It took a little convincing, but Dick Flaville, FOTMS 1950, agreed to have his story told.
This is a profile in courage, although Dick might object to that label. You’ll see shortly why it qualifies.
“FOTMS 1950” is what Dick has scrawled on the envelopes of the many letters, newspaper articles, New Yorker and Far Side cartoons he’s sent me faithfully since 1982.
It stands for “Friend of the Motorist Since 1950.” Dick was in the tire business for more than 40 years in his native Pennsylvania and in Ithaca, N.Y.
At 84, Dick has survived more slings and arrows than a good man deserves. Yet he is one of the most optimistic and courageous men I’ve known. He’s also read more books than most people on the planet.
Mention a title, and Dick will converse passionately and intelligently about it — from Robert Caro’s voluminous biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson to anything by his favorites John Steinbeck, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Kurt Vonnegut. And throw in forgotten classics by Peter deVries, who Dick says “makes me laugh my ass off.”
In his prime, Dick not only devoured several books a week, but also wrote letters to John Irving, Anne Tyler, Vonnegut and other authors. Vonnegut never wrote back, but Tyler and Irving did.
Dick ended a long letter to Irving by saying there was no need to write back, because no one ever does. Irving responded with a postcard that said, “I never write back either.”
Dick’s love of books started in his early 20s, when there wasn’t much money for entertainment — but a library was close by. “I always had a book under my arm,” he said.
Like many of his generation, Dick understood early the value of work. The summer when he was 7 or 8, he delivered his father’s lunch to him at work every day and got a nickel each time.
One day he told his father not to pay him the 5 cents each trip, but to wait until he had made 20 deliveries to pay up. “A dollar was a big deal to me,” Dick said.
A year or so later, his father died. His mom re-married, and the family lived for a few years above his stepfather’s bar.
OK, more slings and arrows, and how a man who gets knocked down keeps getting back up: Dick has buried two sons, including his youngest, Joe, who was only 7.
“After Joe died, instead of feeling sorry for himself, Dad started the New York State Region of the National Reye’s Syndrome Foundation to educate parents so other families would not go through what we did,” said daughter Lorrie Fitzgibbons.
Fifteen years after Joe died, Dick lost another son, Steve, who battled depression for many years. Dick’s marriage ended (although he later entered a long-term relationship that continues to this day). He has beaten cancer, has a pacemaker and is dealing with other health issues.
Does all this weigh on him? Certainly. He admits to being grumpy and emotional now and then, and allows the occasional complaint about being old. But there’s no wallowing. His sense of humor keeps him going — “especially his ability to laugh at himself,” said Lorrie, who cited her dad’s favorite self-analysis: “Often wrong, but never in doubt.”
Lorrie said that in 2002, her dad was diagnosed with cancer and was told he probably had two years to live. “How lucky I am to have my hero, my best friend, still in my life,” she said. “Every day, every memory is a gift that I hope I never take for granted.”
Another daughter, Marcy Byrne, said her father’s “constant and unwavering” values are what she admires most. “His faith has been shattered and he has lost a lot,” Marcy said. “He knows there is a God, but is not sure that God is watching over him. . . . I can see it in his eyes at times, but I understand. And his humor covers it well.”
His sense of humor? Ask Dick for his favorite name for a racehorse, and he’ll tell you — “Hoof Hearted” — then laugh a good while. He also is the proud owner of a “Bates Motel” towel that hangs in his bathroom.
Marcy said she listened to her dad’s advice about sports and tires, but there were more important lessons. “This is what I have learned from my father,” she said. “Work hard. Be honest. Children are not replaceable, and neither is your integrity.”
I’ll add this lesson, from having known Dick since 1982: Do what you can for others, but don’t forget to do the things you love, with the people you love. The right balance keeps you alive.
Here’s how Dick spends many Fridays: volunteering at the local hospital, escorting cancer patients to their appointments — sometimes after he has been a patient himself Monday through Thursday. During hockey season, you’ll find him at Lynah Rink cheering for the Cornell Big Red hockey team.
Dick and his long-time companion travel to Canada for Shakespeare; to Cooperstown for the opera, and to Saratoga for the horses. He volunteers at local road races, attends exercise classes for seniors and takes adult-ed courses taught by Cornell professors. (Thanks to the mixology course, Dick insists he knows when a pint glass is clean and when it isn’t. Just ask him.)
When know-nothing chuckleheads call Ithaca radio sports talk shows, Dick will pick up the phone to defend Jackie Robinson and other famous baseball players he saw — in person. After one such incident, he fumed, “Who’s going to set the record straight when I’m not around?”
Dick has said he always gives three things the benefit of the doubt — a baseball stadium, a book and a beer. He later added a fourth — a long shot — after yet another trip to see the horses at Saratoga.
At the track, Dick always puts his money on a trifecta of 3-5-8, a nod to the street address of the Tallmadge Tire store he ran in Ithaca until “retiring” in 1997.
He and daughter Lorrie joke about what might happen if the 3-5-8 ever comes in — Dick would be so excited at the payoff window that he’d go into cardiac arrest. They laugh at the image of him flat on his back, winning ticket clutched in his hand, gasping his last words: “Cash the ticket!”
On the subject of shuffling off his mortal coil, Dick had a more reflective moment a couple of years back. I had met him in Ithaca, and we toured a local microbrewery where a wedding party, already overserved, pulled up on a bus. Dick considered joining them on the bus until he noticed the cheap beer they were drinking.
Later that afternoon — and it wasn’t the good beer talking — Dick asked out of the blue: “Do you think there’s a heaven?”
He caught me off guard, and I was non-committal at best. Dick — often wrong, but never in doubt — proclaimed that indeed there is. And he said when he gets there, he knows how he’ll be greeted by his sons Joe and Steve:
“What the hell took you so long?”