Melissa Bailar’s Moving and Powerful Tribute to Her Father John Bailar

We are proud to be able to bring you Melissa Bailar’s tribute to her father Collington resident John Bailar, as delivered as the Memorial Gathering here at Collington on Sunday.  As those who were there will all attest, it is a wonderful memorialization, and was perfectly delivered.

It has been challenging to write something in a few pages about the giant of a man who was my father. How could I fit this man and what he meant to me into a few minutes of reflection? For he was a giant. To start off on a lighthearted note, in the most obvious sense, his tall stature, rotund belly, and unmistakable shock of white hair made him stand out in a crowd. More than once, people likened his physical contours as well as his kind jolliness to Santa Claus. And his unusual appearance was a good thing, for my Dad had a tendency to be a bit of a space cadet. Intensely interested in everything around him, he would be distracted in grocery stores, for example, by ingredient labels, comparative pricing, marketing ploys, or exotic products. My mother and I would turn around only to find he had trailed off. But we would just have to look for that fluffy white head looming above the aisles to track him down.

More importantly, my Dad was a giant in the fields of epidemiology and biostatistics. I can’t speak to the specifics of his work, but I know he tackled some of the toughest issues in cancer research and defended them rigorously. I was often surprised growing up when friends of mine, sometimes even ones living overseas, would call to tell me that they saw my dad on television the night before but I had had no idea he was in the media. His work certainly made waves, but he was never interested in fame. It was always the questions that drove him, ethical issues, data interpretation, improving mortality rates.

And as my father, he was of course a giant in my life as well. He was a wonderful father, sweet and loving, the one who took me jewelry shopping every birthday, who read me the Sunday funnies, who laughed out loud with my daughter as they took turns reading silly books to one another, who talked with me nearly every day the last several years. One time, I think it was while I was visiting his office when he worked at McGill University, an awestruck graduate student learned who I was and asked wow, what is it like to be John Bailar’s daughter? I was about 15 at the time and I couldn’t fathom why anybody would be impressed with my fuddy duddy of an old dad. But now I hope to amend my adolescent response to such a question.

An additional twenty-five years of knowing my dad has certainly augmented the challenge of answering this question in a few words at a memorial service. In thinking about how to shape my remarks, I did what my father would undoubtedly have done, with his enduring love of language. I went to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first definition of the adjectival form of memorial is preserving the memory of a person, thing, or event. Memorial is thus a word that looks both backwards and forwards in time, as we think about our memories of someone who has left us and as we consider how these memories will be preserved into the future. A memorial service frames these memories, which individually are too numerous and diverse to recount, and gives them meaning in the present and hopefully future. So while it remains impossible to sum up my father in a few minutes, I will mention just a few of the ways in which his memory will continue both to have and to make meaning in this world.

One aspect of my father that those of us who knew him closely at first probably do not want memorialized is his repetitive humor, with his monthly query of what color a belch is (the answer is burple) or his weekly reference to the Blondie cartoon in which Dagwood proclaims that he has just enough time for a nap before bed. The rerun of jokes permeated our family’s daily lives, causing us to groan or just not react in any way at all in the hopes that he would give up telling the same puns and anecdotes over and over. But that persistent humor was also a part of aspects of my dad that I hope are memorialized. His good naturedness indicated not only his enjoyment of life but also gave him a lightheartedness that made him a delightful person to be around. His loving humor, however, got him into trouble once with my preschool teachers. While at home, the word teasing meant a delightful giggle fest – changing the words of nursery rhymes while I bounced on his knee, for example—at school teasing meant mean-spirited annoyance. When I got in trouble once for teasing a classmate, I proclaimed that my parents teased me all the time at home, really, all the time. They got called in for a stern parent-teacher conference about their teasing of a small child, to their utter bewilderment.

One trait my father had that I wish he’d passed onto me, though he certainly did to his other children, was remarkable patience. When I was five years old, he sat down next to me on the living room sofa, watch in hand, and taught me how to tell time. When my daughter was five, I tried the same thing and though she is as smart as can be I did not inherit my father’s patience, so I gave up and let her teacher take on that task. But what I remember about that afternoon with him on the couch, like others talking about grammar and the merits of Strunk and White, or breadmaking, or Samuel Pepys’ writing style, was what fun it was. My dad was excited to learn and to help others learn, turning time or language or baking, anything really, into an engaging puzzle. A few years ago, I made a passing comment on his impressive ability to add large numbers in his head. The next day I awoke to a three-page email he composed in the middle of the night (my Dad’s bizarre sleeping patterns are the stuff of legend) explaining the now lost art of “casting out nines” to check addition, his discovery that one could also cast out ninety-nines, and his promise that next time he would explain how to multiply large numbers in my head. He delighted in other peoples’ interest in things he knew a bit about, and he certainly knew a lot, you could ask him almost anything – and on the rare occasions he couldn’t provide an answer, he would track it down for you. Hence my childhood questions about what to call the indentation on your upper lip (it’s a philtrum) resulted in a series of gifts of anatomical textbooks and visual dictionaries.

His love of learning, of challenging assumptions, of thinking about things in new ways, was certainly infectious. I think all of us who knew my dad know how much he enjoyed his work (rivaled perhaps only by his enjoyment of British cryptograms or PG Wodehouse novels). Throughout my life, he told me that you spend more time working than you do anything else in your life besides sleeping, so you had better love your job. Don’t think about the salary (as long as you could live on it) or the renown affiliated with one or the other profession. Find something that you enjoy and do it well. I really tested that philosophy by pursuing a not-so-highly marketable PhD in nineteenth-century French literature, but he supported me every step of the way, and often when I didn’t even want his support. How’s the dissertation coming, he would ask, at moments when I wanted to chuck the dissertation out the window. I’d ask him if he might read over an essay I was writing, and he would return it with red comments overflowing the pages. While my stomach sometimes sank at his extensive revisions, I learned more about writing from him than I did from any of my humanities professors. And I also learned another important lesson – persistence or stubbornness, whatever you want to call it, the importance of following through no matter the obstacles.

My father certainly never shied from the difficult, whether undergoing grueling commutes between his home in Washington and his university appointments at Buffalo, Harvard, or McGill; trying to count the points on a particularly complicated star St Marks church installed; mountain climbing in the Ozarks for six weeks while suffering a terrible tooth ache (while exercise was a bad four-letter word later in his life, he used to love hiking); or of course arguing the fiercely contested position that cancer research would be better focused on prevention than treatment. Despite harsh pressure to change his opinions on the latter, my father never ever compromised his ethics, and this is certainly a trait of his that I hope is memorialized. No matter the situation, my dad would ruminate quietly for days, weeks, however long it took for him to understand fully the situation. And then he would fight tooth and nail for what he thought was right. This was far from easy – he made some enemies, worked like crazy, passed by lucrative opportunities. But he believed that life wasn’t meant to be easy and it wasn’t about having fun (though that never hurt) – instead, he believed that we should leave the world a better place – and he did just that.