Today is Fathers’ Day. It is also the tenth anniversary of the death of my father, Ray Gore. Here is the eulogy I gave at this special, amazing man’s funeral. Happy Fathers’ Day, Pops.
It’s been said that the truest strength is the strength to be gentle. Most of you saw my father as gentle, wise, and sagacious, and admired his courageous struggle against cancer. What you may not know is where Ray Gore acquired the strength to be the Ray Gore you knew, and that’s the part of his story I’d like to tell.
Dad was born in the middle of the Great Depression, in Sparks, Nevada, near Reno. If you’ve never heard of Sparks then you’ve probably also never heard of Imlay, Winnemucca, and Lovelock, the tiny towns in north central Nevada where my father grew up. His father, Jefferson Davis Gore, had made some money as a bootlegger during Prohibition in Chicago and then moved to Nevada to work on the railroad. He was tough-as-nails, miserly, not faithful to any of his three wives, and he neglected his eight kids. I asked my dad what my grandfather had been like. His face kind of hardened and he said, “He used to give us kids a nickel and tell us to come back in a week.” He wasn’t joking. My dad’s mother, Margaret, was a kindly woman who got my dad to church services once in a while, but she couldn’t make up for her husband’s deficiencies.
So my dad fended for himself in the stark Nevada countryside. When I was growing up, our family did a lot of camping with other families. On one trip all the kids went fishing, but we came back with no fish, discouraged and frustrated. My dad made a fishing pole from a stick and set off for the stream. He returned in a couple of hours with enough fish on his stringer to feed everybody. I asked him how he could pull so many fish from a stream that I had written off. His face got that hard look, and he said, “Bob, when I was your age, if I didn’t catch anything, I didn’t eat.” When the fish weren’t biting his childhood staple was a ketchup sandwich. After he graduated from high school he had his first visit to a dentist, who promptly replaced his rotted teeth with a full set of dentures.
My father’s poverty left him feeling insecure, which was amplified when he realized that he was different than those around him. Dad was a man of exceptional intelligence, a blessing, but when you’re growing up, worried about fitting in, it can seem like a curse, setting you apart. Dad was, in today’s parlance, a nerd, shy and socially awkward. That’s not as sad as it sounds. Like so many successful people, a big part of dad’s early motivation was the sentiment: “I’ll show them!”
Never underestimate the power of even the smallest of kindnesses. When my father graduated from high school, he received a $50 scholarship from the American Legion. It changed his life. Somebody had recognized his smarts and was offering encouragement, perhaps the first he had ever received. The light bulb went on—his brain could take him places; he didn’t have to be just a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He had his ticket out, by golly; he’d go to college!
Not that he wasn’t greener than green when he got there. The registrar asked his major—he didn’t know what a major was. She said it was a specialization, like history or biology or engineering. He said engineering sounded good. She asked what kind—mechanical, civil, or perhaps electrical. He said electrical sounded good, not having a clue what he was getting into. Or maybe he did, because he became a great electrical engineer. He worked his way through school, got his Bachelors and Masters degrees from the University of Nevada, and married my mother, another Depression baby who had grown up in just as dire circumstances as he had.
After he graduated he did bomb tests in the southern Nevada desert. He was one of the few people left who had seen an actual atomic bomb blast. Sometimes he would sleep with the bomb in the tower the night before the blast, set the final control procedures before dawn, and then drive away, very, very quickly. From a distant bunker he watched the mushroom cloud and the impact wave that flattened every plant for miles. In 1958, our family moved to the home of the atomic bomb, the nuclear lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The lab was engaged in cutting edge research into military and peaceful applications of nuclear energy—the perfect place for a smart, ambitious, young engineer. He got his PhD at the University of New Mexico and became head of a group that did the engineering on a half-mile long linear accelerator. I asked him once what had been the happiest day of his life, strongly suspecting that it wasn’t the day his first son was born. His answer—the day the accelerator achieved full power, eight hundred million electron volts. He was responsible for that power. Ironically, one of the chief applications of the accelerator was in experimental oncology—the ultimate in radiation therapy.
Dad’s career reached its apex when he became the head of the engineering division and the highest ranked engineer within the lab. It was here that he met Kay, who worked with him. Los Alamos eventually fell victim to a creeping politicization that ill-suited Dad, and he retired, but it was quite a run for a bootlegger’s son from the sticks of Nevada. Dad beamed when I told him once that I hoped I could match the magnitude of his professional accomplishments in terms of the relative distance from where he started to where he finished.
His kids were proud of his accomplishments, but he was our father first. Dad was an extraordinary teacher—not news to many of you here—and he and my mother made sure we lived by a few simple lessons. My dad was not a holler and spank guy, he rarely raised his voice, but when he quietly said, “I’m disappointed in you,” you pretty much hoped the earth would open and swallow you up, and you vowed to be perfect in every way from that moment on. My parents told us to be our own people and find our own path. You treated others the way you wanted to be treated, told the truth, did your best at whatever you tried and didn’t give up. My sister, Doctor Judi Voelz, applied four times to medical school before she was accepted. My brother, Jim, once dropped out of college, but later got a Bachelors and a Masters degree, and now teaches college. As for me, I run a trading operation for an investment firm, a line of work with which my father was never wholly comfortable. This child of the Depression was skeptical about financial speculation. However, I never would have developed the self-confidence, some would say self-delusion, to pit my judgments against the markets without the foundation of support and security my parents gave me, a foundation they never had.
Looking back, I think mostly of the fun, the joy, which we had with Dad. He was an engineer to the core, and to an engineer things are supposed to balance out, the two sides of an equation have to be equal. On one of our camping trips, we were ready to go home and dad got in the car. “Well, we used all the water,” he announced, in a tone of such triumphant satisfaction that the last drops had issued forth from the water tank in the last minutes of our trip, that there had been neither too little nor too much, that demand was in cosmic alignment with supply, that we laughed and kidded him about it all the way home, and then relentlessly for the next few decades; it was his kids’ favorite joke. He always enjoyed it, too; the man could laugh at himself.
The part of Dad’s story after he married Kay and they moved to Virginia can better be told by others, but I will mention a tradition he and I maintained for over twenty years, until he became too sick. Every year we’d pick a spot for the Gore and Gore golf tournament—three days of golfing, eating, drinking, laughing, and talking. On the course, no one would mistake Dad for Tiger Woods, but he’d consistently hit the ball a hundred and seventy-five yards, and unlike me he was usually in the fairway. That could get a little annoying. He didn’t see distances well and after almost every drive he’d ask, “Did you see where it went?” “You’re in the fairway.” “You sure?” “Yep.” We’d make our way up the fairway. “Is that it?” “Yep.” “You sure?” “Hit your ball, Dad.”
We played at some great courses—Pebble Beach, Spyglass, Riviera, La Costa, and Pinehurst—but golf wasn’t the most important part of the Gore and Gore; the conversation between two great friends was. We discussed philosophy, politics, religion, financial markets, physics, golf, literature, my career, his career, our families, child development, adult development, and the cute young thing who brought us our beer. Those conversations are some of my best memories with Dad.
Kay, Valerie, Jason, Lauren, Morgan, Susan, Alyssa, Kevin and Jennifer, on behalf of Jim, Cyndie, Judi, David, Brian, Alex, Katie, Roberta, Austin and me, we thank you for taking care of Dad during his lengthy illness. Dad spoke often and with the deepest appreciation of all you did for him, and especially of the love with which Kay organized, supported, and executed so much of his battle. We know he couldn’t have fought with such courage and dignity without that love and support. We called him the Eveready Bunny because he kept on going and going, and he couldn’t have done it without you. You have the same respect, admiration and love for Dad that we do, and Dad loved you deeply. Most everyone in this church is here because they loved and were touched by my Father, and his death will leave a void that not even time will fill. I’m putting on this hat because we played the last round of the Gore and Gore at the Bull Run Golf Club. Dad, I’d give anything to be able to hunt for your drives again, but someday we’ll knock back a beer again at a nineteenth hole somewhere. Until then, I’m going to miss you.