- Kevin J. Mahoney (1946-2019)
I remember the first time I thought my father was going to die. I was no more than five or six. Dad was preparing a fire in the grill. Lacking lighter fluid, he sent me to the garage for the jerrycan of gasoline and proceeded to douse the grill with it. When the match hit, it sent up a fireball 20 feet high, singing the side of the house, and setting my father's clothes on fire. In a surprisingly graceful move for a man of his size, he dove over the side of our above-ground pool into the water.
When he stood up, waist deep in the pool, Dad looked startled. (It's not every day that you set yourself on fire.) But he had a wry smile on his face, as if to say, "Well, that went sideways, but I pulled it out."
I learned two powerful lessons that summer evening:
Dad was flammable.
Dad didn't always know what the heck he was doing, but he would probably stick the landing.
My father attended McQuaide Jesuit High School, in Rochester, New York, where he learned, among other things, Latin. This is a fact he would not let his children forget, none of whom studied Latin in the degraded educational environment post-Vatican II. To which I will now say to you, dear departed father: non omnia possumus omnes. For those of you, like my siblings and me, not schooled in Latin, it translates as: "We can't all do everything."
The summer after my father graduated from high school, 1964, there was a race riot in Rochester. The (white) police tried to arrest a 19-year-old (black) man at a block party, and simmering tensions boiled over. Governor Rockefeller called out the National Guard—the first such use of troops in a northern city since the Civil War. The riot lasted three days and left four people dead and 350 injured. One of the injured was my grandfather, who was struck by a brick thrown through the windshield of the car my father was driving.
The incident played a pivotal role in my father's life. Rather than react with anger or resentment toward the rioters, it caused him to think about the magnitude of social inequity that would drive people to destroy their own neighborhood. It kindled within him a thirst for justice and led him to a life of public service, first in social work, then in public health.
My father joined the New York City Department of Health in 1985, beginning his long tenure there. He eventually rose to the position of Assistant Commissioner. In the mid-1980s, the epidemic first known as "gay cancer" was raging. Government, from the federal level on down, was slow or unwilling to dedicate resources to what became known as the AIDS crisis. My father was a key ally within the public health apparatus for getting funding and setting up support for HIV/AIDS prevention, detection, and treatment.
One summer afternoon I fell asleep on the beach. Three hours later, I awoke with a back blistered by sunburn. I rode my BMX back to our rented house in a rising panic. The house was deserted except for Mary Ellen, a close family friend and a mother of two. Acting in loco parentis, Mary Ellen tried to address my wounds by applying Absorbine Jr. This product is a topical analgesic balm for arthritis pain. It should not be applied to open wounds or sunburned skin, as it will draw heat and inflame the affected area.
By the time my father got home a few minutes later, I was wheeling around the house like a rabid raccoon caught in an elevator. Seeing the state of my back, my father led me to the shower, turned the cold water on, and rubbed popsicles up and down my back for 20 minutes until the swelling subsided.
My father coached youth soccer when I was a child. Our team, the Bayside Bombers, was terrible. I played the part of inept goalkeeper. So inept, in fact, that I was once scored on with my back to the game, staring at the gulls circling under the Throg's Neck Bridge. That year, the local newspaper wrote a story on the fledgling soccer league that my parents founded with some other folks. When asked about the Bomber's dismal record, my father told the reporter, "Winning is an added bonus."