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April 8, 2006

On three, smile.

Something you may not know about my father is that he was an accomplished ice fisherman back in Minnesota. His secret was to use a baseball bat and a can of peas. What he'd do was, he'd cut a hole in the ice, line up the peas around the edge, and then when a fish came up to take a pea -- BAM! -- he'd hit it in the head with the baseball bat.

OK, so maybe you've heard that one. If you knew him, you probably did. If you shared an elevator or a grocery line with him, you probably did.

He loved to make people laugh, or at least to laugh himself in the attempt. What his humor may have lacked in sophistication, it made up for in repetition and gusto.

Has favorite gag was to ask a woman, whether he knew her or not, why she was wearing only one earring. As she reached to her ears in horror, he'd start giggling like a child.

The rest of us would cringe. It led to the Dad tax. Whenever we left a restaurant, I would run back in and leave a few extra bucks for the waitress, my way of saying, "Sorry he made you look." And so, to all the women in the room, I say, “Sorry he made you look.”

He loved laughter, and he loved newspapers. The elbows on his bathrobes were soiled black with ink stains from leaning on the kitchen table. Each morning he would read three newspapers cover to cover. Then he would go online and read a dozen more, starting with his hometown Minneapolis Star-Tribune. When we talked on the phone he would tell me about the Chicago weather, which he'd just gotten from the Tribune Web site. "Yeah, Dad, I know. I'm here."

Our mother says she knew his health was bad when, as of a few weeks ago, he lacked the strength to go outside for the morning papers.

He loved laughter. He loved newspapers. And he loved his students.

I fondly remember when The Lumberjack editors would come to our house each semester for dinner. Dad would put on some Woody Herman -- the later, funkier stuff -- especially the arrangement of "Fanfare for the Common Man." I never knew him as a music fan, but I figured this selection, a mixture of big-band jazz and contemporary funk, was his way to bridge the generations.

I once read that at the end of his career, Woody Herman couldn't afford the best musicians for his Thundering Herd, so he would hire college students. Instead of paying them much, he would be generous in allowing them to solo. I think of Dad's hands-off approach to teaching in the same way. He let his students solo. Sometimes they'd be flat, but when they were “on” under his direction, boy could they thunder.

I never heard him called Professor Seemann. He was always Howard or Howie. When I went off to journalism school myself, it was strange to not be on a first-name basis with any of my professors. There wasn't a single one with whom I could casually belch and fart. I transferred as soon as I could.

An aside: About that flatulence. He was full of it, was he not? I have no qualms about saying this because as the journalists here know, you cannot libel the dead. And, as you know, truth is a defense against libel.

Our house was full of, he would claim, barking spiders. Talk about a thundering herd! It drove us nuts. He never seemed to acknowledge our upturned noses. But if you yourself let one rip, he would smirk and laugh, as if to say, "Good one, my boy."

This week I went through his address book to find his former students. It was a roll call of the country's best newspapers. San Francisco Chronicle. L.A. Times. Honolulu Advertiser. The Chicago Tribune. He taught us everything he knew, and we still don't know anything, but we turned out OK, and he was so proud.

He loved his Macintosh. This week Apple announced that Macs would be able to run the Windows operating system. I'm somewhat relieved Dad never had to see that.

He was a pioneer in introducing the Macintosh into the newsroom. The Lumberjack was one of the first five college newspapers to do layout on a Mac, years before it became the industry standard. Later he was quick to embrace the Internet and digital photography. His foresight jumpstarted hundreds of successful careers, including my own.

He was his students' toughest critic, but also their biggest fan. He never complained about grading, no matter how high the stack of papers, no matter how much red ink was spilled. He attacked mistakes like a pigeon attacking a pile of seed. He was determined to show them that if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing right.

Wednesday afternoons were spent poring over that day’s Lumberjack. Between handfuls of popcorn he would scribble and circle, turning the newspaper into something that truly was black, white and red all over. Afterward, he would write his homilies -- "All the views fit to print" -- and fix himself a martini before dinner.

We will remember him as an apostrophe cop. A slayer of the comma splice. A vigilant defender of the dash. A brave soldier in the war for subject-verb agreement.

I suspect there are opportunists in the audience who think that now, finally, they can start using the plural "they" when it should be the singular "it" just because it sounds better that way. You do so at your own peril. Professor Seemann -- Howard, Howie -- will still be hovering over your shoulders, hoping you get it right, and admiring you when you do.


Photo taken: April 8, 2006