Drinking from the deep well of the Prodigal Father
Anyone with even a Cliffs Notes understanding of the Bible is familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. According to literary folklore, Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Parable of the Prodigal Son the greatest short story ever told.
“Prodigal” is one of those 50-cent adjectives not often used today. The most commonly accepted meaning of “prodigal” is “wasteful,” “careless,” “extravagant,” “imprudent.”
And those synonyms aptly describe the rudderless younger son in Jesus’ story who demanded that his father divide his assets between his two sons. To a first-century Jewish audience, it was like a son telling his father to drop dead.
As we all know, the Prodigal Son blew through his inheritance before finally coming to his senses. It wasn’t so much piety or guilt that caused the Prodigal Son’s transformation as much as it was famine and logic. He could stay where he was and die among the pigs he was feeding or he could ask forgiveness and return to his father as a hired hand – and live.
And that’s where Jesus’ story really gets interesting. The word “prodigal” has yet another – surprise – meaning. “Prodigal” also can refer to someone who is “extravagant” in love and tenderness … “boundless” in forgiving and “overflowing” in kindness and graciousness.
The Prodigal Father – the father who loved without limits, the father who never wavered in bringing joy, peace and reconciliation, the father who was extravagant in his support of his wife, children, grandchildren and great-children – is the story of my father, Peter, who died Aug. 13 at the age of 88.
In my father’s 68 years as a master storyteller for the States-Item and The Times-Picayune, he never stopped gazing toward the horizon, looking for a way to pour out his love and inspiration to others through his old Royal typewriter (which weighed enough to qualify as a lethal weapon) or through his mystical Dell laptop (believe me, writing and e-mailing his columns to the office were the only things he could do on a computer).
As his lifetime of professional honors attest, my dad could have been a star at any newspaper in the country, but his life’s passion was bringing smiles and laughter and meaning to the people of New Orleans. Even though he had to write the truth – and sometimes the painful truth of the Saints wandering in the desert for 40 years – I can’t think of anyone who ever got mad at him.
The Prodigal Father taught his six children to love. He and my mom were married for 61 years. Their commitment to each other grounded us in love. For any New Orleans family of eight living on a newspaperman’s salary, life is about sacrifice, extra freelance stories and red beans and rice. We knew God loved us because our parents loved each other – and loved us. Their tangible relationship became a movable feast for us children.
Our dad was the Prodigal Father.
When a young, African-American college professor was hired by the States-Item in 1960 to cover sports involving black high schools and colleges, he’d come to the newspaper offices on Lafayette Square and basically be frozen out by the white staff. His name is R.L. Stockard. R.L. said he’d find a typewriter at an unoccupied desk on the far side of the newsroom and write his stories in isolation.
Our dad happened to be in the office that day and walked over to R.L. He extended his hand and introduced himself. He said: “Hi, I’m Pete Finney, and I work in the sports department. I just want to let you know, if you need anything, just let me know.”
R.L. said at the time, the only African-Americans who worked at the States-Item were janitors. He told me our dad was the first non-African American at the paper who talked to him. He said our dad flashed that big smile of his. R.L. will never forget that big Peter Finney smile.
That’s the thing about the Prodigal Father. He was always doing everything he could for anyone, every day of his life.
When my dad was 15 in 1942, he got his first summer job as a stock boy at the K&B warehouse on Camp Street. My Uncle Tom remembers him bringing home $14 a week, but he’d always share a portion of his weekly pay with Tom and his sister Patricia. He even bought Patricia a dress when she needed one for a big party. Even back then, the Prodigal Father was displaying his boundless generosity of spirit.
My dad made a habit of asking us if we needed anything. My sister Beth was studying for a test one day but had an expired brake tag. My dad took her car keys and drove the car over to the Bayou St. John station and got her the brake tag.
It was almost impossible to get my dad upset. Russ Cresson was the long-time photographer at Loyola University. He hatched a plan one day to see if he possibly could get my dad mad. He told my dad to come at 1 o’clock to his office on Freret Street to pick up some publicity basketball photos. When my dad came at 1 o’clock, Russ said: “Oh, Pete, they’re not ready yet. You’re going to have to come back tomorrow.”
My dad simply smiled and said: “That’s OK, my man! I’ll come back tomorrow. What time?” Realizing his plot to raise my dad’s temperature had failed miserably, Russ simply threw up his hands, smiled and handed my dad the photos.
One day when one of us kids got on our Mom’s last nerve, my sister Barbara recalls our Mom pulling out her trump card: “Wait till Dad gets home!” We all knew what would happen next. Our dad would come home, take off his leather belt, fold it in half and then snap the two sides together like a warning shot across the bow. But, somehow, the Prodigal Father relented and commuted our sentence.
The Prodigal Father taught us to be fair and kind in every situation. If we made a mistake, we were obliged to own up to it and apologize. Saying “I screwed up and I apologize and I’ll do better” is a very Pope Francis way of living in the world. The Prodigal Father – Jesuit-bred at Jesuit High School – was ahead of the curve.
The Prodigal Father was humble. All those New Orleans Press Club and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year and Hall of Fame writing awards found their proper place in our home. Instead of creating a shrine to his professional excellence, my dad would slip them quietly into the two wooden toy boxes in the den, not to be seen again until he tossed a few more plaques in there the following year.
The Prodigal Father was a man overflowing with good humor. He made light of his legendary absent-mindedness. One day I was with him outside Angelo Brocato’s ice cream parlor when he had locked his keys in the car – with the engine running. He said, “That’s, OK, the engine’ll cut off when it runs out of gas.”
The Prodigal Father was a man of affirmation. He’d let my sister Beth type a word into one of his columns, and the very next day she’d see that same word she had typed in the States-Item. Beth is a writer today because of that.
The Prodigal Father was an abundant provider. Even with his mind and body slipping, especially in this last year, he’d often get up in the middle of the night, put on his trousers, shirt and ubiquitous, khaki wind-breaker and tell one of us who was spending the night, “I’ve got a press conference to cover in City Park.”
We’d try to deflect the conversation by telling him he didn’t need to cover anything; the sports department wasn’t expecting anything; and that he had done all the work he ever needed to do.
Then he’d say, “Oh, OK, that’s good, that’s good!” And then he’d go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge he’d done his duty to take care of his family.
This past February, when we gave him the first copy from LSU Press of his final book – “The Best of Peter Finney: Legendary New Orleans Sportswriter” – he smiled and said: “I wrote a book?”
Yes, Dad, you did. It took you 68 years to write this book, but thank God you did.
The Prodigal Father modeled love, which is why he constantly thanked us after our mom died three years ago for taking such good care of him. My three sisters – Barbara, Jane and Beth – did most of the heavy lifting. My brothers Tim and Michael and I were in the rotation, just happy we didn’t screw up too much. My sisters and brothers, along with our spouses who graciously accepted our rotating days and nights away from home, were simply carrying out what the Prodigal Father had modeled for us.
If there’s one final thing the Prodigal Father is telling us today, it’s this. He’d want all of us to be “prodigal” in dispensing our love to one another. He’d want us to love, to forgive and to rejoice.
And, just like the Prodigal Father, that love, forgiveness and joy should be extravagant, abundant, overflowing.