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Like Father, Like Son

By LeRoy Chatfield

My dad was restless and unsettled; he seemed to be searching for something. Looking back, I think he felt insecure because of his lack of formal education. I especially remember one heartfelt and sincere talk he had with me while we were driving to Williams in his pickup. It was summer time and I must have been in the sixth or seventh grade. He said he wanted me to make something of myself and not to grow up and be like him. I was taken aback because I was very much in awe of my father and he had never before confided in me like this, but I knew what he meant. He wanted me to do well in school, get an education and find a good profession. But whatever you do, he continued, you must do the best you can. Do not settle for the ordinary, make up your mind to be the best. 

His talk made a profound impression on me because he had never talked to me before with such a gentle and confidential voice. Normally, he was one to talk little, issue orders and expect immediate and full compliance. But I felt badly for him. Why would he not want me to be like him? In my eyes, there was nothing that he could not do, or could not repair or could not solve. How could a man, who did all his arithmetic in his head, not be brilliant?  I very much admired him, even as I carefully stepped around his short temper. But this was new revelation for me, my father was not happy with his life, and he expected me to do better than he had done.  

Looking back almost seventy-five years ago, I wonder if his counsel gave me the impetus to leave home at the end of my Catholic elementary school years, live in a boarding school and attend Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. I could have attended the regular public high school in Colusa, as did all my other grade school classmates, but perhaps I instinctively knew my father wanted me to be different from the others, that he would expect more from me. I have told others many times over the years,  I left home when I was fourteen years old and never looked back.  Perhaps, because of my father, I knew I was not permitted to look back.  I was expected to do something other than what my father had done; I was to become someone other than what my father had become.  A tall order for such a tender age, but leaving home was the first, defined step to achieve the goal that had been set for me and which I accepted as my own. 

But the father becomes the son too. And while I never intended it to be so, in fact my life has been a series of career building experiences leading to God knows what –  perhaps nowhere except to the grave and become a flickering memory in the thoughts of my own children for a decade or two. 

My father died in January 1970. I remember and think about him frequently, sometimes daily. Even as I write this short essay, floods of disconnected memories nearly overwhelm me, sometimes evoking a sigh, a tear, or a chuckle, and sometimes even a sense of personal shame. Because I had left home at such an early age, never to return except for an occasional visit, I had become  emotionally detached from my father, and as he lay dying in the hospital, gasping for his final breath, I could not bear to sit at his bedside and watch him die. I stayed outside the door in the hospital hallway, allowing my mother and one of their best friends, Father Pat O”Neill, to support his final moments. Even at the very end of his life, before he lapsed into a coma, he was asking his attorney to make a last minute adjustment in his will for the sake of helping my mother, or so he hoped.

My dad was not a complex person; he spoke straight to the point, offered no subtlety to temper his opinions and was afraid of no one. He told me of an incident that happened after he landed his crop dusting airplane at a small private airport in Colusa County.  After he got out of the cockpit and started to walk towards the makeshift terminal, the owner of the landing strip burst out of his office, ran towards my father, and shouted at him to leave. He accused my father of being a business competitor and he would not allow him to use his landing strip. He had to take his plane some place else. My father responded with a quick blow to the jaw knocking his competitor to the ground, and continued on his way leaving the man lying semi-conscious on the tarmac.

My mother told me of an incident at a college football stadium, in Stockton, when a fan got on my father’s case and began to make fun of him because he was so public and vocal in cheering his team on. My dad took this verbal abuse for awhile as my mother kept shushing him to remain calm and ignore it, but as the abuse continued unabated, my father got up from his seat, walked over to his sarcastic critic and knocked him unconscious with a single punch.

I have no recollection of seeing my father act belligerent or threaten to fight another person, but from an early age, I knew that he should never be provoked; he was quick tempered and fearless.

I did witness my father’s participation in one of the most foolhardy and terrifying stunts imaginable, and I shudder now, seventy-two years later, as I relate the incident. I went deer hunting one time in my life when I was twelve years old. It was a complete disaster. My first day out, walking in the mountainous area, I got separated from the other hunters and even though it only lasted for a short time, I panicked and became disoriented. I was terrified. At that moment, I realized I was not cut out to participate in the manly ritual of deer hunting.

 In the late afternoon, after the day’s hunt, my father, a fellow hunter and I drove to a large cabin not far from where we had camped. I cannot remember why we went there but I do remember my father and his friend had been drinking.  Whatever the purpose of the visit, I remember my dad’s friend standing on the porch of the cabin with his deer rifle in hand and my father standing in the driveway near the pine trees. My father placed a beer bottle on his head and invited the deer hunter to shoot it off his head. The hunter hesitated for a moment, raised his rifle to his shoulder and pointed it at my dad. The terrifying silence was shattered with the explosion from the rifle, the sound echoing through the mountains. The bottle shattered and my father stood still as a statue. The hunter lowered the rifle and said, “ you didn’t have to worry, I aimed high.” I was stunned. I could not speak; I felt like crying but dared not. I felt sorry for my father and sorry that I had participated in what I just witnessed. On the way home, he told me not to say anything to my mother about the shooting incident lest she worry.  I didn’t. For the past seventy-two years, I have not said a word to anyone.

My father dropped out of high school at the end of his freshman year and went to work and throughout his life, moved from career to career, looking for financial stability, looking to use his God-given talents and looking to prove himself. When he married in 1933, he was working as a home heating oil delivery and repairman. Later he went to work for an agricultural implement supply company to collect on the debts owed by farmers and from there to a national manufacture of rice harvesters doing the same kind of work. He managed a rice ranch for an absentee landlord from San Francisco. He went into business for himself, traveling with a harvester combine throughout California and Arizona doing contract harvesting for farmers. He opened a construction business, manufacturing concrete blocks for home construction and served as a general contractor to build homes using his product. He bought an airplane, learned to fly and opened a crop dusting business. He sold warehouse dryers throughout California, Arizona and Mexico and he sold crop pesticides. In 1950, he and my mother relocated to Sacramento, where he found a job as a parts department manager for an agricultural supply house. Encouraged by one of his neighbors, he went to work selling commercial real estate and specialized in selling agricultural land on the fringes of Sacrament that would some day be needed for urban development. This work led him to the development and management of urban warehouse properties for his own investment and those of his clients.

Never sick a day in his life, he was stricken with pancreatic cancer, and died at the age of fifty-six. Shortly before his death, he told me he had no complaints about the shortness of his life. “I’ve lived a full life,” he said, “I am satisfied.” 

My relationship with my father was one of respect and wariness. He was the authority figure in our family and commanded respect, but because of his short temper, I was wary.  After his conversion to Catholicism, his temper seemed to abate and he exhibited a great deal more patience with people, but by that time, I had left home to attend boarding school, taking my respect and wariness with me.

After I left home, my ties to my father and family were systematically loosened because I rarely saw them. In boarding school, I came home on weekends, but not every weekend, and then in the summer of my freshman year of high school, I entered Mont LaSalle Junior Novitiate to undertake a religious training program to become a Christian Brother, a Catholic religious teaching order. One of the major goals of the religious training program was to help students cut their familial ties. We were no longer to consider ourselves as being “of the world,” but only, “in the world”. We were permitted to see our parents for only a few hours each month on what was called, “Visiting Sunday”, and once a year for three weeks in August, we were permitted to visit home. The director of the junior novitiate read all incoming and outgoing student correspondence to assure himself that the vocations of the students were not threatened by worldly influences emanating from one’s family and to insure that appropriate monastic religious boundaries were maintained.

After the high school years of the junior novitiate, students graduated to the novitiate and took the religious habit of the Christian Brothers which consisted of a full length black robe, a white starched neck piece, called by its French name, “rabat” and a black skull cap, called a “calotte”. Novitiate students were also required to give up their family names and assume new ones, assigned by their religious superiors. For my part, my assigned name was Brother Victor Gilbert and for the next thirteen years of my life, I was known only as Brother Gilbert. These actions prescribed by the monastic rule of the Christian Brothers were yet another step to reinforce the concept that we were “in the world,” but not “of the world”. Our allegiance was no longer to our families but to our religious institution and its divine mission.

During the year of the novitiate, and continuing through the four years of study at St. Mary’s College, these new brothers were not permitted to visit home, unless it was to attend the funeral of an immediate family member, but even then, not to stay overnight. Family members were still allowed to visit a few hours each month on “Visiting Sunday” but for those brothers whose family members lived a great distance away, they rarely received visitors, unless they were “adopted” for the day by one of their classmates who had received visitors.

These years of family separation, mandated by the rules of Catholic monastic training, forced us to break all, except the most formal ties, with family members. We had chosen a new allegiance; we had agreed to be bound by a higher authority, as represented and interpreted to us by the religious superiors of the Christian Brothers. We were required not to only to take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but added two additional vows for good measure, stability to the institute and teaching the poor gratuitously. 

Choosing to enter religious life was just another step, and at the time I thought my final step, to fulfill my father’s admonition to make something of myself that was better than he had been able to do. After completing my period of monastic religious training and receiving my degree in philosophy, I served as a Catholic high school teaching brother for the next nine years, assigned first to Bakersfield, then to San Francisco and finally back to Bakersfield. I taught a variety of classes including English, religion, Latin, and geometry and directed such extra-curricular activities as speech and debate, student government and college counseling. I ended my career with the Christian Brothers in October of 1965, after I had been assigned to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Southern California.

This decision came at the request of Cesar Chavez, the founder of the farm workers movement in California, when he asked me to join him and his cause. Because of my commitment to the Catholic Church’s teaching about social justice, I had attended the National Catholic Social Action convention in Boston in 1963, and it was here that I learned of Cesar’s work of organizing farm workers in Delano, just thirty miles north of Bakersfield where I had been assigned to teach. Upon my return to California, I went to Delano to meet Cesar to find out more about his work. We became good friends and I became a strong supporter. When he called me in Los Angeles to ask for my help, I did not hesitate. I resigned from the Christian Brothers, asked them for dispensation from my religious vows and relocated to Delano to begin a new career.

For the next eight years, I undertook at Cesar’s request, a variety of assignments including fund raising for the movement, developing and managing a charitable organization which provided a wide range of social services for farm workers, developing and administering a farm workers union health and welfare plan, serving as the ad-hoc chief executive officer for the union during those times when Cesar was traveling throughout the country promoting the California grape boycott, managing a statewide political campaign to defeat a grower ballot initiative designed to stifle farm worker unions and finally, directing the international consumer boycott of Safeway stores.

On a personal level too, my life was forever changed by my marriage in 1966 to Bonnie Burns from San Francisco. And during our tenure with the farm workers, we had four daughters, two born in Bakersfield, one in Los Angeles and one in Tehachapi. This turn of events was especially meaningful for my father because before he died in 1970, at the age of fifty-six from pancreatic cancer, he relished the opportunity to know two of his granddaughters.

In 1973, Bonnie and I made the decision to leave the farm workers movement, relocate to Sacramento where my mother lived, and start a new life. It was a difficult decision to make, but was made easier by the reality that we needed to provide a more stable and predictable living situation for the sake of our children’s elementary school education, we both missed the Northern California scenery and climate and I had to decide whether or not to accept the union’s invitation to stand for election as its secretary-treasurer in the upcoming convention. We decided to start anew.

My first job, in what I called the “real world”, was working as a commercial real estate property manager for a small Sacramento real estate firm where my brother was a partner. We rented a house in the Rosemont area but moved soon thereafter because the house was sold out from under us. We moved to the South Land Park Terrace area where we live until the present day.

In the spring of 1974, I was offered a job in Los Angeles, managing the first congressional campaign of Ed Torres. I relocated to Monterey Park and commuted to Sacramento on weekends. After the Torres campaign did better than expected, Jerry Brown called and asked me to manage his campaign for governor in Northern California. I relocated to San Francisco and commuted on weekends to Sacramento. Jerry Brown’s victory led to an appointment to an administrative post in the Governor’s Office.

During my five-year period with the Brown Administration, I was appointed to four government positions, each requiring a confirmation vote by the California State Senate. In addition to these positions – Agricultural Labor Relations Board, California Conversation Corps, Alcohol Beverage Control Appeals Board and the State Personnel Board – I managed the national field operation for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter and then worked on the national presidential campaign for Jimmy Carter.

By 1979, I had tired of politics and wanted to try my hand at business.  I purchased my brother’s interest in his real estate management firm and began to operate my own business. I managed commercial properties, bought and sold real estate and finally became a condominium developer building a total of 120 units in four Sacramento area locations. After five years in the business, I was unhappy and exhausted and filled with feelings of discontent about myself, and the career I had chosen. I sum up my business career, “I made a lot of money and I lost a lot of money” and I felt morally bankrupt.

I returned to state politics through a consulting arrangement with the State Controller’s Office and at the same time, enrolled in a masters degree program at U.C. Davis. Two years later, with an MA in political science, I was unemployed for the first time in fifty-three years and I had no job prospects. I sent out resumes, no response. I responded to newspaper advertisements, no response. I tried networking, nothing tangible. Finally, because of Bonnie’s volunteer work with a fledgling charitable organization, Loaves & Fishes, I was hired for a three-month period to help organize the newly formed administrative office. This assignment lead to a thirteen-year term as that charity’s first executive director. At the age of sixty-five, at the beginning of the millennium year, I retired from Loaves & Fishes.

Whether I have fulfilled my father’s desire that I should make more out of myself than what he was able to accomplish, I cannot judge. Like him, I moved from career to career seeking fulfillment and validation. But that is beside the point, the real question is, did I take advantage of the opportunities given to me, how well did I use them and for what purpose?  I always admired my father, both for what he stood and for what he accomplished; I liked him for what he was, but apparently he did not believe that was good enough for me. I wonder about this. Perhaps most fathers feel this way, because underneath it all, they feel unfulfilled and unsatisfied with their own lives and through the lives of their children, they see a new beginning. Yet, in my case, my father was still twenty-five years away from his premature death when he urged me to make more of myself than he had. What was he thinking?

 I leave it others to make their own evaluation not only about my life, but my father’s too.



Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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