My Dad, Larry Cassingham, 1918-2007

John Lawrence “Larry” Cassingham died on December 23, 2007 — the day after his 89th birthday. These are the remarks in eulogy by his four children, made in birth order, and several of the photos that were shown at his memorial service, held on January 12, 2008.


Carol

I’m Carol. I’d like to start with a poem about Music. And why you may wonder would she do that? Dad wasn’t a musician himself, but he loved and appreciated it and loved to listen to Mom play. And he made sure that all of us got the opportunity to develop that part of ourselves if we wanted to. The poem is called

I Am Music

Through me spirits immortal speak the message that makes the world weep, and laugh, and wonder, and worship.

I tell the story of love and hate. I am the incense upon which prayers float to heaven.

I speak through the birds of the air, the insects of the field, the crash of waters on rock-ribbed shores, and the sighing of the wind in the trees.

I know no brother, yet all men are my brothers; I am the father of the best that is in them, and they are fathers of the best that is in me; I am of them and they are of me.

For I am the instrument of God.

I AM MUSIC.

 

Larry Cassingham as a child.

Larry in his dad’s lap, with his sister Jean in her mother’s lap. (Carl lived 1889-1940; Ethel lived 1897-1974)

 

This is taken from a poem that Mom gave me when they were in the process of leaving their home in Ladera to move into the Sequoias.She said Pa (her Dad) had framed it and given it to her on her 16th birthday. I’m sure any of you who know mom know what an amazing musical talent she is, and I know Gram and Pa nurtured that in her while she was growing up. When she showed me this poem, it was a deep validation somehow of the depth of understanding that Pa had about the role music played in the overall scheme of our lives, and in hers, and this seemed really special to me. Plus, I identified with the message myself.

In the early years of my life — the first 8 years — it was really just mom and me. But what struck me as I was thinking about all this, was that it really was mom, me, and music. I’ve never, not had music as a huge part of how I defined who I was. And not just music, but harmony.

My cousin and I were harmonizing together when we were practically toddlers. I can remember being really young and sitting under the piano while mom practiced, and I also have a joyful memory of learning how to skip — all around the room — while Mom played her skipping music.

But this isn’t about Mom, or me, it’s about Dad. And what’s neat is that Dad stepped right into that same role when he came into our lives.

I don’t think I appreciated it as a child — the commitment of it — but with me there was never any question about my having piano lessons, and even violin lessons for a while. And then with Mom, I loved watching how proud he was of her when she would play. He was her biggest fan, the proud MC at company dinners… always asking her to play, setting the stage.

 

Larry and Jean, a few years later.

Larry and his sister Dorothy Jean (1920-1977 — just like our dad, Jean died the day after her birthday, but was only 57).

And then later on, he’d be cooking dessert in the kitchen while she rehearsed and/or performed with her varying groups in the living room, and then he’d proudly serve the dessert — which was his way of sharing his talent with the guests, the way she had shared hers.

Somewhere along the line during this week of reflection, it has come to me that probably the biggest gift Dad gave me was how he unhesitatingly claimed me as his own. He legally adopted me and I became the first of the Cassingham kids, and I felt just as much right to that title as my 3 brothers who came next. I’m not sure I really understood or appreciated the depth of what that meant when I was growing up. I just took it for granted. And the fact that I could was the biggest gift of all.

Anyway, now that I had a dad like all the other kids I knew, I learned how to play baseball. We played hit the bat in the street with the other kids. I learned how to play basketball — lots of one on one in the driveway all through my junior high years. He even made me stilts one year for Christmas. I was the hit of the neighborhood, walking around on those things. I could catch and throw baseballs and footballs like a boy, not a girl, and I watched all the games with him and understood what was happening. Of course, I also got to mow the lawn, in that corner house that had the biggest lawn in the neighborhood. By the time my brothers were old enough to do that, we were living in a house that had ivy!

After I left home and went to college, my life started into the twists and turns and ups and downs that lives can do. But no matter what was going on with me, if I needed help, Dad was there to give it to me. It was an interesting balance in this man who on the one hand couldn’t stand to let you run the water more than 5 seconds, and on the other hand would give you financial help almost unquestioningly if you needed it.

So even though Dad’s song has ended, its echoes still weave in and out of mine. And, even though at times the counterpoint voices were discordant, they resolved into harmony and I’m better for it — I’m strong. My own song keeps evolving, one movement after another, sometimes with dramatic and unexpected modulations. It’s like it’s becoming a medley of themes that begin quietly, establish themselves and then vanish, but then unexpectedly reappear later in a stronger variation, tying everything together.

Dad gave me something that transcends time, and I am thankful.


Curt

Hi, I’m Curt.

 

Larry in high school(?)

Larry’s high school portrait, around 1936.

You know, Larry was a weatherman in the Air Force. Looks like he ordered up a splendid day, today.

Bonnie and I played “Ah, So Pure!”, which was one of Dad’s favorites. His own father had a collection of 78 RPM records, which included a version sung by by Enrique Caruso. I’ve played it on flute many times over the years, but when it came time for Bonnie to learn it, we couldn’t find sheet music anywhere. Then I checked Ebay, where a copy, printed in 1938, had just gone up for auction. Quite serendipitous! When I told the seller the circumstances, she offered her own condolences by saying she was “pleased to add one sweet moment to a sad occasion.”

You might say Dad lucked out by marrying Mom, as she plays such beautiful piano, and he loved to listen to her play. We kids learned various instruments, and he was always delighted when we’d play for him. This past summer, I visited The Sequoias when Dad was still reasonably healthy. I brought my flute, and Mom and I played for him. He was smiling, tapping his feet, and singing along. In a few minutes, Mom will play some of his favorite Chopin.

Back in the early 90s, he took me on a father-son week-long trip to Florida, including EPCOT and the Kennedy Space Center. He even suggested we eat dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, which floored me: this, coming from a man whose favorite tune was “Ah, So Pure”!

Though we kids got our musical talent from our mother, Dad was quite creative with the written word and visual arts. In the 30s and 40s, he worked for the Glendale News-Press, and attended art school, where his ambition was to become a cartoonist and specialize in motion picture art. After starting the Detectron company in the late 40s, he wrote and illustrated much of the company’s advertisement and promotional material. His Outdoor Times newsletter was published in conjunction with sales of Geiger counters and metal detectors, and would often detail the use of those instruments in the real world.

A couple things I got from my father …besides this receding hairline… are a love of astronomy, and camping, which of course go conveniently together when you’re sleeping out under the stars. He taught me early on how to recognize several prominent sky objects. Years ago as a little kid, we were family-camping with several friends on a warm summer weekend, I pointed at a bright object in the evening sky and exclaimed, “That’s Jupiter!”. I was pretty proud when dad confirmed to the other adults that I was correct. For as long as we lived in southern California, Dad took us to the Griffith Observatory, that famous, three-domed building which houses astronomy science exhibits, telescopes, and a wonderful planetarium sky-projector.

Larry with his dad.

Larry with his dad, Carl.

Everyone knows how much he loved to cook, and all of us kids have enjoyed that pursuit ourselves. Many a time I asked Dad for one recipe or another for various special meals I was preparing. He loved a good meal, too, and was willing to try just about anything. He told me many times he liked just about everything …except cilantro, of all things!

Now, he was sick a lot as a child, and missed going to public school until about age ten. I remember him telling me he’d never make it to the turn of the century, let alone to late 2007. As kids, dad would tease us about how old he was. I think he came up with the most outrageous figure he could on that first time one of us asked him his age: 88. Worked for me, as it helped me win various schoolyard arguments of whose father was bigger/taller/smarter/etc. “Yeah?” I’d say. “Well, my dad is 88!” He was 88 for a number of birthdays until we grew up a little and realized his age hadn’t changed in the last several years. Finally, this past year, he was the 88 we always bragged about. Dad died last month, one day after turning 89. Mom spent much of his birthday with him, and reminded him he wasn’t 88 any more. Since he’d had trouble lately coming up with and speaking even easy words, Mom asked him if he’d say “89”. His answer was “88”, which were the last words he spoke to her.

He taught me the little but important things, like how to balance a checkbook, change tires, check and replace engine oil, and so forth. I still remember the little box of tools he gave me as a teenager, and I still use many of them.

Dad and Mom, as many people do, made plenty of investments over the years, which paid off well enough for him to retire at age 51 and move here to Portola Valley in 1969. After I graduated from high school, I had a job and lived at home. Dad required me to pay rent for the privilege, which really annoyed me …after all, I was family! Of course, he was trying to teach me that life wasn’t going to be free, now that I was an adult. What I didn’t know was that he was trying to teach me a little lesson in investing: after a few years, I moved out and got married, and his gift to me was a check for all the rent money I’d paid him!

 

Larry during the war.

Larry was a meteorologist in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was stationed in Hobbs, New Mexico, which was a major training base for pilots.

When he passed away, I asked Mom for his wedding ring.

Not without frustrations …being a business owner can do that… Dad occasionally took things out on me. If you came from a larger family, you probably know how parents can be harder on the older children, then relax a bit with the younger ones, having learned from their experience of being parents. Back when I was born, there was no internet on which to research parenthood …no self-help videos on parenting, and the like. Right or wrong, he raised me the way he thought best. I can’t say I was immune from the “like father, like son” effect, so I’ve had to watch it with my own family. So, I now wear his ring, to remind me who he was, and how much he had to do with who I am today.


Brian

You guessed it, I’m Brian. I was going to lead off with the 88 story! For some reason, this was a special number to my dad. Early in the morning on the day after his birthday, he apparently thought to himself, “enough with this 89 stuff”, and that was when he decided to leave us.

My dad passed away on December 23rd. Over the next several days, as friends offered their condolences, many asked my how I was doing, and if I was sad. And while it is always tough to lose a parent, this is not the reaction that I have had. Dad was born in 1918. Out of curiosity, I did a search on the internet under life expectancy. According to the table I read, the life expectancy of a male born in 1918 was 49. He beat that by 40 years, and virtually all of them were healthy ones. He had a successful career, a 54 year marriage to a wonderful woman, four children, five grandchildren, two great grandchildren, a beautiful home in one of the most beautiful places in the world, traveled all over the world, had lots of friends, and died at a ripe old age. I just can’t find a lot to be sad about. For me, today is not about mourning his passing, it is about celebrating his life!

 

Larry and Eric Weaver

Larry in the late 1940s with his best friend, Eric Weaver. They knew each other when they were teens, and Eric was able to attend Larry’s memorial.

 

My dad gave me a great many things for which I am thankful, and I wanted to tell you about a few of them today. Dad was born in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and when he was a couple years old, his family relocated to the bay area, eventually settling down in Redwood City. His father Carl had recently earned a graduate degree from a local university you may have heard of — it was called Stanford University. Over the next several years he introduced dad to Stanford University and Stanford Athletics. Dad became a great supporter of the university, and a huge fan of Stanford sports. Dad liked to talk with great relish about going to the 1929 Rose Bowl game, which happened to be the first Rose Bowl game that Stanford won. Forty years later, Dad would repeat this pattern, moving his family to the bay area and introducing me to Stanford and Stanford sports. I remember the 1971 Rosebowl game, which unfortunately is Stanford’s last Rose Bowl victory, with equal relish. Dad also introduced me to the game of basketball and taught me how to play. I developed a passion for the game, and it led to my developing a healthy lifestyle with an emphasis on physical fitness, which will be with me for the rest of my life. Many of my friends and associates, from my tax accountant to Justin’s Godfather, I met playing basketball. I have my dad to thank for this.

As I grew up, dad taught me the value of a good education. He didn’t tell me that I had to go to college — I just got the message that it was the thing to do. There was never a question in my mind of whether or not I would go. When the time came, mom and dad were right there to support me and pay for all my expenses, which allowed me to focus on my studies and earn my degree. Two years when I decided to go to graduate school, they supported me again and helped me pay for that. I feel like I have my dad to thank for my education.

 

A Detectron advertising photo.

Larry in an advertising photo for his Detectron business, holding one of his Geiger counters. The resulting ad was in many business magazines including Fortune and Time.

I’m sure most of you know what a great cook Dad was. While I was growing up, people came from far and wide to enjoy his cooking. He used to tell stories about cooking competitions he had as a very young man with his good friend Eric Weaver, whom I’m happy to say is here today. You’ll have to ask Eric who won those competitions, but I know this: they were both great gourmet cooks. As I got older, I realized that I took this for granted as I was growing up. Doesn’t everyone have a gourmet cook for a father and a concert pianist for a mother? I was in for a shock when I went off to college and had to eat dorm food!

Those of you who knew Dad at a time when you had young children know how much he loved them, and how much they loved him. He had a special gift in relating to toddlers, and I’m glad to say he passed this gift on to me. I noticed way back when Carol had her first daughter Gina in 1968 how well I relate to young children. This led to my becoming a volunteer big brother and making a significant difference in the lives of two little boys who did not have fathers, and now helps me to be a better father to my own three year old.

These are just a few of the many ways in which my dad had a positive influence on my life. I’d like to leave you with on more thing. I’m actually stealing a line from dad’s good friend, Ray Larsen. You may know that, as a last gesture of his goodwill and love for Stanford, dad donated his body to their medial school for research. As Ray said, he finally figured out a way to get in to Stanford!


Randy

I’m Randy — I’m the baby*. My father was an interesting study in contrasts:

 

The Larry Cassingham family.

Larry Cassingham’s family. (Rear: Curt, Randy and his wife Kit, Brian. Front: Curt’s wife Bonnie, Larry, Carol, Marge, Brian’s wife Anne.)

 

  • He was an often cranky curmudgeon …who could summon up amazing levels of charm.
  • He was a gourmet cook …whose Depression-era upbringing kept him from using the best ingredients.
  • He couldn’t produce a note of music …but married a musician and loved to hear her play.
  • He was a frugal man …so he could afford to be generous when he wanted.
  • He was a college dropout who loved to learn, and to teach.

Indeed, he thrived on helping others learn. He had boundless interest in science, especially astronomy, and there was nothing better for him than to explain to others the wonders of the universe. He loved it when I worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, because I could get him color photos of the latest findings from the Hubble Space Telescope, complete with explanations on the back with the latest theories and explanations of what was pictured.

Of course children are the biggest sponges of knowledge, and that’s one of the reasons he really enjoyed kids. He loved seeing their sense of wonder, because in some ways he was still a kid, still a knowledge sponge himself that delighted in discovery.

I got a lot of that from him. He worked in the newspaper business in his younger years; I went to journalism school, and first specialized in science writing and then became a columnist. He was an entrepreneur because he wanted to be his own boss. I decided that I’d do better by being my own publisher, following in those footsteps too.

 

Larry with his youngest family member.

Larry with Ellie LaMarche — the younger of his two great-grandchildren.

And there’s something else we kids all got from him: a sense of humor. Larry could always summon up a tasteful joke, and he was called upon often to deliver one, especially by the residents and staff at the Sequoias. He told me once that a couple of the aides once came up to him and whispered that they’d like to hear some green jokes. “Green jokes…?” My dad puzzled over the concept before he finally figured out the guys, who weren’t native English speakers, were looking for some blue jokes. He tried to accommodate, but that wasn’t really his style.

And it went both ways. I remember one time I came for a visit, and it was the first time he saw me with quite long hair. I was waiting and waiting for him to comment, and he finally did, and I was surprised how low key it was. He said, “What did you do to your hair?” I smiled and replied, “I didn’t do anything to it!” To his credit, he got the joke and laughed.

It was my dad’s mixture of high intelligence and humor that was my model his entire life, and it was a good model: I adopted it as my style in my writing, taking it farther than what my dad ever envisioned. I found I could use humor as a vehicle to make people think, and that’s a pretty good legacy.

There were of course many other things I learned from him, but there’s one in particular that was subtle enough that I didn’t realize it for years, until someone pointed it out as a trait in me, but I learned it from him: He could be a very loyal friend. He would make sure you weren’t hungry, he’d comfort you if you were scared, he’d make sure you had a fabulous experience if you were doing something new, and he’d go into debt to loan you money if you really, really needed it — and he was still your friend even if he never got it back. He was the kind of friend that everyone wished they had — and many of you did. Thanks for coming to remember him.

*(Makes a better joke when you can see us all together, as in the 8th photo: at 6’3″, I’m the tallest in the family.)

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