Nine Grandchildren

by Scott Smith

My dad in his favorite hat

A eulogy to my father.

Nine Grandchildren

A preface: I’m Scott MacKay Smith, the only son of Douglas MacKay Smith.

Our father made toys, wood ones. Boats, cars, trains, trucks. Even a tank — once an aerospace engineer, always an aerospace engineer.

Toys are important, aren’t they? Imagination. Creativity. Play. My sister Suzi’s boys, Keegan and Bryce, can roll the wooden toys over the furniture or launch them at each other. Fine boys, fine product testers.

I know play is important. That’s how you solve problems. You play around, tinker, try.

In Michigan, after losing power for most of the day, the well had to be primed. I had never done that before. No one was home (my wife, Robinson — my dad loved that I called her by her last name — normally solves these problems). My father wasn’t available to help. I turned to my other source: Google. No luck. All I got were PDFs of the manual I held in my hand that explicitly stated the primer-plug-thingy is not pictured in the diagram above.

I looked at the motor and its appendages. Hmmm. Well, I’ll take off the black cap. Why? Because it had screws and I know how to remove those. That only revealed wires (they were pictured in the diagram). There are some square nuts. I guessed I could remove those with the anti-handyman’s favorite tool — the crescent wrench.

I got the little square nut free and pulled it out. Hey, that looks like a plug. We’re on to something here.

Of course, you who have wells know the irony of priming a well — water. I came back from the gas station with the last couple of gallons of water in stock. I retrieved a two-cup liquid measuring cup and started pouring water in — a half hour later, I probably had more water on the floor than in the well.

I could hear my father’s voice: “Oh, I wouldn’t do that.”

By the way, Robinson came home and told me to remove a different, bigger plug and close a valve. We had water again.

Our father managed the metrology department for Abbott Labs.

Strictly speaking, our father was middle management. I don’t say that with derision but pride. He added value to the company and the people who reported to him.

Sure, at the end of his career, he seemed to spend too much time in meetings, but that’s the price of success in a multi-national corporation. When he arrived in Chicago in ’79 from southern California, trailing a blizzard not seen since in the Midwest, he introduced new technology to the department; he hired fine people. He took care of his people.

I think he always understood: It’s the people, stupid.

Last time he visited Michigan, he told me about a woman in his department, a computer operator, who had to leave because of personal reasons. Our dad figured out a way to keep her working for Abbott under terms she could handle by making her a remote worker. He was pretty sure she was Abbott’s first remote worker, since the company had no policy or procedure in place at the time.

I can only imagine how hard it was for him to navigate the bureaucracy of HR to keep her. He was an engineer — solving problems is a form of play.

Our father worked as an engineer.

In the ’60s and ’70s, our father worked for the aerospace giant Rockwell. Talk about your corporate boot camp. This is where he learned to love or hate working for a giant company; this is where he learned to work within the system or let it beat him down. He had fun.

By the way: Kudos to pops. Nice timing — working in Aerospace at its peak and for a drug company at its peak.

He told me about the time the engineering group he was part of spruced up their digs. The group scavenged rugs, paint and walls. They transformed the concrete floors and the bare walls. They took care of their boss as well. And what a surprise he had to discover an office where there was none before.

During this time he became a husband, ’63; a father, ’66 (that would be me), and Stacey in ’67; Diane in ’69; Suzi in ’71 and finally Kristen in ’78.

Throughout his life, he played. Ripping apart car engines when he was teenager and rebuilding the ’67 Ford pickup’s engine not long before we moved to Illinois in ’79 — my first vehicle in ’83. He built stuff. His materials ranged from wood to brick to metal. He fixed stuff. As his children purchased homes, he sharpened his plumbing and electrical skills.

On more than one occasion, while our dad was flat on his back under a sink, one of my in-laws said my father had the patience of Job.

Pops was always curious. He brought home a Commodore PET 2001 computer in the ’70’s and purchased an iMac a couple of years ago — a first time Apple owner.

I imagine my father’s sense of play was engendered when he was a boy. I can see him, maybe four or five, on his bed, rolling cars over his pillow and between the folds — maybe a wood car — traversing California’s valleys, deserts and mountains.

A postscript.

I titled this Nine Grandchildren because of a comment my step-daughter, Madeleine, made to her mother. She was touched that pops told the reporter, who wrote a feature article about his toy building, that he had nine grandchildren. Madel is 15 and did the math pretty quick — our father included my wife’s children.

For me, nine grandchildren isn’t just a count of grandkids. It’s two words symbolizing so much about my father; however, that’s private, like our conversations, the ones I only hear.