William Walter Hakala, 1935-2020

My brother Todd, my sister Trish, my mom and my dad

My dad died today after spending the previous six weeks in the hospital. He got a concussion when he fell in his garage and hit his head and incurred a subdural hematoma. He was taken to the hospital and the surgery to remove the blood clot was a success. He only had one kidney, after cancer took his other several years ago, and that kidney was only 20% functional, so it took him a long time to wake from the anaesthesia. Six weeks of bed rest caused pneumonia in his lungs. A urinary tract infection as a result of a catheter spread to his kidney, which was unable to handle it. He passed away at 4pm in Albuquerque surrounded by my mom, brother and sister-in-law.

Fast forward in time…. I gave my eulogy at the memorial service we had for him on what would be his next birthday on August 5, 2021. I tried writing a eulogy soon after he died but couldn’t get through it and needed time. Over the months after his death I was able to get my thoughts together about what I wanted to say at his memorial service. What follows is a written version of what I said. My talk was from an outline that I wrote because when I read what I wrote verbatim I feel like I sound robotic and I wanted it to sound like my natural voice. I practiced this 2-3 times a day for weeks because I fear public speaking and knew the practice would make it easier for me to say. So I had it memorized by the time the memorial service came around. This is a transcription of what I believe I said written entirely from memory…

Hello. My name is Troy and I want to talk about my dad’s impact on me and my life.

When most people think about their lives they look back at their life, the things that happened and the things they did, and try to figure out how they got to where they are. I don’t have to do that because I knew early on in my life what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. I learned that from my dad.

Now, I don’t mean to say that my dad sat me down one day and explained my destiny to me, what I needed to do and how I would go about it. My dad taught me by modeling good, productive behavior. The best way I can explain this is that my dad was a home improvement guy. He was always fixing and changing things around the house. He did simple things like repairing or adding electrical outlets and repairing plumbing issues, but also big things like moving walls, opening up walls, finishing basements and building decks — he built the decks on both houses that I grew up in.

And he did this all by himself. Remember, this was before the internet. He couldn’t google “how to build a deck” or watch a 5-minute video on YouTube to learn it. He had to figure it out himself. I don’t even know how he learned it all.

I used to follow him around the house as he did these projects asking him lots of questions that must’ve annoyed him, but he answered all my questions. He taught me what he was doing, why he was doing it, how he was doing it, what each tool was used for, how to use the tools, how not to use the tools. That was useful to me my entire life. To this day, I like doing home improvement projects around my house. Partly because I enjoy using the tools and improving things, like he did, but also because it always reminds me of the times I spent with my dad.

But that’s not really what he taught me. What he taught me was what I call “a DIY attitude”, or a do-it-yourself attitude. What that means to me is that I learned that I can do anything I want, all I have to do is try, to learn a few things and when you run into an obstacle, which you will, you figure out a solution and keep going. You never give up. I believe this is core to who I am and that attitude served me well in my life.

As my dad did all these home improvement projects he naturally had to go to hardware stores. And I’d often go with him. My dad spent way too much time in hardware stores. If he was going for a box of nails, he’d be there an hour or an hour-and-a-half walking the aisles, looking at all the stuff, picking up tools and comparing the tools. I don’t know what he was thinking but I imagine he was thinking “What could I build with this?” Or “This tool is really cool”. I did know that he loved being in the hardware store. He was like a kid in a candy shop.

He even told me once that he’d like to own his own hardware store! Now, I don’t know how serious he was about that because he only said it to me once. But he did tell me that he wanted to own his own business. And he explained it to me this way: “If you’re going to work, you may as well work for yourself rather than someone else”. That really resonated with me. It made a lot of sense. So I knew at a young age that I would one day have my own business. And coupling that with that DIY attitude, I knew how I’d make that business a success.

I did start my own business. My wife and I started our own business together and we were the only two people in the company. We had to learn everything, we had to do everything ourselves. It was hard. For the first several years, we struggled and people told us to quit. But I knew that if we continued to learn, to find solutions to problems and never give up, it would be a success. And it was. It was a far greater success than either of us had imagined. It changed our lives.

My dad never did own his own business. But he had already changed his life by that point. My dad grew up in Minnesota. His dad was a coal miner. My dad knew he didn’t want to be a coal miner and he figured out that he needed to go to college. And he did. My dad didn’t just go to college, though, he got his Bachelor’s Degree, his Master’s Degree and a PhD. The first person in his family to go to college and he got a PhD! And he did it all by himself. His parents couldn’t afford to pay for his college so he worked and paid for it himself. I am proud of my dad for having the courage and the ability to change his life. It gave him better opportunities in his life and for me and my siblings. And I’m grateful that he left Minnesota so that I didn’t have to grow up during those Minnesota winters! He went on to have a successful career in engineering.

Anyone who has success in their life knows, whether they admit it or not, that luck plays a big part in their success. And my dad got very lucky when he met my mom. He really liked my mom. Within weeks of their first date they were engaged. And a few months, really weeks, later they were married. Then they had three kids, including me.

My dad modeled behavior for a good life and career. My parents modeled behavior for a good marriage. As I grew up, I saw that my parents were inseparable. They did everything together. They went everywhere together. They made decisions together. My dad came home to my mom every night after work, he had dinner with us, he spent every evening and every weekend at home with us (when he did his home improvement projects). My parents were life partners before anyone coined the term “life partners”. That was what I grew up thinking that marriage was: you find the person you want to be with all the time and you spend as much time with them as you can.

As I got older, I realized how rare that is. Almost half of all marriages end in divorce and the average length of a marriage is 8 years. My parents got married and never split up. They were married until the day my dad died. They were married for 60 years. 60 years! That’s almost 10 times as long as the average marriage. Or, as my dad would say, it’s an order of magnitude longer than the average marriage.

I still have a hard time getting my head around being married for 60 years. My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary a few days ago and, while she thinks it’s been an eternity already, it’s only been 17 years. If my math is correct, Gay, you’re stuck with me for at least 43 more years. No splitting up.

Mom, I know you’re sad. You should be. We all are. But I hope that you realize that you’re not sad because of what you lost, you’re sad because of what you had. You had something few people get to have.

I can’t say all of this to my dad, he can’t talk to me, I can’t hug him or tell him I love him. Because he’s not here, right? He’s here in our thoughts and memories, of course, but he is still here. And I can prove it…

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I started to notice mannerisms that I have that my dad had. For example, I’d sit down and cross my legs and I’d think “this is how my dad sits”. Or, the way I put my hand to my chin when I think. I’m sure many people have had the thought “Ugh, I’m turning in to my dad (or mom)!” and don’t like it. I resisted it for years. If I sat the way my dad sat, I’d uncross my legs or shift my weight so that I didn’t sit like my dad. Eventually, I thought this was stupid, that no one else notices, my mom probably wouldn’t even notice these subtle things, so why fight it? So I accepted it. Until one day. Let me explain….

When I was a kid, I’d tell my dad something I was excited about, something I learned or something I thought was neat. Sometimes, he’d do this thing that I never understood. He’d raise his eyebrows, say “Hmmmmm” and tilt his head and kind of stare into space. That was it! What did that mean?! Did it mean “I couldn’t care less, why is he telling me this?” Did it mean “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! But I’m going to be polite and not say anything and hope this whole thing goes away.”? Or, maybe, it meant “Wow! My mind is blown! I am so flummoxed by my son’s genius that I can only utter ‘Hmmm’ and freeze!”. No, I don’t think he was thinking that either.

When I had kids, one of my kids told me something they were excited about and guess what I did. For the first time in my life, I did the exact thing that my dad did. I’ll give a demonstration of it now. [IMPRESSION OF MY DAD]. At that moment, I instantly realized this is what my dad did and it felt like magic to me. It was as if my dad transcended time and space and entered my body, he became me and I became him. And I knew what he was thinking, how he felt, because I knew he was thinking and feeling what I was thinking and felt. After all these years, I finally understood that thing that I never understood. I understood that he felt the same way about me as I did about my kid at that moment. And it made me very happy. So I stopped merely accepting that I share these characteristics and qualities with my dad, I embraced them. And now, I cherish them. The other day, I was reading a book and I saw my fingers holding down the book the way my dad did when he was concentrating on reading. He used three fingers with his left hand to hold the book down. I don’t know why, the book wasn’t going anywhere, the wind wasn’t turning the pages. I do the same thing. And when I noticed my fingers on the page, I didn’t move them, I just stared at them, smiled and thought “I am my dad”.

So my dad is still here. He’s in me. And he’s not just in me. He’s in my brother and sister too. I’m sure they notice characteristics that they share with my dad. And he’s not just in the three of us. He’s in his grandkids — he’s in my kids and my sibling’s kids. And if his grandkids are lucky enough to have kids of their own, he’ll be in them too. And their kids, and their kids, and so on. My dad is still here and he will be here for a long time. And that makes me happy, even today.

Thank you for coming here today, thank you for letting me say this and thank you for being a positive part of my dad’s life.

Dad, thank you for being who you are and for making me who I am. I miss you and I love you.

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