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The Miracle of Me



My father’s passing was altogether different.

His burial ended with what seemed every police officer in town, off their motorcycles and out of their cars, in a long line of helmets in hand and in salute as the hearse rolled passed. It surprised me to see that, but I instantly understood. Even at just 13 years I quite naturally got it. The greatest person ever born was passing.

He had come to Arizona from Massachusetts in 1927 as a sick 17-year-old. He had fought ill health much of his life and when his father died his mother brought him out, hoping the dry desert air would do him good. It worked! By the end of his first year, starting as a junior at Tucson High School, he was elected Student Body President, starred in the school play, was President of both the Junior and Senior Clubs, led the Latin Forum, became the state’s debate champion, and captained the school’s tennis team. That last one, the tennis team thing, didn’t seem like a big deal until I found out the school didn’t have a tennis court at the time. In fact, I doubt there was a tennis court anywhere in town. Somehow, he got 50 of his classmates wanting to play tennis and thus convincing the town to build its first tennis courts at his high school.

He had been president of his high school, the University of Arizona’s lawyer, Tucson’s Chief Magistrate, the State Senate’s Majority Leader, and the target of a long-distance javelin thrower who stuck it in his back (or that at least is the tale he liked to tell about that long scar down his right shoulder). He had come from a family that landed in Boston in 1632, the first being a fellow by the name of Richard Kimball (my name sake), a wheelwright. By the 1880s they had created the Kimball Opera House in Atlanta (where they convinced the governor to move the capitol), and had factories and hotels from Boston to Waikiki. All of it anchored in that carriage business Richard had started and where Thomas Edison would one day display his new-fangled lights, not long before Henry Ford heard of the carriage assembly line they developed and converted it to some newfangled put puts. I knew none of this until long after his death. He just never talked about himself or his family.

Dad and Me

All that he had been to others was insignificant to me. When you are 13 years old and the greatest influence in your life becomes seriously ill, and the seriousness is kept protectively secret from you, and when he is suddenly announced dead at your kitchen door, the devastation is an indescribable torment that you never fully recover from.

The 13 years I spent with him pointed the way to every important career decision I ever made.

I was maybe six when we had our first political discussion. It was simple and to the point. As we pulled out of the St. Ambrose School parking lot, he noticed that I was staring up at the Stars and Stripes fluttering at the top of a pole in the school yard. He asked me if I knew what that was. I shrugged and said it’s a flag. He turned around, looked at me, “Do you know what it means?” I had no idea; it was just a flag. “Kimmy, that’s our flag,” he said. “For a great many years thousands have fought for that flag and many have died defending it. You should be very proud of our flag.” That was all he said, but the impact was colossal. To say that I was then proud is a whopping understatement. As we drove along, I started to notice the flag over the bank, over the post office, over the tallest office buildings in town. With each sighting I became more excited, and my sense of pride swelled. In that short drive I had become bigger, taller, and more full of myself than I ever would be again. When we finally reached home and pulled into the driveway, I saw my best buddies, Butchy Becker and Stevie Bogard, sitting under a tree across the street. I didn’t wait for the Packard to come to a complete stop, I jumped.

After Dad scolded me and disappeared into the house, I sauntered over to where Stevie and Butchy were sitting. Slowing to a shuffling swagger as they noticed me, I said, “You know that red and white flag that’s over just about every building in town?” “Yeah,” they said, glancing at each other. “Well, that’s our flag,” I triumphantly announced. Butchy and Stevie were unimpressed and gave a puzzled condescending response to the enormity of my revelation. “So what?” they said.

“Well that is our flag! It is everywhere, people have died defending OUR flag. Where is your flag?”

Everybody knew my Dad, no matter where we went folks seemed to know who he was. As a kid I didn’t know why but traveling around was just different with my dad than it was with anyone else. With him I wasn’t invisible, couldn’t be invisible but did not care, because I was very popular and didn’t have to do anything or say anything to earn people’s affection.

I knew so little about him when he was alive. My discovery of who he was, what he was, and where he came from happened long after his death. Most important to me in those early years is that he never thought I was slow or stupid. If anything, he seemed to think I was special and took me everywhere.

I loved it! Particularly the track meets, baseball games, basketball games and the U of A’s football games, where he would introduce me to the players and even got the U of A football coach to be my confirmation father (a big deal in the Catholic Church). At games, which Mom rarely went to, Dad would sometimes get us a room in the press box, where he would announce the games — something he had volunteered to do back when he was a law student in the early 1930’s because the university would not pay anyone to do it. The university changed its mind after Dad’s first game, when they heard him occasionally interject announcements about the latest sale down at the Ford dealership or the after-the-game hamburger specials at Burger Boy.

He got us one of the press box rooms hoping to keep an eye on us and keep us out of trouble. It didn’t work. Inevitably by the second half, the school would be down by a dozen points or so and Dad’s idiot children would fill the time by doing the kinds of things idiots do. If we had nothing of value to destroy, we could always toss airplanes made from the program pages or bits of popcorn down on the crowd below.

By the time he died I was old enough to know that he was a pretty big deal to a lot of people. Everyone knew him, respected him, liked him but no one more than me. My world simply cycled around his presence and anything we might do together.

The only political campaign he was ever in that I felt old enough to help with was in 1956. I was 7 and it was a race for something called Governor. I didn’t understand much about it, but I noticed one afternoon as we pulled into the neighborhood drug store a stack of colorful stickers on the back seat next to me that said, “Kimball for Governor.”

As we pulled into the drug store parking lot, I asked him what they were for. “Oh, people put those on their bumpers to show their support,” he replied, then hopped out of the car saying, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Now it is a parent’s lot in life to provide for their kids, always helping you, encouraging you and such, but it is a rare event when a child thinks of returning the favor.

As he entered the drug store, I was instantly on the job and a few minutes later Dad came out just as I was gluing the last bumper at the far end of the parking lot.

Dropping your jaw and having it slap against your chest is, I believe, a unique ability, and I feel certain no one but my father had it. Just as surprising was his ability to run, something I had never seen him do as he grabbed and slung me into the car. Sadly, the only thanks I got was from the super-exciting squeal the tires made as we headed for home.

Dad was always suffering from some ailment that stole his breath. A few weeks after the “bumper sticker incident,” he got sick again, which was a part of our family life from time to time. He kept up his unsuccessful campaign for Governor from a hospital bed.

Giving Dad my tough look for a campaign picture

When he was healthy, I would sometimes feel trapped into listening to him talk with his friends. I cannot recall much of the adult subject matter discussed but I did notice that everyone seemed to care what he had to say and on occasion he would notice me and dumb down the conversation in efforts to include me. And that was the thing about Dad, sometimes he would treat me like I was an adult, or at least I felt like he did. The day that he spoke to me about his being the Majority Leader was to become a memory of considerable significance to me. I can’t remember his exact words, but I do remember his exact meaning. He said, “If you are interested in doing good in life, public service allows you to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Twenty years later, I would sit as the youngest member of the Arizona State Senate where he sat and wonder what the Hell had happened to that idea.

Serious floor debate did not exist because outcomes were known in advance, the outcomes pre-arranged either in the majority party caucus or, if absolutely necessary, in concert with the minority leader, who might be able to corral a few cross over votes. On my first depressing day, after all the senate members filed out, I sat silently in what might have been my father’s seat thinking, “My God, was my father one of these people?”

He wasn’t, and I think I can prove it, prove that it is honor, ethics and public good that has deteriorated before I am ended with this book.

At 13, you are just old enough to know what death means, but you’re not old enough to cope. As I came home from school on a perfectly good day Mom met me at the back screen door. Her manner was matter of fact, no nonsense, just get the painful truth of it out. “Kimmy, your father passed away this morning.” In an instant, what had been ordinary, his struggling up stadium steps to his press box, the wheezing for breath, his never used old tennis racquet and golf clubs, and that odd look he gave me during my last visit to the hospital blasted into an unbearable reality. He would never talk or walk, never see, smell, touch, laugh or breathe. I would never see him again, forever, forever and ever.

To this young boy the effect instantly crushed every bone from my body. The wailing went on for hours and would re-emerge for days.

Mom, unable to console me, started sending in seconds, my older brothers, and friends of the family. They would enter my room in futile efforts to calm me down. It wasn’t until late that first night when I saw how worried she was about me that I bit into my tongue to relieve the pain that was the most excruciating I had ever known. To say I wanted to die and join him wherever he was, would be spot on the mark.

Adults are forever casting a child’s traumas as less significant than their own.

They aren’t!

(New chapters will be added roughly once a week)

Richard Kimball, Vote Smart Founder

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