Paul Richard Theroux (1922 – 2017)
I had the distinct privilege of delivering the eulogy (with my brother Gary) at the memorial service for my late father, Paul Richard Theroux, on Saturday, June 23, 2018, at Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home, in Clearwater, FL. Here is an edited version of my presentation:
The Christian Sabbath is Sunday, the traditional first day of the week, and this past Sunday was Father’s Day. Hence, I am even more delighted and grateful to all of you for gathering with us here today to remember and honor my beloved father, Paul Richard Theroux, who passed away at the age of 94 on July 17, 2017, outliving two wives and six siblings.
Dad was born on December 15, 1922, in Ithaca, NY, the third of seven children of my grandparents, Frank and Louise Theroux, both of whom were born in Valparaiso, IN, and married after my grandfather was discharged from the Army after World War I in 1918. My father and all of his siblings graduated from Michigan State University, where my grandfather was a professor of civil engineering and Dad majored in chemical engineering. Incidentally, Dad and his brothers and a sister became the largest single family ever to all earn degrees from the school.
The Theroux family’s lineage on both sides is Franco-Canadian Catholic. My grandfather was a direct descendant of Antoine Terroux dit LaFerté (or Antoine Théroux, 1675-1759), who enlisted in the French Marines (Compagnies Franches de la Marine), emigrated in 1693 from Verdun-Sur-Garonne, France, and settled in what became Montréal, Québec, Canada. My father’s mother, whose maiden name was Sprencel, was the great, great, great, granddaughter of the French-born (from Grenoble) Captain Antoine Paulin (or Paulinte, 1737-1813), who came to America with the Marquis de Lafayette and settled in Québec. Paulin was the Commander of the Second Canadian Regiment that joined in the Continental Army under Colonel Moses Hazen in the American Revolution and fought in the Battles of Staten Island, Brandywine, and Germantown, as well as in the Siege of Yorktown.
Dad was primarily raised in Indiana, Florida, and Michigan, where he regularly attended Catechism classes after public school and was active in the Boy Scouts. He graduated from East Lansing High School in Michigan in 1940, where he was a star member of the football, basketball, and tennis teams, and was involved in Student Council, Hi-Y Club Varsity Club, and Rifle Club, and one year as Home Room Vice President.
He then enrolled at Michigan State but dropped out after his junior year as the horrors of World War II raged and he volunteered to be inducted into the Army in August, 1943. He entered basic training the following month, at Camp Grant, in Rockford, IL, attended the Service School at Allegheny College, and completed his training on December 16, 1944, at the Gunnery and Navigation Schools in San Marcos Army Air Force Base in Texas where he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. He departed the U.S. to serve in the Asiatic Pacific on August 19, 1945, as a Navigator with the 22nd Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. He returned to the U.S. a year later. Dad was finally honorably discharged as a First Lieutenant, in December, 1946, but remained in the inactive reserves for five more years.
While home earlier in East Lansing, MI, on Christmas leave before leaving for Okinawa, he offered his bus seat to a young woman, Marjorie Erma Withrow, while all of the other men in uniform there simply pushed her aside. When the seat next to hers opened up later on the bus ride, he sat down, so engrossed with her that he missed his own bus stop. Instead, he got off at hers several miles down the line and walked her to her parents’ house. By the time she agreed to a date the next night, the buses were no longer running, and he then had to hike all the way home but didn’t mind. In fact, on the way, he reportedly leapfrogged over several fire hydrants.
After his military service, he returned to complete his bachelor’s degree at Michigan State, and he and Marjorie Withrow, then a teacher of kindergarten, first and second grades, who had graduated from Central State Teacher’s College (now Central Michigan University), married in 1947. Two years later, I was born in Lansing, MI, followed by my brother Gary in 1951 and sister Linda in 1954, both born in Newark, NJ.
Incidentally, my mother was a devout Orthodox Presbyterian, which is how my siblings and I were raised. In addition to her teaching, she was a skilled artist and in the process, imparted to me a great appreciation for and love of creating art. The Withrow family came originally from Lincolnshire in England to Canada and then to Virginia, and her ancestor Captain James Withrow (1746-1836), as with my father’s ancestors, fought in the American Revolution. In his case he joined the North Carolina Militia after moving to the Carolina frontier and fought in numerous battles including the Battle of King’s Mountain.
Although raised Catholic, Dad, along with his brothers, abandoned Christianity as a young man and became an agnostic, while his sister Frances remained a devout Catholic. As with so many other men, the Theroux brothers were facing both relentless and deepening economic hardship and the likelihood of the military draft thrusting them into the seemingly unstoppable and deluging jaws of totalitarianism and total war. Where was the love of God when the evils of global war, genocides, eugenics, death camps, weapons of mass destruction, and unimaginable human misery were spreading globally? For them and so many others, the post-Enlightenment fashion of a “scientific” materialism/naturalism (what F.A. Hayek, Karl Popper, and C.S. Lewis properly called “scientism”) was the “new” answer for an insane and dangerous world without hope or mooring. Ironically enough, it was in fact the Western elite’s embrace of such a reductionist, metaphysical materialism/naturalism (a la Rousseau, Marx, Diderot, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, etc.) that had led to the “modern,” nihilist, collectivist, and statist ideologies behind the horrors of the 20th century.
However, Dad retained Christian moral convictions then and throughout his life, and as both of his sequential wives were Christian, he was supportive and would dutifully join with them in church each Christmas and Easter, as well as other appropriate occasions. In his later years, I had the opportunity on a number of occasions to discuss with him Christian apologetics and philosophy (including the work of the Templeton Prize-Laureate philosopher Alvin Plantinga, sociologist/historian Rodney Stark, and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright) and the “Big Questions of Life,” and he came to agree with me that Christian theism is entirely coherent and that atheism/naturalism is both incoherent and self-refuting (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). Indeed, he would join in my wife Mary and me in prayer.
Politically, my father’s family were New-Deal-liberal Democrats which was the fashion then (and remains so for many Americans), believing the conventional myth that FDR saved America from the Great Depression that people were told was caused by the excesses, harms, and instability of free-market capitalism. In contrast, my mother’s family were Republicans who viewed FDR as a demagogue and a corrupt and opportunistic threat to liberty, peace and prosperity. As with my father, my mother was raised during the Great Depression, but she became a committed Goldwater conservative. Over the years, however, she persuaded my father to join with her in opposing statism and the crippling and dehumanizing spread of moral relativism in American culture.
Once married, Dad took what he thought would be a temporary job in the commercial property insurance industry. However, that move turned into a career—as his top-notch work starting with Associated Factory Mutual Insurance Companies in Boston and New York City resulted in his being hired away by one insurance firm after another. In the process, he became Vice President at Improved Risk Mutual and then Executive Vice President at State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, Argonaut Insurance Company, and Bankers Trust Company. All of those advancements meant frequent moves for him and our family, including sequential homes in Needham, MA, Scotch Plains and Westfield, NJ, Armonk, NY, New Canaan, CT, Bloomington, IL, Menlo Park, CA, Northbrook, IL, and finally Belleair, FL. He took an early retirement from Bankers Trust after he and my mother moved to Florida to take care of his ailing mother.
My parents’ longtime dream, once he retired, was to rent a motor home and drive around the country, then throughout Canada and down to the tip of South America and back. However, just as he was approaching retirement, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. During this time, my parents attended my father’s 50th high school reunion—where they ran into Jackie Windahl, Dad’s former high school sweetheart, along with her husband, Everett, who died soon thereafter. When my mother learned that her cancer was terminal, she suggested that, after her passing, my father should reconnect with Jackie. My mother died in 1987, after 40 years of marriage, and would have been 100 this year. My dad’s mother, whom they had moved to Florida to care for, ironically outlived her, passing away the following February at the age of 94.
In 1990, Dad and Jackie were married, which lasted for 20 years until Jackie’s death in 2010.
In a 1960 interview, Dad said that his greatest interests in life other than my mother and us were 8-mm home movie photography, folk music (Burl Ives, Jimmie Rodgers, etc.) and tennis. The latter sport was one his father had taught all seven of his children, and my father taught me. Dad turned out to be quite the lifelong tennis champion, routinely in his later years through age 90, defeating opponents half his age. Folks would say, “He’s got an old head and a young body.” Dad not only wound up with shelves full of tennis trophies but tennis also became a key inspiration for his subsequent book, Q-23: A Novel of Espionage and Racqueteering.
Another great interest of his was public speaking. To overcome his fear as a young man of speaking before others, Dad became a longtime member and eventually an executive with Toastmasters International, and his shelves were similarly packed with speaking trophies.
In addition, Dad loved all things about the American West, as well as camping, sailing and playing his Spanish guitar and electric organ. Indeed, my parents’ honeymoon was a camping trip across the western U.S., including, according to my mother, one night when a bear entered their tent and they retreated for safety to the car, as well as many narrow misses from driving off cliffs when on narrow dirt roads along various canyons.
At the age of 89, he was at the center of our family reunion in the beautiful heart of the West on the Colorado River, in Moab, Utah, including river rafting, exploring, horseback riding, and much more. Although reluctant at first to ride, not having been on a horse in 74 years, he took one leap up and was in the saddle again.
Dad also loved books which he regularly devoured, especially adventure stories, mysteries, biographies, science fiction, and histories. His love for reading was triggered by his father who introduced him as a boy to books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Zane Grey, and Rudyard Kipling. Later, he loved Michael Crichton, John Grisham, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, Daniel Defoe, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis and others.
Dad loved dogs; did not swear, smoke or drink coffee; and he very seldom drank any alcohol. He loved meatloaf, fish and chips, roast turkey with all the trimmings (he always made the stuffing from his own recipe), fried chicken, and pie (Key lime, pumpkin, apple, cherry, mincemeat, strawberry-rhubarb, lemon meringue, etc.). He hated most all vegetables and only would eat them when Mary prepared them.
My fond memories of Dad are many: when he read to us before bed; wrestled with us on the living room floor; taught me how to fish, swim, and play baseball (including Little League), basketball, tennis, golf, and touch football (tackle football was banned by my mother); sailed and fished in his small sailboat at Windmill Farms in Armonk; worked in our various yards to pick up stones and plant pachysandra ground cover for a penny each; built a secret fallout shelter; and was my companion when I was in the YMCA’s Indian Guides and then as a Tenderfoot Boy Scout on a 50-mile canoe trip in Maine with other fathers and sons. Throughout his life, he told me that that trip was the greatest of all!
He loved tools and was self-taught as a handyman and builder of multiple rooms in the many houses we lived in, an incredible playhouse with bunk beds and TWO trap doors, and assorted structures, go-carts, and much more. An ongoing family joke each Christmas was which electric tool I would receive as a gift from Dad that year, usually yet another saw, hand drill or sander.
Mary and I visited with him in Florida on many occasions and we had the pleasure of hosting his 90th Birthday celebration in Clearwater for family and friends when we released his book, Q-23. Mary had found a version of his ms. for the book which she typed into our computer and with his permission we had it professionally published as a book.
Incidentally, Q-23 was endorsed by his cousins, the novelists Paul E. Theroux and Peter C. S. Theroux, among others. Copies are available here, including for those who knew Dad or anyone who might enjoy a delightful, surprising and fun read, and in the process get to know Dad a bit through it.
My father was loving, kind, funny, disciplined, patient, thoughtful, impeccably honest, and a man’s man in every good sense. I only hope that I am living up to his example and am passing along such traits to our sons Paul and Drake, daughter-in-law Sherlice, granddaughter Jennifer, our entire family, and others.
Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine.
Tags: Air Force, American Revolution, American West, Antoine Paulin, Antoine Terroux, Captain James Withrow, Catholic, Central Michigan University, Family, Father, FDR, Great Depression, Michigan State University, Mother, Okinawa, Paul E. Theroux, Q-23, tennis, World War II