Tags: family, Marvin, photos
Grandpa Marvin passed away July 1, 2014. His eyesight and memory had left him, and his frail body decided he’d had enough. He was 84 years old. Grandpa didn’t really plan for old age: I think he figured at 75 he’d keel over from too much drinking and too much smoking. He was always very caviler about his death. It’s been a rough year for him and my parents, and I’m glad he’s no longer dealing with the pain and indignity of old age.
Marvin wasn’t your typical grandpa, especially for me. Always laughing, usually drinking, and definitely being merry. Young at heart. I remember Jill once accidentally called him “Uncle Marvin” and I quickly corrected her. Grandpa said, with a wink, “No, she can call me uncle if she wants to.” On Father’s Day one year, a waiter at lunch mistakenly thought he was our dad. He got a real kick out of that. We went to a big reunion in Wichita when we were kids, and I remember driving down in his convertible. Grandpa always had cool cars. My cousins had a pool, and we couldn’t wait to get our swim suits on and jump in. And guess who was sporting a Speedo on the diving board? We were at once highly embarrassed and kind of impressed. It was a story we told for years, grandpa in the Speedo. Sheesh.
When my family went to visit him in DC in 1993, he took us for a grand tour, always claiming that the next stop was only "a couple of blocks away." He walked us to death and never broke a sweat! He took us to a rooftop restaurant and told a story about once eating there and seeing the President (George Bush senior) taking off in a helicopter from the White House lawn. He had a story about everything, and he seemed to know everyone. In Kansas City, where he lived through my high school years and the rest of my adulthood, he couldn’t go two blocks in Westport without bumping into someone he knew. To us kids, it was like he was famous.
In high school, his stories about his work in television and newspapers started to make a real impression on me, and I decided I wanted to become a journalist. When I started writing for the school paper, I sent him my first article. He said, "Never lead with the date," then taught me how to write a good lead. He took me to KU to show me his alma mater, hoping I’d enroll there in the fall. He even took me by his old frat house, Sigma Nu. He had taught journalism at KU in the ‘60s, as well. Despite the beauty of the campus and the history for my family, I couldn’t turn down an almost full-ride scholarship to the rival school, MU, which was also the #2 journalism program in the country at the time. Four years later, he’d jokingly introduce me to people as the granddaughter who graduated magna cum laude from the WRONG school.
For History of Journalism, we were assigned to interview a person over the age of 70 to get their impressions on how journalism has changed over the years. Ever the over-achiever, I chose to interview grandpa, an ACTUAL journalist, about his incredible career. It was here that I finally understood the context for his stories, the ones I’d heard since I was a kid, and ones I was hearing for the first time. How he’d been a reporter in Cincinnati, then through a stroke of luck (and massive layoff), ended up working with the pioneers of television news. Then he landed a prestigious job at ABC-News in New York. He covered Gemini rocket launches, race riots, LBJ at the Ranch. He described the inner-workings of journalism before the computer age, pounding the pavement for a quote, calling it in on a pay phone, using a Linotype machine to typeset the copy. All very fascinating stuff. The professor gave me an A. Weeks later I mailed him a copy of my report, thinking he’d like to see it. And he sent it back to me covered in red ink! Grandpa Marvin, ever the editor. You can read the paper here if you’re at all interested.
As an adult, my relationship with my grandpa was even more atypical. I worked with him on the Kansas City Better Business Bureau publications, designing the cover and inside pages, for a couple of years. We used to drink and talk politics at Dave’s, his favorite dive. Democrats of the world, unite! When Jill lived in St. Louis, we all visited her for the Fourth of July. The morning after, Marvin and I went on the hunt for an open bar to get our drink on, mostly because we had nothing else better to do, and we thought it’d be fun. He was always up for an adventure. We took the Metrorail all the way to LaClede’s Landing to find not a single bar open before noon. What gives, right? Undeterred, we took the train back to Jill’s neighborhood and finally found a bar opening just as we walked by at 11. I had a screwdriver, he had a Vodka cranberry. Good times.
When I moved to New York, he and Jill took a road trip through Philadelphia, New York, and DC. I think by the time they made it to Brooklyn, grandpa had had enough sight seeing. While Jill and I went out on the town, grandpa walked down to the diner every day for breakfast and lunch, then sat on our back porch with a book and a drink in the afternoons. The waitresses soon started calling him by name. We’d come home in the late afternoon with a story about Coney Island or Manhattan, and he’d be relaxing with his reading glasses on and some concoction in a glass. It was on this trip that he confided that he’d never been sure about that Republican husband of mine. But after getting to know him better on this trip, he concluded that James was one of the rare “good” Republicans, one who believes in conservative fiscal policy without any of that anti-gay, anti-abortion BS. Plus, he’d graduated from the RIGHT school.
Later in life grandpa had to move to an apartment with more amenities for the elderly. Not assisted-living, but he had a button in the bathroom he could push to call the paramedics. It was downtown, right next to the big, golden-domed Catholic church. In fact, his apartment window afforded him a glorious view of it. Marvin, a professed Atheist, couldn’t escape the irony of loud church bells every Sunday morning blasting through his new place. We used to tease him that he could pick up some dates at Bingo, to which he replied, “Not likely. These ladies are so old!”
Grandpa always talked about writing a book about his life. I really thought that he’d have some secret manuscript hidden away on his computer. But procrastination always gets the better of us, doesn’t it? When his eyesight failed him, we tried to get a voice-transcription program to work on his computer so he could finally collect his stories. But we couldn’t get it to work. Thankfully, my Aunt Cary had been jotting down notes whenever she’d talked to grandpa, detailing all of the familiar stories we’d heard over the years. A couple of years ago she mentioned to me that she’d been doing this, but the notes were scattered and incomplete. Could I take a look at them? Six months in, it became our labor of love. I organized and edited all of her notes, she got even more stories from him, and my cousin Erin helped with the immense editing task. I compiled a list of questions, then sat him down on my trip to Kansas City to clarify some of the confusing parts. My parents collected photos from as many people as they could find and scanned them for me. Then I did what I do best: I designed a book. We called it I Think They’re Looking at Me, Sonny: The Illustrious Life of Marvin Arth. The title is taken from our favorite Marvin story:
Marvin went to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January of 1961. Frigidly cold, it had snowed two feet the night before in Washington. It was very difficult to get around by public transportation, so Marvin walked everywhere. Marvin was standing in front of the Ambassador Hotel where he was staying, and a car with Ohio plates drove by. All the people in the car were waving and cheering. Marvin thought they were waving at him because his ward in Ohio had the highest turnout for Kennedy in the state. He waved back. Then he turned around and saw former president Truman standing behind him. Truman said, “I think they’re waving at me, sonny.” Several years later, when Marvin saw Truman at the presidential library, Truman remembered the incident and told Marvin he was a good Democrat because he had waved back.
Working on this book, I felt an amazing kinship with my grandpa. In piecing together the bits of his life, I found out things I’d never known before. I had a (mostly) complete picture, from birth to old age. And you know what amazed me the most? I fact-checked all of the names and dates he mentioned, and he had every single one of them right. Mind like a steel trap, even at age 80. That’s why it was especially heart-breaking to witness his rapid decline. By the time we finished the book, he was starting to exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s. Macular degeneration had almost completely taken his eyesight. I had to record an audio version of the book so he could read it. I’m sure if he could have seen the pages he would have covered them in red ink. Ever the editor. It’s not perfect, but we’re proud of it, and we’re glad so many people have gotten to read about him and his life. We don’t have any more copies of the book left, but you can download a full PDF here.
On the last Friday in June I saw my grandpa for the last time. I didn’t know that at the time, but I had a bad feeling he wouldn’t last the week. He lay nearly comatose in the bed, but he opened his eyes when I said his name. I told him I loved him, and that he should rest. I’m sad I missed his memorial at Kelly’s on July 4; I was in Lexington visiting my in-laws, but my cousin, Scott, and I got to at least video-chat with the rest of our family that day. My family set up a website with pictures and tributes to Marvin from friends and family, and it’s been wonderful to read all the warm thoughts and memories people have written. He really was one-of-a-kind. And I miss him dearly.