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Learning to be a father at the knee of an expert: my grandfather

Calvin Clayton Campbell, reporter Stefano Esposito's grandfather, in his hometown of Allendale, Mo., celebrating his 90th birthday. He died last year, one year shy of his 100th birthday. | Family photo

Thirty-four years later, I mostly remember the trees — soaring toward the night sky, as tall as rockets to space.

We had nothing like them in the place I had just left, a continent and an ocean away. So it was true, I remember thinking: Everything is bigger in America.

I was back on that wooded bluff again recently, in Washington state, to remember the man who had invited me there to live with him — my grandfather, retired U.S. Army Col. Calvin Clayton Campbell, who died last year a year shy of his 100th birthday.

Grandpa was my second father. I came to America in 1983. I wasn’t fleeing persecution or poverty when I left London at 16 but the smoldering wreckage of my parents’ marriage.

Along with my step-grandmother, Grandpa was the perfect antidote to the chaos and spite.

Every morning, he’d shuffle from his bedroom to the kitchen in his dressing gown, his silver comb-over not yet cemented in place for the day. He’d wind up those of his antique clocks that had fallen silent overnight and make black coffee.

In the evenings, his fist wrapped around the stem of a glass of red wine, he’d entertain us with stories of wartime Europe and life in the tiny Midwestern town where he was born — the “center of the universe,” he’d joke.

Each Fourth of July, with mock military pomp and surrounded by dozens of friends and family members, Grandpa would light an illegal firework he’d stuffed into a full-size cannon built just for the occasion.

Grandpa rarely offered unsolicited advice. And he never, not once, uttered an unkind word to me about the man who had caused his daughter so much misery, my dad.

On the day I was set to leave Washington to start work in Chicago in 2003, my grandfather was in the hospital. I don’t remember why, but it crossed my mind that maybe now wasn’t the time to leave this dear old man. It never would have crossed Grandpa’s mind — he always insisted on whatever was best for the people he loved.

A few years later, while we were on the phone, Grandpa would hear my oldest son, now 6, squawking in the background. Without fail, Grandpa would say, “Is that the future mayor of Chicago I hear?” And he ended most conversations this way: “Stefano, you know you have three plane tickets waiting for you any time you want to come out to see us.”

We poked a firecracker in Grandpa’s cannon on what would have been his 100th birthday. The explosion boomed out across the bluff and down into the river valley below. A bagpiper played Amazing Grace.

I said a few words. I spoke about the trees, some that had been seedlings 50 years before the American revolution. I joked about the cacophony of clock chimes, gears and pendulums that assaulted my ears when I stepped inside the house for the first time. And I reeled off the many things my grandfather had given to me through the years, most of which I took for granted — my first suit, my first legal drink, my love of classical music.

And I explained that Grandpa had never, at least that I recalled, told me he loved me. He wasn’t of that generation.

“But everything else he said and did told me that’s what he was all about. He was, quite simply, the kindest, most generous human being I have ever met.”

RELATED: A father’s gift to his young sons: a letter a month to read when they’re older

Stefano Esposito. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Stefano Esposito. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

FATHERHOOD: AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

This is one of an occasional series on fatherhood by Sun-Times staff reporter Stefano Esposito, the dad of two young sons.