My dad died on June 12, 2002, and he was 61. Twenty years ago already. He was only nine years older than I am now and that’s weird to think about.
In my professional life, I’ve probably spoken in front of crowds one hundred times or so. By far the most difficult time I ever had speaking was when I delivered his eulogy.
Well, Gary decided to retire early. I’m sure you know that he was supposed to retire next year. He’d been giving a countdown to that day for quite a while.
Yep – he left early. Nobody ever said that he was conventional.
Just a few days ago, I came to terms with the fact that I would never again have a mid-day chat with him about up-and-coming guys on the Yankees.
This past week, we would have been talking about how Nick Johnson is coming along, and how great it was that this kid Marcus Thames jacked out a home run on his first-ever Major League pitch.
Before the day he left us, the scariest day in my life was Sept 11, 2001. On that day, I saw the 2nd WTC tower collapse before my eyes from Fifth Avenue.
I didn’t know if I was going to ever make it home, and when I was finally able to talk to my Dad, I felt a little safer. I always did.
But this past Wednesday, I lost a tower much closer to home – I leaned on him more times than I can remember.
I think if I had to sum him up in a handful of words, I’d say he always gave more than he took. He would sacrifice anything to make things easier for his boys, and it was always with a smile on his face.
He taught me right from wrong, how to be a man, a father, a friend, and a good person. He taught me that the secret to life is to share what you have and love your family and friends every day.
Grenade (that’s what his family called him) enjoyed the simple, but wonderful things in life like grandchildren (everybody I talk to tells about how everything for him revolved around Caity, Shea & Lexie), Yankee baseball (especially pouring over the stats), Trivial Pursuit at the Sanchez house on holidays, U of MD sports (the last time that we were together was watching the Terps beat Kansas in the Final Four), listening to music in his living room, chatting it up with just about anybody, doing a crossword puzzle, dogs, the American flag, watching movies on his wide-screen TV that is three feet from his recliner, and cold beer in a frosted mug.
He was a real original – and you know he liked you if he ever busted your chops.
Something else he really liked was happy kids. All through growing up, he would alternate coaching my brother and me in soccer at the Laurel Boys & Girls Club, where he met lifelong friends like Ray.
But he wasn’t just there for us – he was the surrogate dad for tons of kids in the ’70s and ’80s.
Even after we were older and no longer playing ball, he was there as a coach, a coordinator, a commissioner – you name it. And he threw the best end-of-year parties for his teams. Not those kinds of parties at a pizza joint – he’d put together these great parties at our house that lasted all day.
The grill was going, sodas, ice cream, candy, all sorts of games, contests, and prizes. It made him so happy to see kids happy.
For that reason, our family asks that anybody who is interested in making a donation in his name please make it to the Laurel Boys and Girls Club soccer program.
These donations will go towards covering the fees for underprivileged kids to get out there, play soccer, and feel good about themselves.
But it wasn’t just the kids – it was so important to him that everybody was happy. Just this past Mother’s Day, his last day at home before going to the hospital, he was feeling lousy and a lot of people could tell.
That didn’t matter to him as much as making sure that he made it over to his mother-in-law Claire’s house to give her candy for Mother’s Day.
Everybody here knows it, but I’ll say it anyway – Gary was such a proud and selfless man – he refused to be self-indulgent. His dream was to go to Ireland, but he always said next year on that one.
When my wife Vicky and me were first married, we didn’t have a lot of money, so he invited us to join him for a vacation in the Poconos. Of course, he insisted on covering everything.
Anyhow, he booked rooms for him and us at this ramshackle motel. He could have stayed at a nice place by himself, but he didn’t. That was so typical of him – he’d always choose love over luxury.
Each year, while he was saying he’d go to Ireland next year, he would take his money and bring his boys and their families to Wildwood, NJ. That was always a great time with rich memories.
Over the years, the group has gotten bigger at Wildwood with his sister, Joan, and her family – Bob, Kelly, Donna, Patrick, Dave, Steve, Chase, Lane, and Ian.
The last day of his Wildwood vacation was always about what he had to get for his friends – lots of Jersey corn for Brian and the rest of the gang at the Greene Turtle, fudge for his co-workers – it was all about bringing his happy times to others.
Before he went into the hospital, his check had already cleared for the deposit for all of us to go there for Labor Day Weekend this year. And we’ll be there.
But somebody had different plans for him. He’s on to a better place now – a place where he can wear his red pants and purple shirts, tip some cold ones, joke around, watch Charlie Chan movies, read the sports page, make strangers happy, sing songs, and look down at all of the people that he has affected, and know that he made a positive difference in their lives.
Please don’t mourn his death too much today – you know he wouldn’t like that – he always said that when he passed away, he wanted everybody to celebrate his life.
So sing some songs, tell some stories, laugh, hug, and cry – today is Gary’s going away party, and he wants everybody to have a good time.
Please join us after this service for his send-off at the Greene Turtle – we’re throwing him a last hurrah with lots of food and an open bar for all. And the Yankees are playing the Mets this afternoon – the big Roger Clemens/Mike Piazza game.
Come on over to the Turtle – that’s where Gary would have been today, and he’d have loved to see you there.
Let me just end this with a little toast for Gary:
May your glass – mug #246 at the Greene Turtle – be ever full.
May the roof over your head be always strong.
And may you be in heaven a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.
I love you, Dad.
Rest in power, dad – I’m off to have a Bud in your memory.