Tonight, we’re having a party for my Dad. Roy Samuelsen, Hoosier, Norwegian, a remarkable opera singer, Viking, boat lover, sheet metal worker, bishop, and friend.
When I was a kid, my Dad bought a boat, a big old ungainly sailboat he christened the Viking Queen. Our home was close to Lake Monroe, a big reservoir flooding the forest valleys of south central Indiana, and every spare afternoon, he’d hitch the Queen up to the family station wagon, and drive it down to a launching ramp. And we’d sail. The Queen was a ponderous craft, and my brothers and I were mostly reduced to taking turns holding the jib sheet, and griping about holding the jib sheet, while Dad would laboriously tack his way across the lake. And then we’d find some inlet, and anchor, and swim for awhile. That part was fine, but the sailing we found tedious–we were not big fans of the Queen.
But one school day, a Tuesday, I remember, the wind blew at gale force, and Dad couldn’t wait to take the Queen sailing. It was rainy and cold and sharp, and as we launched, we could hear sirens calling all the other sailboats in. Bad weather too hazardous for most boats was tailor-made for the Queen; I had never known that sailing could be so fun. I’ll never forget that day, my cheeks and hands bright red with the cold, the rain frosting my glasses. And we’d tack, and heel over, the bow crashing through the waves, spraying up onto the cabin in the bow. My younger brother, Rob and I looking back at my Dad at the tiller, and we just . . . laughed, out of the sheer joy of the day, the wind, the sails, the old boat liberated.
I’ve come to think that that day captures my Dad. First, the boat. He got his first boat as a kid, growing up in Moss, Norway. The backyard of his home was a beach; he grew up right by the ocean, the mouth of Oslo Fjord. He had a small sailboat as a kid, used it to fish each day after school, named the Turid after his younger sister. For a Norwegian, raising a family in land-locked Indiana was a challenge, but after the Queen, we had a succession of boats; sailboats, speedboats, pontoon boats. Waterskiing, sailing, swimming, zip sledding. Every Saturday we went out on the boat, except in dead in winter. Every day during the summer, basically. Most Sundays, even. I was the family nerd–sometimes, I’d bring a book, and while others swam, I’d read in the cabin. But, yeah, we all swam.
My poor Mom. A lady’s lady, she made her own adjustments to a family with three active little boys, and the older little boy to whom she was married. She loved to waterski, but she did it her way, carefully lowering herself into the water, and sedately finishing by sinking into the water, so her hairdo wouldn’t get wet and be spoiled. My Mom would have loved having a daughter, but no such luck, so she camped and hiked and swam and waterskiied, and in between tried her best to civilize the heathen natives.
What all this illustrates was the balancing act my Dad mastered throughout his life–a man of adventure and risk, but one who never jeopardized the family. Early in their marriage, my Dad had a good job, a trade. That’s what Americans wanted, in the fifties, a good job at a fair wage. He was a sheet metal worker, and a good one. And he liked it; he stayed friends with his old boss at the shop, Joe Creer, would always go see him when he went west. But he had that great voice, that huge, velvety bass-baritone, and he wanted to perform too, a career as a singer. He’d trained in Germany while in the US Army, and kept singing in college. Finally, he reached a cross-roads, a one year graduate school opportunity in Indiana. That became a faculty appointment, teaching voice at IU, at what was then becoming the finest music program in the Midwest, and arguably the entire US.
To major in music, to go to grad school, to pursue a career in opera; those were all risks. And Dad had the talent to go further, to sing with an opera house in Germany, or to pursue a career at the Met. I’m sure it crossed his mind. But he didn’t like what an opera lifestyle would do to his family. So he stayed in Indiana, and many (if not most) of his professional credits were with the Louisville Opera company, not Berlin, not La Scala, but Louisville. That’s not to say he didn’t sail in larger ponds occasionally. He sang at New York City Opera, with Chicago Lyric, with Boston Lyric. But family came first.
Which is also not to say that his career was negligible. Go to the BYU library, and see the archive where they honor him. I have indelible memories of him singing; that huge voice and that commanding stage presence. I will never forget his Flying Dutchman, and the ship’s bowsprite that came crashing down over the first few rows of the audience. I remember vividly how brilliantly he sang and acted the evil Scarpio in Tosca. He became locally famous, in fact, for his spirited Star Spangled Banner at Indiana basketball games. (Combining basketball and America, in a uniquely Hoosier kind of patriotism). I even met my wife while hearing Dad sing. In April of 1978, my Dad sang the role of the Savior in the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s magisterial oratorio The Redeemer. I was in the chorus, and shared a riser with a pretty blonde soprano, from California. I said ‘hey, that soloist is my Dad.’ She didn’t believe me. But eventually, we went out. Next December, we’ll celebrate our 33rd year of marriage.
I was trying to use my Dad’s celebrity and talent to impress a pretty girl. But I was more often embarrassed by him, especially in high school, when he had a convertible, and loved to sing Wagner at full volume while dropping me off at a play rehearsal. My Dad is . . . boisterous. He enjoys his life, lives it full bore, he’s an extrovert and bon vivant. He’s an old-school Wagnerian, trained to be heard over a hundred-piece orchestra. I didn’t always appreciate that about him, but I do now. I get a kick out of it, especially when he comes to visit my ward and I get to see all the heads whip around when the opening hymn begins and they hear. . . that voice.
But he’s a family man first and foremost. I know you’re supposed to say that about your Dad, but in his case, it’s really true: his family is his life. And that ‘putting family first’ was never just pro forma. He’d be out on a singing gig, away from home a week or two at a time. Mom held things together. But when Dad came home, he was home. He’d grab his mitt, and he’d ask me and my brothers if we wanted to have a catch. Growing up in Norway, baseball was not his game, but it was ours, and so he learned about it, throwing ‘moon balls’: pop flies. He put up a basketball standard in the driveway, and we’d play hoops, 2 on 2. We’d throw a frisby, or toss a football around, or roll around on the front yard grass and dog poop, wrestling. I’m sure, after a couple of week business trip, he would have probably rather have come home and rested. But it didn’t matter how tired he was. He was home, and his first priority was to play. And we boys loved it.
Every summer, we’d go on vacation, and he’d plan the route carefully, consulting his bookcase full of National Geographics. We always went to Utah, obviously, to visit his folks and my Mom’s mom, and all the other aunts and uncles and cousins. But ‘going to Utah’ could utilize almost any route, and we tried every possibility–swooping down south through the Panhandle, or shooting off north so we could visit Mount Rushmore and Little Bighorn. And we always, always, stopped at every historical monument. And generally pulled on our mitts and caught moon balls, at every historical monument. Every year, without fail, we took a vacation out west, usually stopping at Hays Kansas half way there because that’s where the car generally broke down. (Even car repair stops were an adventure–first priority was to find a KOA campground for the night, and second priority was a miniature golf course.)
And yet, re-reading what I’ve read, I realize I may be making him sound like a big buffoon. But he’s also capable of extraordinary sensitivity and kindness. I saw it myself a couple of days ago. One of my daughters sat down with him, and told him of her life-long struggle with depression. And he sat with her, totally focused on her, completely intent on really hearing what she was telling him. And he told her how much he loved her, and how much he’d learned about her disease, and how grateful he was that she’d shared her pain with him. It was a remarkable moment, and one that showed me a side of my Dad that we’ve all seen at times; the compassion, the unfeigned love.
My Dad turned eighty this month, and tonight we’re having a big party for him. Norwegians particularly celebrate birthdays ending with zeros, and we’ve rented a reception hall. In typical Dad fashion, he’s spent the last few days harrumphing about it. Not wanting a big fuss. But we’re going to make a fuss, darn it, and he’s going to have to put up with it. Because he’s our Dad, our remarkable big bear of a Dad. And we will always love him.