For this week’s Thoughts on Leadership, I want to share the story of my father Paul Blefari (Pappy), who passed away last week. My dad taught me to be a better brother, son, father and, really, a better person. Below you’ll find the eulogy that I read during the services. I know from his life story you’ll find endless leadership inspiration.
Hello, my name is Gino Blefari, and I am the proud and loving son of Paul Frank Blefari.
On behalf of the entire Blefari family, I wish to thank each and every one of you for coming here today to the Church of the Resurrection, to join with us as we honor our beloved father, grandfather, great grandfather and, most importantly, my mother’s cherished husband for 71 years.
It is my high honor to share some of the many thoughts and memories of my dad that my family and I will always treasure.
It is most significant that we are holding this memorial service at the Church of the Resurrection.
This is the very church where my father was a charter member and the house of worship that meant so much to my father and my mother and for so many years.
The name of this, his favorite church which housed his favorite congregation, enjoys even greater significance today.
In John 11:25 Jesus proclaimed, “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE, HE WHO BELIEVES IN ME, THOUGH HE MAY DIE, HE SHALL LIVE.”
These biblical words are especially meaningful to me and my family today. This is because, as we know, my dad was a great believer, and he will also continue living in the hearts of his wife, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and their children forever.
My dad was born in the heart of the Berkshires…Pittsfield, Massachusetts on July 8, 1925, to Eugenio and Talinda Blefari, two Italians who immigrated through Ellis Island.
Before my dad was five years old and for many years that followed, the United States plunged into the greatest economic depression our nation has ever seen.
Jobs were scarce. Families were all hands-on deck, including children. Whoever could bring money into the house did it.
My dad worked at the age of 12 washing dishes until 2 a.m. and would fall asleep in class. His teachers would say “Paul, wake up…are you working??” referring to a job outside of school—because of course it was illegal for someone who was 12 years old to work. In my dad’s case, it was a necessity as he was the oldest son of five children in his family.
And then when my dad should have been thinking about who he would take to the prom, or what college to apply to or what career to consider, America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the empire of Japan.
Think about that. As a child, my dad endured the great depression followed by the World War. I would respectfully submit to everyone here that we cannot possibly imagine what these teenagers felt knowing what was to come.
When my dad was 17, he tried to register for the war, but my grandma would not allow it. When he turned 18, my father was drafted in the Army. He went through training and became a Technician 5th Grade in Company B, 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division.
He landed on the beaches of Normandy and his regiment was assigned to the Third Army. Yes, that was old Blood and Guts himself, General George Patton.
History seems to suggest that my dad’s unit participated in the Battle of St. Lo. However, Dad never mentioned that to me, so I wasn’t sure until last night as one of dad’s friends confirmed it for me. For the better part of six months, dad and the allies worked their way across France.
It was during that time that dad earned his first purple heart.
While a part of Third Army, my dad fought valiantly across France.
Here’s one of the stories my dad’s friend told me and my friend Pat Cardwell over lunch…
He and the radio operator were moving in the woods through deep snow when they came across a German unit with a machine gun nest.
The machine gun was an MG 22—probably the most deadly and effective machine gun the Germans had. Dad and the radio operator returned fire and got close to the nest.
As my dad told Pat and I, and I quote, “We lobbed a few grenades up there and that was that.”
Well, yes…but there’s more to the story. While they were running through the snow, trudging through this frozen river bed with the radio operator carrying his big, heavy radio, the operator kept falling because of the weight of the radio on his back and because the Germans were shooting at him and my dad.
My dad kept pulling up the radio operator as they were being shot at and they were running in a serpentine pattern through this snowy riverbed.
He’d fall, my dad would lift him up. He’d fall, my dad would lift him up. But the Germans were relentless in their chase.
You know the phrase, “No one left behind”? My dad embraced it fully, although even if the phrase didn’t exist yet, he wouldn’t leave anyone behind.
The radio operator was shot in the back. But the bullet hit his radio and saved his life. My dad and the radio operator took the radio and destroyed it, so the Germans couldn’t use it and then made it back to their unit.
As most of you know the Battle of the Bulge was the last German Offensive of World War II. It occurred from Dec. 16, 1944 through January 25, 1945.
The most famous part of that battle occurred around Christmas time in Bastogne, Belgium. Bastogne had a bridge and seven different roads in and out of the town; it was very important strategically. The upshot is the allies became surrounded and cut off in Bastogne and needed help.
There was a famous meeting held amongst all the field generals. The only General that committed to getting to Bastogne was Patton. He said he could attack in three days.
The only problem was my dad, and the rest of the Third Army were 100 miles away and had to hike for three days through tough winter conditions including deep snow. You heard that right. 100 miles in three days in deep snow and the coldest winter on record. A distance greater than a marathon in boots and combat gear…walking. But they got there.
The war for Pappy ended on Dec. 30, 1944 in Bastogne.
Let me set the stage: One of his comrades who was supposed to go out on patrol had combat fatigue, some of it being hand to hand with bayonets. So, my compassionate dad volunteered to take his place.
Two shells from German 88 cannons exploded close by and his body was hit with shrapnel. The 88’s landed a couple feet in front of him…exploding mainly near his legs… throwing him 15 feet in the air. Thus, his second and last purple heart.
After the explosion, my dad was blind for three weeks from the concussion and powder burns he suffered. And while he was in the hospital from Dec. 30 or 31, 1944 through July 1945—almost seven months spent in the hospital.
He was handed his second purple heart personally by General Eisenhower and Patton when they were visiting the wounded. Too bad there were no cell phones with cameras back then—that would’ve been quite the selfie.
Dad was considered 80% disabled and never to walk again. He was told that if he was able to walk…by 30 years of age he would be back in a wheelchair.
Like so many veterans of his time, Pappy didn’t talk much about his service. He didn’t need to though. We were all humbled and proud of him.
I would like to close my thoughts on dad’s service with a quote that President Kennedy said about my dad’s generation, the greatest generation: “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors and the men it remembers.”
We will never forget you Pappy.
My father was born in 1925, which meant that he qualified as a member of both the Greatest Generation as well as the subsequent Silent Generation.
To adequately understand the greatness of my dad’s life, you must understand the chief characteristics that represent individuals from each of these generations.
The Greatest Generation refers to men and women born between 1901 and 1927. The Silent Generation is described by many as referring to those born between 1925 and 1942.
My father, again, born in 1925, represents a birthdate where these two generational periods overlap. After observing my father for many decades, it is very clear to me how my father embodies and combines the traits from both generational periods. For example, the Greatest Generation are those individuals who survived the Great Depression and fought in the World War.
These members of the Greatest Generation who survived the Great Depression and fought in the war, were defined by their selflessness, their humility, their thriftiness and their appreciation for whatever they had, no matter how meager it may be.
These qualities describe my dad’s foundational underpinnings. For example, because my dad would never brag, if it were not for an informal lunch with Pat Cardwell and my dad, I would never have learned of my dad’s hand grenade story. A story which to this day, still takes my breath away.
Regarding how my dad was also a member of the Silent Generation, this generation is typified by individuals who did not complain about the country, followed the law, paid their taxes, raised their families, while essentially just keeping their heads down and working hard.
These qualities, just like those of the Greatest Generation, also epitomize my dad.
My dad was always positive no matter what the circumstance was. If anyone were to ask my dad, “How are you?” he would always say, “great,” and I can remember countless times calling dad and saying, “How are you?” And he’d say great and then I could hear in the background mom saying, “No you aren’t,you fell down and almost broke your elbow” or “No you’re not, you’ve got a terrible cold,” but dad always said, “Great.”
That said, there’s no way to sum up the characteristics of that generation and even remotely begin to capture all that made my dad distinctive and special. We will always remember and marvel at my dad’s loyalty to his family and friends.
When I was young, dad was very disciplined. I never heard the man swear…and he was a perfectionist. He had perfect penmanship and perfect pronunciation of the English language, even though English was his second language. He also had perfect grammar, you couldn’t use a double negative and get away with it around him. Nobody could iron a shirt or put a knot in a tie—a double Windsor—as good as my dad.
Growing up, without a doubt, my dad favored the girls, Paula and Donna. He was sweeter and easier going with them.
I also hope that both of my sisters will acknowledge that while dad always loved me, he could be tougher on me than on them, which I thank him for, because I clearly needed the discipline, and it has helped me become the man I am today.
Yet his all-time favorite was his soul mate of 71 years. And we all know who that was. Dad was devoted to our mom, his beloved wife Dolores, for his entire married life. Mom was his everything, including his dance partner.
My dad could never sit still.
I often wondered if that was because when he was in the hospital in Europe, he was told he might never walk again. He was always on the move, until recent years when he loved to sit in his recliner.
Dad was a great swimmer. He talked about spending 18 months in Palm Beach, Florida, working at the Breakers, swimming in the ocean every day to rehab himself while he learned to walk again.
When we moved to California…in Oceanside, an area near San Diego…I can remember the lifeguards on the beaches yelling at him to come back in because he was well past the buoys.
He’d swim out at least a mile and the lifeguards would be on their loudspeakers, “Come back in! You’re too far out.” You would see a group of people in the ocean about 50 yards out, then you’d see another group about 100 yards out. Then you’d see my dad about 1,000 yards out.
Standing on the shore as a four-year-old kid, I’d crane my neck, look out past all the people swimming by the break, then the mass of people just beyond the break and then, there was my dad.
Yet many of us felt his greatest physical expression was his dancing.
When it came to dancing, even though my dad was a very proud Italian American and president of the Italian Catholic Federation for years, he did not want to sing like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como or Mario Lanza; instead he wanted to dance like Fred Astaire.
While he did not get to dance with Astaire, he did dance for 71 years with Astore, and that would be Dolores Astore, who became Dolores “Astore” Blefari.
It has often been said that the greatest gift a man can give his children is to love their mother. Thank you, Dad, for that gift.
Dad himself was either blessed with or developed other numerous gifts. He possessed a gift for numbers which served him well in his years with the U.S. Treasury and when he started his tax business.
He possessed a gift of giving back to the community. This gift was reflected in his leadership in the Elks and Italian American organizations.
Dad possessed the gift of believing that there was a power greater than himself. This profoundly important mindset was always on display and validated through his years of dedication to both his church and the Knights of Columbus.
My dad is also responsible for our family’s love of animals. Let me now share this one example of dad’s devotion to animals, and in this case, dogs. The story will also show how dad was very persistent and never gave up.
Years ago, when my father was leaving work, he noticed a Chihuahua dog whimpering under a parked car in the lot of his office. Worried he may get run over, dad took the dog for the next hour or so, going up and down the streets attempting to find the dog’s owner. He was unsuccessful in his mission.
He then took the dog to the dog pound, and in those days, the policy was that if a dog was not adopted within three days, they would put the dog to sleep. After two sleepless nights, my dad, at the end of the third day, returned to the dog pound right after work only to find out that the pound was closed. He could see some of the staff was still inside, so he went to all the doors and pounded on all the doors to ask someone to let him in.
When he finally got their attention, they didn’t want to let him in, so he flashed his Department of U.S. Treasury badge and they did let him in. He promised the staff that he’d personally guarantee he would find a home for this neglected dog. And a lot of you know the rest of this story.
The home that he found was located at 811 Kirkaldy Court, Sunnyvale, where this little Chihuahua dog, now named Speedy, also known to dad as Speedy Gonzalez, would live surrounded by love for the next twelve years.
As great as dad’s gifts of loyalty to his faith, country and community were, his greatest gift and commitment was found in his unwavering, unrelenting devotion to and love for his family.
I witnessed this firsthand at every family gathering, be it Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving or a birthday barbecue in the backyard. You could just see the joy on his face because he was with his family.
I overheard him talking to my daughter, Alex, where he would declare his gratitude, “What did I do to deserve this great family? I’m so lucky.”
As dad got older, some of that discipline, toughness and perfectionism I mentioned earlier turned to gratitude.
There was nothing our dad found more joy in than hearing about Paula, Donna, Sarah, Erin, PJ, Alex, Lauren, Nicholas, Kylie, Hayley, Brittany, Aubery, Taylor, and most of all, you Mom.
Family was our most popular topic of conversation during our three-hour tours.
So, what’s the message?
Mom, even though your Paul and our dad has been resurrected, dad will live forever in all of our hearts. We will keep his seat reserved as we continue to take our drives together. We will drive in the knowledge that dad will always be right there with us. Pappy, thank you for your service to our country. Thank you for your devotion to our community. And most of all, thank you for your loyalty to our family. I love you; we love you and always will.
This article is adapted from Blefari’s weekly, company-wide “Thoughts on Leadership” column from HomeServices of America.