A Dad’s Death, 50 Years Later

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park: my father’s ashes were laid to rest in these waters.

From DK: The Wall Street Journal on July 23rd, 2021 published my op ed on my father’s sudden death and its aftermath. Below is a longer, more detailed version.

My 64th birthday came on July 24th. The same date marked the 50th anniversary of a personal tragedy.

At 5:32 a.m. on the morning of my 14th birthday, my father—37 years old, recently divorced, and out partying with friends—was struck by a car as he was walking across a darkened Kendall Drive in South Miami. He died instantly. The aftershocks reverberated for a lifetime.

When the Florida Highway Patrol trooper knocked on our front door at dawn that morning to notify next of kin, my brother, a year older than I, responded first. “Son,” the trooper told him, “why don’t you go back to your bedroom and let me talk to your mom.”

My mother told me the news when I woke up at 9 a.m. I still recall details of that moment. The crack of sunlight beaming in beneath the shade on the window in my bedroom; how my mom, still in shock, sat down at my bedside and reached out to pat-pat-pat me on the shoulder as she began to speak. “So, something bad has happened…”

My brother and I said nothing to each other that morning and tried to absorb ourselves in a game of gin rummy. In the five decades since, we barely broached the subject. It is easier to discuss a personal tragedy with a stranger next to you on an airline flight than it is to revisit loss with a loved one who shared the shock and pain.

Losing a parent is a devastating blow, no matter when it happens. When it occurs on your 14th birthday, it feels a bit more tragic, or maybe just more theatrical. And the reality of it is, everyone endures loss. Many people suffer far worse and recover remarkably well. The key lies in how we respond to a life-altering setback, and the good lessons we can draw from it to shape our lives for the better.

These days we are awash in stories about people whose lives are being “destroyed” by racism or sexism or politics. The truth is that nothing can destroy us unless we let it.

When tragedy strikes, the one thing we can control is how we respond to it, the choices we make and the paths we choose. We can replace grief with hope, even gratefulness.

It took me a long time to learn this. My first response was anger and umbrage. Before, I was a shy kid who was hesitant to speak up, lest the cool kids make fun of him. After, a steelier, bolder version of me took hold; I had something to overcome. There was nothing anyone could do to me that would hurt more than my dad’s death. So bring it on.

*   *   *

Our father was born Marvin Richard Griffin, and, as fate would have it, when he was 7 years old he, too, lost his father in a tragic accident.

The elder Griffin was out drinking with three friends, and their car stalled on the railroad tracks. All four men died in the crash. My dad showed me a small, yellowed newspaper clipping about the accident when I was maybe 8 years old.

His mom remarried, and his stepdad, my grandfather Donald F. Kneale, adopted him and changed my dad’s name to Donald Richard Kneale. His new dad was a lieutenant colonel and bomber pilot in the U.S. Air Force in World War II, and my father went on to attend 13 schools in 12 years and learned to make friends fast and move on.

Angry Young Man

He was an angry young man. He stood 5 feet 7 inches tall, weighed 145 pounds, and wore a size 7 shoe (vs. my 6-foot-1, 215 pounds and size 10-1/2). He was larger than life, with a buoyant laugh that filled the room. I’m told I have his laugh.

He married at age 21, fathered two sons by 23, dropped out of college, and got thrown out of the U.S. Marine Corps early for fighting and drinking. Or drinking and fighting, more to the point. Later in life, he worked as an aircraft mechanic, and he spent more than he earned: on a canary-yellow 1960s Mustang, and a 16-foot-long powerboat, and scuba and fishing gear.

My dad often let fly with his anger. My brother and I were afraid of him when we were little. “I was terrified of the man,” my brother told me when I asked him about it.

We got closer to him, though, after he moved out when I was 12 years old, and my brother and I started having weekend visits with him. This taught me that divorce can make you a better dad if you do it right, and this guided me after my own divorce in my 40s.

I drew other lessons, too. My resulting drive and gumption helped me climb the ranks in journalism, where I saw myself as a maverick with little to lose and even less tact. It may have held me back from landing higher-up roles that required a calmer personality (or a duller one).

My brother, mindful of imminent mortality, got married at 23 and had the first of three sons by 25. By contrast, at age 15, I vowed to a friend that I would never marry or have children, without revealing why: I wanted to minimize the risk of losing someone I loved.

I waited till age 35 to wed, and became the father (of a wonderful daughter) only at 44.

Both of us, sons affected so profoundly by our dad’s absence, made sure to be better fathers by our presence. We harbored a graver sense of responsibility, intent on avoiding his worst flaws, and a heightened sense of vigilance, always braced for what might go wrong. My brother says he may have passed this on to his sons; I may have handed it to my daughter, too.

Today I am a much more devoted dad, having worked harder at it. My mother is 83 now, and when she marvels at what a good father I turned out to be, I tell her it’s because I had a great role model: she herself.

After the memorial service, my dad’s remains were cremated and sealed in a small copper urn. Fifty years ago this month, my paternal grandfather dropped it into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean off Key Largo, Fla., from a small Cessna flying overhead. The target site was a place where my dad had scuba dived and snorkeled so many times that he had written a poem about it: John C. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the nation’s first underwater preserve.

In a few days, I will be taking a diving trip of my own at Pennekamp. My brother and his sons #2 and #3 will join me (my daughter is away at college). In my mind, as we dive deep beneath the surface, my father’s spirit will be there with us, one teensy part per quintillion parts of seawater flowing past for all these years. My hope is the water will be crystal-clear, with beautiful reef views, as I remind myself that life flows onward, rich and wonderful, and it’s what we make of it that counts.






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