I first met my father late in the summer of 1960. Our final moment together in this life was at his bedside late Friday evening, March 24th, when his heart finally quit beating after a long series of health problems.
In between these two events, there is a lot of territory to cover.
In so many ways, my father was larger than life, in spite of the fact that he was just an inch or two taller than Mickey Rooney. What with his short legs and all, some may have considered him disabled to some extent; he was not among them.
It must be said that my father was a family man and that for much of his life, he was much more firmly rooted to family than to any one place or home.
We moved a lot. Between my birth and that of my youngest sibling 22 years later, dad recorded having lived at some 20 addresses from New Hampshire to California including two homes in Washington, four in New York, and 9 or so in Utah – Salt Lake, North Ogden, Brigham City, Hyrum, and Provo. I lived with him in 18 of those houses, the last being what many in the family knew as their only home, on Eliason Avenue in Brigham City, where we moved in on my 17th birthday.
Dad did what he had to support us as a family and pursue his education and career. We always seemed to need a bigger house and better income as my days as an only child faded into irrelevance. Dad was always on the move to achieve something greater and he took us along, first just me and mom, then 2 kids, then 3, 4, 8 12…
Dad was, in many ways, a frustrated perfectionist. He was often disappointed by what he perceived as his own failings and would push, as best he could, himself and his children to be better. Through it all, he was a man who exuded confidence because that was what was required – independent of his own self-doubt. He wasn’t satisfied just doing the minimum. Whether answering a question on some random topic or helping with homework, giving the answer was not sufficient. He would endeavor – to the delight of some and the abject horror of others – to explain the theory and development of the problem first such that we would be prepared to answer all similar questions in the future on our own. He also tried to encourage us to reach higher and think deeper by proposing problems to us to solve. He would get us to assist him in some grand project and then turn and ask how we would do it; sometimes asking for detailed materials lists and drawings to support our suggestions.
Often, his methods were perceived as harsh by us kids, but as we grew to know and understand him, most came to see the love and patience that I’m sure he hoped we would recognize. He could be very intimidating when angry, but would stand steadfastly at our side when the tides of life tried to pull us down. Ultimately, dad hoped that his children would turn out better than he had – and while acknowledging that dad had his flaws – in so many ways, no one ever could.
Above all, though, was his love for and defense of his wife, Linda. Sure, he loved us kids, but she came first. Any of the family could attest that the surest and swiftest way to incur dad’s wrath was to defy our mother. When someone said no to mom – and particularly if they happened to say so in a loud, angry tone – they would then cower in fear for the next 3 seconds until dad would appear to set them right. Of course, no one seemed to catch on to the option of simply obeying whatever command mom had given to avoid such dire consequences. Regardless, he would go to extremes to make mom happy. He truly did love her though he was 50s jazz and she was 60s Rock and Roll. Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans meet Bill Hailey and Johnny Mathis.
For example, way back in 1963, we moved into a new house in North Ogden with an unfinished yard that consisted primarily of large rocks in a setting of smaller rocks with a few truly huge rocks to break up the monotony. He loaded these into a small pickup bed trailer and hauled it a couple of miles away to dump them over the side of a hill – more than once sending the trailer down the hill as well, having to then drag it back up. No sooner had he finished the job and begun to get the lawn growing, mom declared that what that yard needed was a rock garden and could he please go up in the mountains to retrieve a few large rocks for its base… and so he went – shaking his head and muttering several Yosemite Sam worthy curses perhaps, but up the mountain he went to replace the rocks that he had worked so hard to dump down the mountain. This was not the last time that we would head out to get the foundation for one of mom’s yard beautification projects, but making mom happy made dad happy.
I can only think of a handful of letters that dad ever wrote to me. Writing, like many creative endeavors, was hard for him – not because he couldn’t write, but because it had to be just right. The two letters that he did write to me, while I was a fulltime missionary, are among my most treasured memories; they are masterworks.
That drive for perfection did not require an equal motivation toward decorum or propriety. Dad could be as loud, silly, and childlike as a gaggle of kids could ever hope for. He destroyed a chair during the retelling of the story of the Three Little Pigs. And all of us know to respond to the call of “What’s the name of this stupid game?!” or “Let the Rowdy Rumpus Begin!”
Along the way, we often sang together at home, in the car, at church, and in community choirs. Dad’s voice was powerful and required some reining in with even the most enthusiastic church choir around him. We sang hymns. We sang folks songs, camp songs, pop hits…whatever struck our fancy or his.
Dad was never truly wealthy even though later in his career he was making a very decent living. We didn’t always have a lot of “extra” and sometimes barely enough, but I cannot recall my father ever refusing to help someone truly in need. We took care packages to neighbors, played Christmas Elves delivering food and other stuff secretly to neighbors’ porches in the night. The list of honorary family members is endless as we took in strays and wanderers, summer salesmen and stranded travelers. Some of these stayed for a night, others a weekend, some for a season, still others for years. Some of them are family still.
Whether we were moving to a new place or not, Dad loved to travel. He took us touring the nation from coast to coast – Canada to Mexico. For many summers, we seemed to spend as much time in a car or in a tent as we did in a house.
Family trips, Girl’s Camp, Business excursions. National Parks, roadside attractions, museums, Church History, National History, Natural History, lakes, streams, rivers, forests, deserts, mountains, hills, and plains, the Mohawk Trail, the Adirondack Trail, Death Valley and the both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. I even recall having an Easter egg hunt in a rain-soaked tent somewhere in America’s north west. Frequently, we did not travel alone. We took friends with us, other families joined the caravan, some, I think, we picked up along the way.
I can find no documented evidence of my ever having been to North Dakota, Alaska, or Hawaii, but dad took me to – or through – much of the rest. From Maine to California and back. I-80, I-70, I-90, I-40 and innumerable lesser byways.
Due to the size of our entourage, we couldn’t really travel incognito. Well, that and mom yelling “Hi Lo” to get us back to the car or camp. It’s a cherished memory that we would have a car pass us on the freeway and then slow down to match our speed while someone in that car tried to count us all.
Through these adventures, dad drove whatever he had wherever he wanted to go. ‘57 Desoto, ‘64 Impala, ‘71 Vega, even a VW bug for a day or two. A variety of Chrysler, Chevrolet, and Dodge station wagons, a ‘74 Datsun wagon, a GMC van, and a succession of Subarus – all with or without a trailer on roads that would turn high-end 4X4s back. Measuring depth and distance between ruts to plan the best path forward. More than once, making it out of an impossible situation to look back on the Road Closed sign that only marked the far end of our adventure. Being the last car over a snow-covered freeway incline while everyone else had spun out and given up. Once – on a hunting trip out in Vernon, Utah, we had a farmer on his 4-wheel drive tractor follow us out through one particularly muddy road to find out what on earth we were driving. It was the Datsun wagon – up to the floorboards in mud with dad’s foot holding the gas pedal firmly to the other side of those same floorboards. Truth be told, like so many aspects of dad’s life, it wasn’t what was being driven, but who was driving that made the difference.
He taught us to fish and to hunt – most of us turning out to be fair at the one, pathetic at the other. Through all of it, he taught respect for the outdoors and a love of adventure. Between dad and mom, we learned what is now called ‘Leave No Trace’ camping and hiking. How many remember policing a camp site before packing up and being rewarded for bringing in the most trash? We were introduced to survival skills that would make all but the most ardent preppers jealous.
In his professional life, he was, again, larger than life.
Dad’s first job after marriage was with Raytheon in Massachusetts. He was ever associated with high-tech & aerospace firms or the military ever since. Along the way, he held positions with Thiokol, Boeing, Lockheed, GE, and did consulting work for the Navy, Bell Labs, Bechtel, and others. Among the projects and programs he worked on were the Saturn 5, Lockheed’s SST, Space Shuttle, and various Navy sonar and radar efforts. Several of these jobs led him to seek additional education leading to a BS in Mathematics from Utah State, a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from BYU, and eventually, a PhD in Civil Engineering from Cornell. In everything, he sought to be the best possible, always wondering if it was enough.
True to form, when dad presented his doctoral thesis to the Cornell Engineering department back in the mid 1970s, they listened and then offered no real feedback, no critique, no probing questions. They returned his thesis as he submitted it without comment or correction and told him to go ahead and publish it. He always assumed that they were unimpressed with him and that he was simply told to go ahead to get him to move a long so that they could move on to more worthwhile candidates, in spite of the fact that he graduated Suma Cum Laude from one of the most rigorous technical programs in the nation. Decades later, dad met one of the members of that review board at a conference somewhere and they talked about that. It was in that conversation that he learned why the board had nothing to offer. They were awestruck; his work was so far beyond anything else they had seen that they were at a loss as to how to offer criticism or advice.
Paul Palo became dad’s counterpart at the Navy’s Civil Engineering Labs (NCEL) and through the years of working together, they became good friends. – Paul recounted in a recent letter to dad that his reaction upon reading the work that dad had done could be summed up in the question, “Who is this Ron Webster?” Paul later told me, “In every field of technology, there are experts recognized by their peers as a cut above the rest. But those experts recognize an even smaller subset as their idols. Your dad was in that special group.”
In 2009, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers granted him lifetime membership in recognition of 35 years of loyal support. He sat on technical boards and spoke at conferences supporting a broad spectrum of technical research and standards bodies.
In October of 2010, he was awarded special commendation by the Navy for his invaluable work through his computerized cable dynamics model called SEADYN which had enabled dozens of civilian, military and intelligence gathering systems.
The work that dad did carries on with a team of developers who are trying to bring SEADYN, back into the mainstream. That team today is still asking the same question, “Who is this Ron Webster?” He has become legend.
He was an obedient Man of God.
I learned the Gospel at the feet of my father. Not all of this overtly. Trust me on this; our Family Home Evenings were as often a futile gesture as in any other family. But I watched him. I marveled at his command of the scriptures, church history, and doctrine. He knew the General Handbook of Instructions as well as he knew the scriptures. At the same time, I think I learned also from his delivery. When dad spoke up in meetings, he spoke as the voice of reason and with authority. In such contrast to his own self-doubt, he possessed absolute confidence in his testimony and in his Savior. He may not have trusted that he was good enough, but he knew when he was right.
I lose track of how many years he served as High Councilor, in bishoprics, Young Men’s and Elders Quorum presidencies, and High Priest groups… We spent many Sundays visiting struggling branches in the wilds of Upstate New York where our family’s arrival doubled meeting attendance. In whatever capacity, he strove to be useful, to be relevant, to be of service. One of the clearest memories of these assignments was a talk the dad gave to a Stake Seminary Super Saturday where, contrary to the experience of most visiting High Council speakers, the message that he gave that day can be repeated verbatim by most of the youth that heard it. “Curious fly. Vinegar jug. Slippery edge. Pickled bug.” Short. Sweet. To the point. Memorable. Perfect.
For me anyway, so much that I aspire to be is due to my father’s example. True also, there are some things that I have sworn never to repeat. My father was flawed, but determined. Full of self-recrimination and doubt, yet masterfully confident and bold in fulfilling his duty, his own development, his professional life, his love for his wife and family – even those family members who were not born to us – and to his God.
I met him as I entered this life and I held his hand as he left it. In between, he taught me to love, to work, to camp, hike, hunt, and fish, to serve, and to have faith in God as well as in myself. To stand for the right boldly yet without contempt or condescension. He taught me to aspire to greatness and achieve it.
I look forward with hope, the faith that he inspired in me, and great anticipation to our next encounter.
Godspeed, dad. Give mom a hug for all of us.