Dr. Philip Seff, October 5, 1923 – February 18, 2016

Published by Rick on Tagged Uncategorized

That’s a lotta living, though admittedly, the last ten years or so weren’t really what you’d want to call living. For all that time, he was in the Veterans’ Hospital in Menlo Park, California, pretty much totally dependent on either his 5-day-a-week carer with the patience of a saint, or the nursing staff that, depending on the day, either liked him or tried to avoid him. He finally got his wish to be reunited with my mom a mere 124 months after she left this world.

This was a shame that such an extraordinary man was suffering for such a long time, feeling lost and looking more pathetic as time passed. This was a war hero whose leg wound from an enemy soldier’s bullet didn’t deter him in his quest to be a Ph.D, geologist, professor, author, columnist, and most importantly father. The bullet went completely through his leg, missing the bone by millimeters, with him having to walk unaided back to his base before he could receive any medical attention. That happened in 1945, and it didn’t really begin to take its toll until the early 2000’s. By the time of his death yesterday, he hadn’t walked unaided for about 12 years, and for the last 7, hardly ever got out of bed.

Phil was born and raised in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York, leaving shortly after I was born (but taking me with him!), and never lost that Brooklyn accent despite not being there for nearly 65 years. The only change I noticed in his speech was after about 1970 he was able to pronounce the word car like it’s written, instead of “caw” like the sound a crow makes.

What Phil accomplished in life was pretty admirable considering that he dropped out of high school at 16 and had no real goals in mind until shortly after his 18th birthday, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the army and served as a paratrooper before being shipped to New Guinea with the army infantry division. It was there he was wounded and sent back to the US only months before the war ended. In his later years, his selective memory could recall nightmare experiences on the battlefield from 70 years prior, but to have him tell you what he’d had for breakfast that morning, or even to repeat what he’d just said, would be expecting a lot.

Within a year after being discharged with a Purple Heart medal, and with no immediate job prospects on the horizon, he went to North Carolina to visit his cousin, who wanted to introduce him to the woman he was hoping to marry. That woman, Nancy Radovich, wound up marrying my dad only a few weeks later, and they stayed married for 59 years until her death in October, 2005. The cousin found someone else to marry shortly after, but how different things could have been. I could exist, but possibly in some other form, perhaps an amoeba, or a toaster, or a watermelon.

Nancy insisted that her new husband not only finish high school, but then go to college, and go all the way through to getting his Ph.D. That process took 16 years, and during those first four years, two children came along. In 1962, he finally got his Ph.D in geology from University of Arizona, but not without our family moving almost every year for the first seven years of my life. In 1966, after a few years of being a consultant geologist, he was hired to teach geology at the University of Redlands in southern California.

That was a dream gig for him, and he was immensely popular with his students, but had to deal with a department head who was boring, jealous, and a bit insane, but had been there for 20 years, and wasn’t planning on going anywhere. The number of geology majors increased significantly during the time my dad was there, but students only took the other professor’s classes if they had to. This just added to the friction, and because the guy had tenure and the university president felt a need to take sides, my dad was let go after his fourth year. This would be the beginning of a tragic decline that could have resulted in any number of unhappy endings, but my dad managed to get a wonderful idea toward the end of the 1970’s that would get him out of his funk.

In 1977, teamed with one of his best friends who was also an artist, the two created a newspaper feature that, while it never reached the syndication levels of, say, Peanuts or Doonesbury, still had a devoted following of readers for nearly 25 years, and appeared in as many as 80 newspapers at one time. While several artists came and went, the feature, “Our Fascinating Earth,” became not only a fun way for him to display his knowledge, much of which stayed with him while the rest of his body and mind were faltering, but resulted in three published book versions of compilations of stories from the feature and his Sunday column, written in conjunction with my mom.

He never got rich in any of his pursuits, and it’s a shame that he felt the only way he could consider himself a success was to make a lot of money. He had a number of pipe dreams over the years, none of which came through, and with each one, he’d already be thinking out loud of how he was going to divide up the money amongst his family. This continued into the “Our Fascinating Earth” days when there was fairly constant talk of making a TV series out of it. The reality was it never got beyond talk, but with him the glass was always half full. When he was told Discovery Channel had passed on the idea, he somehow interpreted that rejection as they were giving it a passing grade. It was sad to have to explain to him what that meant, and he went into one of his many periods of self-pity.

He still accomplished a lot in his 92 years, and managed to even make a bit of money that he wasn’t able to do anything with through selling the house in Redlands that he’d bought in 1967 for ten times what he’d paid for it. With a few $100K in the bank suddenly, that amount in his own mind became inflated, and in his senility was convinced he and the rest of the family were all millionaires. Well, not quite, but he at least raised two sons who didn’t go off the deep end. I see a lot of the dreamer that was him in me from time to time, and I’ve caught myself counting chickens before they were hatched many times in my life. Fortunately for me, I inherited some of my mother’s more practical sense, too.

I remember when I worked at the hospice, I once saw a card from a former patient’s funeral, which included the line, “Don’t be sad because the person has died, Be happy because the person has lived.” That very much applies to how I feel about Philip Seff.

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