I stood in the imaginary batter’s box at one end of the back yard in Woodland Hills, waiting for the pitch. There were imaginary baserunners, too. And imaginary fielders. Just beyond the “outfield fence,” in the next house over, lived a real live baseball player, Bill Buckner, then at the beginning of his career with the L.A. Dodgers.
But on this field, in our back yard, it was just me, my dad, and a Whiffle ball. He’d come home after work – a day working as the dean of new program development in the Cal State University Chancellor’s Office bracketed by an hour or more in rush hour traffic each way. And he’d play Whiffle ball with his only son in that back yard.
Sometimes, he’d be too tired, and looking back, I can’t really blame him. A man in his forties in a high-pressure job doesn’t always have enough energy to get out of the car, walk through the house and out back to engage in a game of Whiffle ball – or ping pong, a game he taught me how to play. He even built a basketball court, complete with a permanent, regulation 10-foot hoop and a square concrete slab on which to bounce that ball until your hands were caked with dust the consistency of chalk.
I never played competitive basketball, or baseball or, for that matter, ping pong, but my dad gave me the opportunity to try all of them on for size – this 6-foot-8 giant of a man whose own foray into competitive sports consisted, to my knowledge, of some recreational basketball in Australia in the early 1950s, where he did his postgraduate studies. He was so much taller than the rest of the people on the court that he was able to score almost at will in one game and wound up with more points than everyone else combined.
Wilt Chamberlain, eat your heart out.
But mostly, Dad enjoyed sports from the stands – or in front of the TV. In fact, his love of sports went back long before the age of television: He vividly remembered listening to the 1939 Rose Bowl as an 8-year-old boy and how thrilled he’d been to hear USC score the winning touchdown with a minute left to beat Duke 7-3. It was the only touchdown the Blue Devils had allowed all season, and Dad was a USC fan the rest of his life.
How big a fan? In 1974, we were watching the Trojans play archrival Notre Dame on TV, and Dad was so upset he stormed out of the house when the Irish took a 24-0 lead. I don’t know where he went, but shortly after he left, the Trojans scored a touchdown to make it 24-6; then star running back Anthony Davis returned the second-half kickoff for another score.
“Dad, you’re missing this!” I remember saying aloud, pacing back and forth in front of the TV (just as he would do), waiting for him to come home as USC scored another touchdown, then another, then yet another. By the time he got back, the Trojans had scored 35 points in the third quarter and led 41-24 on their way to a 55-24 victory. Dad had missed the best part of one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
Dad took my mom and me to half a dozen Dodger games each year, and one of them was the last game of the 1977 season. That one was special because we got to see Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run of the year, the first time four players from the same team (Ron Cey, Steve Garvey and Reggie Smith being the others) all hit 30 or more home runs in a season. And I got to see it, thanks to my dad.
We also saw Fresno State’s football team beat Bowling Green twice in the California Bowl. And we got to see the men’s basketball team dismantle fifth-ranked UNLV 68-43 in perhaps the greatest basketball game ever played at Selland Arena in downtown Fresno.
Mom, as a rule, didn’t enjoy sports too much; she’d go off and do her own thing while Dad and I were watching football in the family room. But when we moved back to Fresno in 1978 and the basketball team became a regional powerhouse, she caught the bug and began rooting for Boyd Grant’s Bulldogs as hard as either one of us.
All three of us were part of the famous "Red Wave" of Fresno State fans who packed Selland Arena (aka Grant's Tomb) to watch the Bulldogs' suffocating defense dismantle one foe after another.
One year, Dad and I went to the mall and bought Mom a custom red T-shirt with metallic lettering that read “I love Mitch Arnold,” in honor of her favorite player. He kept it in the closet of the house where I grew up long after she passed away.
Mom and Dad were married for 39 years until she died of a stroke on Jan. 9, 1995, just shy of her 63rd birthday. Stricken by polio as a child, she’d been told she’d never walk again, but not only did she walk – despite being almost fully paralyzed on the right side of her body – she earned a degree from UCLA and then went to work at Douglas Aircraft in Southern California, which is where she met my father.
He asked her to marry him on the spur of the moment when they were smooching in the car, and she said “yes.” They were married Sept. 1, 1956.
They seemed, from the looks of them, to be a bit of a mismatch: my father at 6-8 towering over his 5-foot-2 bride; this beautiful woman on the arm of the professor with the dark-rimmed glasses. When she couldn’t get up off the couch or needed help steading herself as she walked, he was always there with a hand to help her. His lasting impression of Richard Nixon, whom he met before Nixon became president, wasn’t anything political; it was that Nixon had once helped steady my mom when she stumbled as the three of them were walking together. That cemented Nixon in my Dad’s mind as a good guy. Sure, there was Watergate later on, but he had shown compassion toward my mom, and that’s what Dad remembered most.
During all the time my parents were married, I never heard Dad yell at Mom. Oh, he’d raise his voice and had quite a temper, but he never took it out on her. He never remarried and, although he flirted with women from time to time and even had a couple of girlfriends, there was never any doubt that Mom was, and always would be, the love of his life.
My parents tried for years to have a child, without success. Doctors told them they could find nothing wrong, but after six years, they had pretty much resigned themselves to a childless marriage. Then, in 1962, Dad was recruited to run for state Assembly. He’d been teaching at Fresno State for a few years by then, and as a former debating champion at Pomona College, he’d caught the attention of the California Republican Party.
It was an uphill battle, as he was running in a heavily Democratic district, and he was out on the campaign trail when he got the word from Mom that she was expecting. He lost the race by a handful of votes and never ran for office again; but he became a father in the process. He considered it a good tradeoff.
I often asked Dad why he hadn’t run for office again, and he told me he preferred to teach.
He loved it so much that he continued to do so at Fresno State as long as he could, after the “traditional” retirement age, teaching into his 70s. In 2004, at the age of 73, he even taught a class for free. That’s right. And they almost didn’t let him.
Of all my father’s many professional accomplishments, it was this the singular act that, to me, said the most about his character.
A budget crisis in California had forced Fresno State to cancel several sections of a political science course. All the remaining classes were full, leaving some students without a class they’d need to graduate. So Dad, who had just retired, offered to teach a section for free.
The university rejected his offer, leading Dad to ask, “Why the heck can’t someone volunteer?” Officials contended it would actually cost the university money, based on a complex funding formula, but Dad wasn’t buying it: “It is difficult to figure out how that works,” he said. “I have a serious problem with that kind of logic.”
A story about the university’s rejection of his offer appeared on the front page of The Fresno Bee. Then, three days later, the university reversed itself and allowed him to teach a class, after all.
Not only did Dad teach the class, he taught everyone in the community at large something about the importance of character – and of putting students before the almighty dollar.
Dad also taught me a few personal lessons that I’ll never forget. Perhaps foremost among them was the value of an education. When I was struggling as a freshman in high school, failing more than one class, he told me once as he was driving our gold Buick LeSabre that I had two choices: I could start taking school seriously, or I could wind up in a minimum-wage job or doing field labor for the rest of my life. I listened, and the next year, I was earning all A’s and B’s.
He also taught me that victories are infinitely sweeter when they are earned. For a while, when we started to play ping pong, I never beat him. Ever. He wouldn’t let me win just to make me “feel good” because I was a 12-year-old kid; he wanted me to enjoy that feeling of accomplishment he knew I’d get when I finally did beat him.
He knew what he was doing, and he was right.
He was honest in action and word alike. When I wrote a novel I was sure he’d enjoy, he told me it hadn’t really grabbed him. He wasn’t harshly critical, but he didn’t offer false praise to spare my feelings. On the other hand, when I wrote a book on discrimination, he said it should be in every classroom in the country. So when he told my wife, Samaire, that her Mad World novels were some of the most exciting stories he’d read, I knew he was telling the truth. Although the two of them only knew each other for five years, they developed a close bond and heartfelt friendship; Samaire dedicated the third book in her trilogy to him.
Although he spent most of his career in the classroom, Dad did take a couple of detours from his job as a tenured professor at Fresno State. In 1966, he took me and Mom back to Australia, where he spent a year teaching as a visiting professor specializing in American government. His 3-year-old son played with plastic trains, drew crayon pictures and befriended imaginary dragons in an apartment overlooking Botany Bay in Sydney.
Dad was twice a finalist to become president of a Cal State university – once in Chico and once in Bakersfield – and he served for six years as dean of new program development for the entire university system. He wrote a textbook on California politics that went through 17 editions and served as a political analyst on virtually every Fresno TV station during election season over a period of more than two decades.
He served as chairman of the California Republican Assembly president of the statewide Academic Senate. He liked to talk about how he had invited then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to speak to the latter body, amid criticism that faculty members weren’t interested in hearing from a conservative politician. Dad introduced Reagan to tepid applause but said that, by the end of the session, he had won over the room to such an extent that he received a standing ovation.
He also recalled a visit to Reagan's office in Sacramento, where the governor invited him to try some jelly beans.
Dad was an interesting character, politically speaking. A lifelong Republican, he was nonetheless once branded the “pink professor” for a wholly imagined sympathy for communism. Yet despite his conservatism, he did hold a number of views that could only be described as progressive, and he valued a willingness to compromise well above any rigid allegiance to partisan dogma. In his later years, he often lamented the gridlock that evolved from a growing refusal to see the other side of things. He’d been trained as a debater to argue either side of a given issue, so it was natural that this refusal to listen to other points of view didn’t sit well with him. It’s yet another value he passed along to me.
But Dad’s life was so much more than politics.
He hitchhiked the Australian Outback during his first stay there (enduring an encounter with leeches in the process). He visited Egypt, Italy, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona, Utah … and I’m sure I’m leaving something out. We flew in a helicopter together on Maui, where we also drive the infamously curvy Road to Hana. We visited Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle, York Cathedral, Monument Valley, Waimea Canyon, the Oregon coast and Haleakala crater together.
Along the way, he introduced me to his love of photography, shooting seemingly endless rolls of slides with his trusty Minolta. He taught me how to “frame” a photo and explore different angles to find just the right composition. We once arose before the crack of dawn to drive around the San Joaquin Valley, taking black-and-white photos of old barns and dilapidated buildings as the first rays of sunlight crept over the horizon, creating shadowy ghosts that appeared to linger among the beams and rafters.
Dad was also a fan of science fiction from way back, from the literary world of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to the on-screen entertainment of Star Trek and Star Wars. We watched all the movies in both series together up until the late ’90s, but there was never any doubt which franchise we both preferred. In the ST vs. SW debate, he came down squarely on the side of Trek. He introduced me to The Original Series in the early 1970s, and I’ve seen every episode of every incarnation – big and small screen – since.
He enjoyed folk music (Glenn Yarbrough, who died just a few days after he did at the age of 86; Simon and Garfunkel; Peter, Paul and Mary) and endured my preference for bands like KISS, Aerosmith and Queen with good grace. He might not have agreed with my tastes, but he respected them: He was the kind of person who picked out Christmas and birthday gifts he thought you’d like, rather than just buying something he would have liked to get himself. He knew I liked dragons, so he picked out a dragon-themed wallet for me; he knew I liked “Star Trek,” so he bought me a “Star Trek”-themed mug. Little things like that from a very big heart.
There were big things, too. He bought a car for me to drive after I got my license. When I was a teenager, we visited Kauai every other year for about a decade. After Mom died, he took me on trips to Maui and England.
He also put me through college at Fresno State, where I graduated summa cum laude (all A’s except for one B and a single C). I was proud of my academic achievement, and I once suggested that I take one of my dad’s classes to see how well I would do. He had a reputation as a good but very challenging teacher, and I wanted to test myself, but Dad pointed out it would be a no-win situation: If I didn’t do well, it would be a discouraging setback, and if I aced the class, people might think he’d showed me some sort of favoritism.
There were all those things he did for me, and then there was just who he was. I would not be who I am today without my father’s love of language, history, science fiction, sports, logic … the list goes on and on.
For years, Dad and his colleagues would gather every week at 4 p.m. at a Fresno watering hole to “solve all the world’s problems” in the space of a couple of hours. Club, as he called it (not “the club,” just “Club”) was primarily a gathering of political science professors: my father’s best friend, Karl Swenson; Freeman Wright, Maurice Van Gerpen and Lyman Heine were among the regulars. They met at Fresno Feed and Fuel for a while, then switched to Sutter Street Bar & Grill at the Ramada for many years, where I was initiated as a sort of adjunct member of the group (not being a professor) for several of those years. Dad would almost always order a martini and an O’Doul’s.
Dad worked as a professor into his 70s and taught many future leaders, including onetime Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines, Fresno City Councilman Craig Scharton and Fresno Bee Executive Editor Jim Boren,
His health declined in later years, but his mind remained active even after he sold his home and moved into a long-term care facility. As long as you kept your sense of humor, he’d often say, you'd have a life worth living. His favorite comedians included Red Skelton, Jack Benny, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett. He was himself an inveterate punster, which I’m happy to say has rubbed off on me (although others may not be quite so happy about that!).
A couple of years ago, Dad helped me by providing information and firsthand recollections for my book Fresno Growing Up. His insights, as always, were invaluable. One of the last times he made the trek out of his care facility was a year ago, when he attended my launch party and signing for the book in downtown Fresno. In his final months, he told me repeatedly how proud he was of me and how much he was looking forward to reading my next two books, both due out next year. One is a history of Highway 99 in California, to which he introduced me; the other is a novel called Memortality about a woman who can bring back the dead through the power of her memory.
I wish I could do that with Dad now. In a sense, I’m doing the best I can with this remembrance, which can never come close to doing justice to perhaps the most accomplished man I’ve ever known, not to mention my greatest supporter and lifelong friend.
My father passed away Aug. 6, 2016. We’d seen him a few weeks earlier and held a three-hour conversation with him about politics and life, the past and the future. As always, he was gracious, telling us we should get going as the day stretched into late afternoon because we had a long drive ahead of us and shouldn’t be traveling too much after nightfall. “Watch out for all those nuts on the road,” he’d say. Every time.
I talked to my dad on the phone two days before he lost consciousness. He didn’t seem to be feeling too well, so just before I hung up, I told him something I said too infrequently.
“I love you, Dad.”
He told me he loved me, too. Those were the last and best words we ever exchanged.
Note: The photo that appears above shows my father and my mom, Lollie Provost, in the early 1970s.