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December 04, 2013 9:41 AM R.I.P.

By Ed Kilgore

Before returning to political writing today (and thanks so much to Ryan Cooper for filling in with very little notice), I do feel the need to tell you a bit about my father, also named Ed Kilgore, who as most of you know passed away on Monday.

He never knew his own father, who died when he was an infant. He and his brother were raised by their mother, a “lunchroom lady” with an iron will and a talent for spoiling children (from which I later benefited), in the village of Villa Rica, Georgia, where “town boys” like the Kilgores were distinguished from “country boys” because they wore denim jeans rather than gallused overalls. But they attended the same segregated schools and went to the same (mostly Southern Baptist) churches.

Like many southerners of her era, my paternal grandmother worshiped doctors, but didn’t think her sons could aspire to such a lofty position in a single generational leap, so she hoped one of them would ascend near to those heights by becoming a pharmacist. This led my father to learn to type at a relatively early age, which in turn may have saved his life when he was pulled from a Korea-bound Army unit to serve as company typist.

He married my mother, a “country girl,” when he was at the ripe old age of 22 (she was 17), and became a father less than a year later when I arrived. In due course he entered the service of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company (as I enjoyed telling Lilly Ledbetter when I met that fine lady at the 2008 Democratic Convention) and my family began an itinerant existence as he was transferred from textile town to textile town to work in and then manage retail stores. For me, it was a lot like being an Army Brat, except you never really went anywhere.

My upbringing roughly coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, and as I have noted before here, I was immensely lucky to have two parents who, for no apparent reason other than innate decency, were hostile to bigotry. It may have been a mere coincidence, or a result of eventually moving to the Atlanta area, that my family drifted away from its intensely Southern Baptist roots (two of my four great-grandfathers, one on each side, were Primitive Baptist ministers) as that communion intensified its defense of Jim Crow, but it didn’t seem coincidental to me at the time.

My father finally escaped from the grasp of Goodyear and began a long career with Ryder Truck Rental while I was in high school and then college. It was around then that I began to relate to him as a fellow-adult, and at an age when most Americans are in full rebellion against their parents, I went in the other direction, becoming closer to them even as I was in full Hippie flower as a young pseudo-intellectual and what passed for an activist where I lived. We used to have wonderful Sunday mornings where we’d cook and eat a large breakfast, read the newspaper together, and then talk/argue about politics for hours.

Not too long after that, my father, always a connoisseur of humor, became Richard Pryor for about two years. I was more or less responsible, having bought him his first Pryor recordings, but he quickly memorized the entire repertoire, and I grew accustomed to being greeted in an unconventional and off-color manner on a regular basis.

When I moved away to begin my own independent life and then eventually went up the yellow brick road to Washington, my father was always a quiet and encouraging presence in the background, though never letting me know too overtly he was proud of my small accomplishments, since that would be bad for my character. At the 1988 Democratic Convention (my first), a bored New York Times photographer took a staged photo of me and other members of the convention speechwriters team, and my father, then in Miami on a work assignment, went out and bought up every copy of the Times he could find.

But when my father was at his absolute best was when I, or anyone else, really, was in a crisis. He was one of those people who could blow up briefly like a summer shower at small indignities, but was an absolute rock when big bad things were happening. One of my most indelible memories of him was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when I was just old enough to be truly aware and absolutely terrified by the prospect of a nuclear war that would hit Atlanta (where we happened to be at the height of the crisis) very early. When I expressed my fear to him, he said, “It’ll blow over,” and I was instantly reassured, not so much by the words as by his manner. I still have Cuban Missile Crisis nightmares, believe it or not, and to this day when I awaken in the middle of the night shaking with fear, I hear my father’s voice and calm down.

Perhaps the worst thing for all of us during the extended crisis of his hospitalization and death over the last two weeks is that Ed Kilgore—or as I generally addressed him, “Boss” or “Chief”— wasn’t available to calm us down, to offer us perspective, to remind us what we professed to believe about life everlasting, to make us laugh, to make us keep on keeping on. I know I’m going to miss him a lot more later even than I do now, but undertaking my own big challenges—including death itself—without him will be a test of everything he taught me. May he rest in the peace he most certainly earned.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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