Green Hill Cleaners, squeaked by the much-favored yellow team to win the little league championship. I may not have lived my first eighteen years with dad, but he was and will always be my third base coach.  When I think of the “how-to’s” of fatherhood for my own girls, that’s the memory I will always land on.

Dad was ashamed of his perceived failures as a father.  I hope he feels no shame now.  He also didn’t think too highly of his stint as a United States Marine but, for whatever reason, whenever I spoke of dad to others I spoke of semper fidelis and the transformations that occurred during his basic training at Parris Island.  I loved and was proud of my dad as a Marine and always thought I myself would have made a great one.

Dad, boot camp, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1958.

Dad, Boot Camp, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1958.

Part of why dad didn’t find pride in his years in the Corps revolved around the fact that he chose the Marines over college.  He beat himself up again and again over that and could never really eliminate the burdensome cargo from his shoulders.  But, like with the marines, I found a lot of pride and confidence in dad’s lack of a college education.  He was the ultimate experiential learner and his ability to get things done – his scrappiness – was fantastic.

More than his generosity, his love and dedication to the poor in Guatemala, more than anything else, my favorite quality in my father was his awe-inspiring can-do attitude.  Stop the whining, stop the fussing, and just get ‘er done.  As a complex person he could navigate the world’s complexities like no other and that made him a tremendous success as the co-owner of an Irish Pub, as a real estate broker, as an addict in recovery, as a private investigator, as a founder of a non-profit, and as a human being.  I loved that about him.

It was a curious thing, finding a school for me and working through that process with someone whom always kicked himself for not going to College.  There was the father-son college tour that started at Rutgers where I didn’t need to get out of the car.  Afterward, we headed north to Brunswick, Maine and visited Bowdoin that, in my dad’s eyes, was everything he’d expected in a college – the lawns, the kids in kakis, the ivy-covered buildings, etc.  But it wasn’t for me and so I coerced him to keep driving three hours further up the coast to this small school that few had ever heard of.  We arrived, I got out of the car, stood face-to-face with this whale skull and said “This is it” and he said “this is what?  What the heck is this place??!!”

The Whale Skull (a fin whale) at College of the Atlantic.

The Whale Skull (a fin whale) at College of the Atlantic.

He was skeptical of the College of the Atlantic at first — it didn’t match his mental image of College — but he did trust me and my decision and came to love that school almost as much as I love it now.  I hold that piece of trust as sacred.  That my last days with dad were at the College of the Atlantic is not insignificant.

And, of course, there was Guatemala.  Dad came down to visit Karen and me in the small, rural, and isolated village of Santo Tomas Chajaneb.  It was the rainy season and my Q’eqchi’-Maya friends and I dragged him and his stuff through the mud to get to our home.  Let’s just say that he was way out of his comfort zone.  Dinner was an adventure.

We all will remember my dad’s strangely complex preference for extremely simple food where a spaghetti and meatball dinner was wildly exotic.  Well Dad’s visit to Santo Tomas Chajaneb was a huge celebratory event that involved lot’s of food – an oily but tasty chicken stew, some tamales, beans, and tortillas.  You would have thought they had served monkey heads.  But, I’ll hand it to him, he smiled, was incredibly gracious, and finished every last spoonful of the stew and would be always remember as “Qawa Nim Jose” –Mr. Big Joe – in the village.

Dad and I at a Build Session for From Houses to Homes in Pastores, Guatemala, 2009.

Dad and I at a Build Session for From Houses to Homes in Pastores, Guatemala, 2009.

Dad and dad’s work changed thousands of lives in Guatemala and he also inspired a tremendously large and exuberant fleet of foreign volunteers and From Houses to Homes staff who would come to move mountains for the poor in that country.  But none of that work – none – would have been possible without the trust and friendship and brilliant dedication of Oscar Mejia.  Oscar, my dad loved you like a son and, though we’ve only been in each other’s shadows a handful of times, I’ll forever love you like a brother.  You are a model human being we can all learn from.

Dad’s complex life was too short.  Who knows what could have been accomplished with another 15-20 years.  He certainly preferred free will over fatalism. But without his relationships with all of you, without his own personal battles, without his disappointments, without his failures, Qawa Nim Jose would never have been Qawa Nim Jose.

Dad, I love you.  Our world is less without you but better through your work.

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