In memoriam: John E. Flavin, Jr. (1922-2008)

Some personal reflections on the last year of my father-in-law, who died Thursday at the age of 86.

If this were a proper eulogy, I’d write about all of Jack’s life– his service as a captain in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, his very successful career as a chemical engineer for Eastman Kodak, his four children (one of whom I married). But this is something more personal, based on my own interaction with Jack during his last year, after he and my mother-in-law moved out to San Diego so that my wife Marjorie and I could help out a little better.

Jack’s last year was not an easy one. Everything was becoming increasingly difficult, and he came to spend most of his time in front of the TV watching nothing in particular. Margie and I were trying to figure out what we could do to bring some richness and meaning back to his life.

Our last inspiration was based on Jack’s childhood hobby– model trains. They still had a big collection of these packed up in boxes in the garage. Margie and I spent several weekends moving furniture around and constructing a big table that might serve as a train room. We thought of it as a long shot– Jack was losing interest in so much– but it seemed worth giving it a try.

The project turned out far more successfully than we had dreamed. Jack returned to the hobby with his boyhood passion, and spent almost all of his time in the room that was now all his. He threw his energy into painting the table and organizing the layout. He was quite enthusiastic about attending the model train exhibition that was coming to the Del Mar Fairgrounds in January. But congestive heart failure left him too weak for that last planned trip.

I had an odd thought as I reflected in late December on the past year. In thinking about the various things I’d attempted and accomplished during the year, personally and professionally, the one of which I was most proud was that train room. I’m not sure why I would single that out as the thing of which to be most proud. Maybe it was because it was a true gamble– it could easily have failed, but we gave it our best effort anyway, and it worked. Or maybe because it was basically a fairly decent thing to try to do.

I remember my former colleague at the University of Virginia, Ken Elzinga, once described a committee he’d served on to select a student for an award that was supposed to include as a criterion moral character. Ken told me that he’d ask the candidates in the interview, “Tell us something you’ve done over the last year that you’re most proud of. Don’t worry about bragging or holding back– tell us the very best about yourself.” I remember thinking that could be a rather daunting question. But if Ken were to interrogate me for 2007, that train table would be my answer.

Which got me to thinking, maybe one of my New Year’s resolutions should be to do something I’m proud of every week and not just once a year.

On December 28, some raccoons succeeded in tearing a hole in our official San-Diego-City-issued big black plastic trash can, so I had to take it in to get it replaced. Before I could do that, I had to remove the wheel-chair lift we’d attached to our car to be able to help Jack with transportation. The unit was rather a pain to get on or off, and I really didn’t have time to be messing with this stuff that morning. I found myself irritated with the raccoon for vandalizing our trash can, irritated with the city for requiring us to use these flimsy plastic receptacles, irritated that this wheelchair lift was so heavy and greasy and difficult to get off. And then I had an inspiration– I could count this simple act as my “good deed” for the week. After all, the whole reason I was having to do all this was that I’m basically a decent person trying to do the decent thing which at the moment happened to involve a bit of inconvenience. Remarkably, viewing that little excursion from that new perspective– I’m bringing in this broken trash can and I’m proud of it– turned it into an amazingly joyous occasion.

And then I decided, maybe the goal shouldn’t just be to do something each week that I was proud of, but do something every day. Admittedly, that means lowering the standards a bit, giving myself credit for carrying out whatever simple, day-to-day personal and professional responsibilities that fall into my lap. But that’s what decent people are supposed to do. And being a decent person is something you really should be proud of.

So here’s an Easter thought for you to ponder: try to do something every day that you’d be proud of yourself for doing.

Jack with his trains, December 2007


20 thoughts on “In memoriam: John E. Flavin, Jr. (1922-2008)

  1. Deborah

    What a beautiful story and tribute.
    My father-in-law is a real train buff as well, born in 1919. I remember he had his train room in the basement before downsizing and moving to a condo. But I still get him something to do with trains or golf for his birthday and Christmas as those are his passions. And, I’ve gone on train rides he’s recommended when I’ve gone on holidays as he seems to know if there is a tourist type of train ride you can take if you visit an area.

  2. Qingdao

    Thank you for that; at the margin the world is now a better place; a very Buddhist parable, by the way.

  3. lerxst

    Thanks for sharing that. For someone like you –who goes to meetings like Jackson Hole to inform the some of the world’s economic policy makers –its nice to hear that helping your father-in-law enjoy the end of his life is what you valued most.
    I sometimes think that academic economists in the world of publish or perish sometimes forget about the truly important things in life. Thanks for reminding us.

  4. bee

    A demonstration of true love is always worth sharing. God Bless Jack, his wife, family and you.

  5. Rick & Siobhan McGrath

    Jim, that was a wonderful story and a great photo. Thanks for putting things in a bit of perspective. Please pass along our sympathies to Marjorie and the family.

  6. venky

    A daily act of kindness is your blog, which benefits inquisitive people across the world. Where else can we turn to for macro commentary?

  7. bugly

    Man, you get a double A+ for that job, especially since it had such a high unknown probability of success. I work with elderly sick patients all the time, and it’s stories like yours that I’ll use as an example for other families- to help find ideas that may improve that patients quality of life. Good job buddy!

  8. Dave Darcy

    Amazing what acts of kindness, and generocity can do for the the giver as well as the receiver. Balance is a wonerfull thing! May the love you give be equal to the you get….

  9. Robert Bell

    I am sorry for your loss, but simultaneously happy that you had such a positive impact in the last year of his life.
    I agree with Venky – I think you should be proud of every EconBrowser post! They help this reader understand what the data do, or don’t, say about economic issues in an easily accessible way.

  10. Bob Flavin

    Thank you for your post.

    I remember when I was a kid and dad knew everything. He knew things like that mailman wasn’t going to come today (because it happened to be Thanksgiving day, or some holiday). Much later, when I could read a map I told him about a new short cut on our annual trip to our vacation ‘camp’ in Maine — he realized that I now was becoming more intelligent than a kid. About 40 years after that I started to see that I was more the intelligent adult and he was becoming more of the kid who played with trains. It seems to be how life goes.

    This image shows mom and dad back in Charlottesville, Va

    Dad was a superb photographer, he worked in military photo reconnaissance during World War II and he developed the emulsion (photographic chemicals) for Kodak Kodachrome film.

  11. Valuethinker

    I am reminded of that bumper sticker ‘commit random acts of kindness’.
    A touching story, and quite a meaningful one for anyone who has had experiences with the sick or the mentally ill.

  12. oops

    I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing the story and challenging us to follow in doing good deeds.

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