Francis Ambrose Lennon as a young National Guardsman.
Back in September, 1959, when I was in eighth grade, Providence mayor Walter H. "Barney" Reynolds rang our doorbell one Sunday morning, and asked my dad to take a walk with him.
Dad, a longtime mechanical drawing teacher at Mt. Pleasant High School and WW2 Army colonel, had spent the previous few years as director of the physical plant for the school department. At a recent city council meeting, Dad had been summoned to explain why he had not accepted the lowest bid for school chairs, submitted by a firm with ties to a councilman. Dad brought the sample chair the bidder had supplied and, in a fine bit of stagecraft, bent its tubular legs with his bare hands.
The mayor remembered, and when he was looking for an honest man to be Providence's next public safety commissioner, I was at the swearing-in.
My brother Frank had left for West Point that summer, so all the parental controls were focused on me. And they had just gotten a lot tighter. "Like Caesar's wife, you must be above reproach" was a line I heard all the time.
When Christmastime came, a parade of drivers dropped off gifts at our house. Dad sent them all back. I didn't know the policy and once when I was home alone after school, the Chinese Businessmen's Association dropped off a box addressed to "The Family of...." I opened it. It was full of packaged food items mostly labeled only in Chinese. I spotted an English label that said "lychee nuts" and opened it. They weren't nuts at all but hard dried fruit. Yuck.
When Dad got home, I learned the gravity of my error. He wrote to the Association, explaining that he thought it unethical to accept gifts, and would have returned the box except his 12-year-old daughter had opened and consumed some of it. Please don't send anything else.
Throughout my high school years, I was "the police commissioner's daughter." It took guts to ask me out.
There were no parties at my house, and the parties I was allowed to attend were vetted. We battled over my freedom -- from whether I could listen to rock and roll on the radio while I studied to how often I could see my boyfriend. I learned an early lesson: You buy your freedom by being very very good at what you have to do. As a debater and essayist, I earned some trips to the national finals in Pittsburgh and Denver, and finally mingled freely with other teens, in a hotel well out of town.
I was listening to Bob Dylan and reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and poet e e cummings, a romantic rebel in a square family.
Later, long hair, marijuana, premarital sex, the Vietnam war and Woodstock would drive bigger wedges. The happy, piano-playing man who once comforted a cranky toddler in his arms with "Poppa Won't You Dance With Me" and let me sit on his lap and "help" with the Sunday Times crossword puzzle grew more disappointed with how the world -- and I -- turned out.
He died June 19, 1983, on Father's Day.
I'm sad that he didn't live to see the tight family his descendants are now, supporting each other through thick and thin. I think we could make him sing again.
And I understand better now my parents' fear of my doing something young and stupid and very public. Dad was a potential target for the mayor's political enemies and missteps could be ammunition. We had to be perfect.
I can't help but empathize with the family of Providence police chief Dean Esserman as they deal with the fallout from his having to disperse his daughter's high school graduation party when he found some guests had brought alcohol.
I hope they'll all be able to laugh about it later, when what's now fuel for this nasty fire fades into a family story of youthful indiscretion and one really mad Dad.
Happy Father's Day, Chief. Here's to happy endings.
Francis A. Lennon, Providence Public Safety Commissioner, circa 1960.