My father, Robert Emmet Nagle, was born in June of 1944, one of four boys born to Eleanor Carr and James Nagle. His early life was full of love and loss, which served to shape him into the man we would all come to know and love. He was named for the Irish poet, orator and rebel, Robert Emmet, whose spirit would be reflected in our Robert’s life and work as well.
Bob, as most here knew him, recently told me some stories about his parents and other members of the previous generation, some of which he hadn’t told me before. There was an urgency in the telling that in hindsight seems like a sign that he may have felt subconsciously that his time was limited. His storytelling created crystal clear vignettes describing this other New York of the past century- so many details and dates he remembered. He spoke of how his father, James, “a rogue” as he called him, at the end of his shift driving a coal truck, would dump the remaining bits in piles on the poorer streets, for the people to pick up, rather than drop it back at the company lot. How James would pick up all five of the city newspapers to read on Sunday, with his own father, calling it a “layman’s education”. I’d always seen my father read the NY Times, not only on Sunday but every day, from cover to cover. It was interesting to connect his practice of this devouring of words with his father’s.
He described how his mother, Eleanor, was trusted to dress her employer, a business owner, who was missing an arm, in all his finery, and to count his money for him. How his Aunt Mildred would take in a woman from the street from time to time, give her a place to bathe and stay, and feed her, in exchange for doing the ironing. He spoke of how most of the women in his family were educated beyond what was compulsory at the time, and how hard they worked, aside from raising their families, for the Grace school, and the phone company, and for Coca Cola. How his grandfathers, who came to New York from Ireland were a draftsman, and a stone cutter. He reiterated a story he had told me in the past, when I spent a summer in Cork, Ireland, about our ancestor from around those parts, Nano Nagle. She was the founder of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, a pioneer of education in Ireland. She was another rogue-in-the-family, who broke the rules regarding education and class at the time, traveling smuggled in a cargo ship from Ireland to France with her sister. Upon returning to Ireland, she shirked her wealth and was an advocate of education for the poor, sick and destitute. I tell you this because those of who know and loved him are aware of Bob’s approach to life, which echoes these tenets of education, hard work and social justice, and is encapsulated in this quote from one of his favorite books, A Tale of Two Cities: “A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self.”
Robert’s true essence was that of a teacher and guide to many. He started his professional career as an English and Speech teacher at Bryant High School in Astoria, Queens, where he had grown up. Aside from fulfilling his goals to teach others, Robert’s time at Bryant would lead him down another great path, towards the love of his life, my mother, Lydia LaRuffa, another teacher in the English department. “I took his job”, she always liked to joke. Luckily, he didn’t take it to heart, and stuck around to teach anyway. While the two of them would always depict their early relationship as sort of an “opposites attract” situation- she calling him an “altar boy” and he calling her a “hippie”, in truth, they had more in common than not. Teachers, lovers of literature and the theater, they could easily match each other in a debate or lively discussion, interpreting a plot conceit or a character’s motivation. Their values and goals were so similar. Their courtship was long, but it stood the test of time, including their participation in the historic teaching strike, and other events of the late 60’s and early 70’s, leading to their elopement in July of 1973. They lived and worked together, and began a family. Leading lives centered around the school calendar, Kiera was born on the day of the Regents exam in 1978, and while Noelle’s due date would have fallen during the February break in 1983, as a preemie she was born instead in January (avoiding a huge blizzard that came that year in February).
Eventually Bob left Bryant HS in Queens to work in the Sewanhaka HS District in Long Island in his role as guidance counselor, then department chair, and eventually Director of Pupil Personnel services. He advocated for so many students, first on a one on one basis, navigating difficult relationships between teenagers and their parents. Later he advocated administratively for student services, supported his colleagues and other staff, whom he also was happy to provide training for and support as an equal. He was diplomatic. While he didn’t always understand or agree with someone’s perspective, he always found a way to work with someone, whether it was his child, or someone else’s; he held people in positive regard and with the attitude that everyone was doing the best with what they got. But if he could, he would encourage them to do better, to do more, and push themselves towards their goals, as he had always had to do that for himself.
In their early retirement, Bob and Lydia traveled to Sicily, as they had always dreamed, and to New Orleans, many times, attending Jazz Fest and visiting with friends. Bob enthusiastically enjoyed a good meal and good conversation. He had an encyclopedic knowledge about many things historically, and he always presented them in a framework of “a people’s history”, with a telling of tales that made you feel like you never knew how interested you were in that particular subject until he talked about it.
While it may have been difficult for him to understand the exact nature of my spiritual involvement in Lakota ceremonies, he was interested in the history, and open to learning about and participating in some practices to maintain our connection. I think he knew that my faith was as deep as my parents’, although its format had diverged from theirs. My involvement with these practices coincided with the beginning of some of the difficult health diagnoses he received, and I believe he felt supported by prayers and ceremonies made with his wichozone, wowoke (health and wellbeing) in mind. It struck me this week that his passing coincided with the Sundance ceremony that I am still part of in spirit. The day he passed is the day that the sacred tree, chan wakan, is cut down from where it grew, carried, and stood back up in the center of the circle, where, for the last four days, as we mourned him here, the dancers prayed. As I do every year, I had made an offering of tobacco tied in cloth, which I had given my friends to put on the tree as part of the ceremony. It has been a comfort to me knowing that they too would be praying, under the light of sun and sky, in a church of a different form, for the safe journey of his spirit to join his loved ones who had gone before him. We do the same here today.
Over the last several years, we got to celebrate so much with Bob. The birth of his first grandchild, the ebullient Mato. The beautiful wedding of Noelle and Tom, under the blooming magnolias. The 43/50 Anniversary party, celebrating the length of his courting and married life with Lydia. The birth of Evie Marina, effervescent being. Bob loved his grandchildren with all of his heart, spending hours reading to them, talking with them, telling them stories, and listening to them. (And, when not with them, talking to everyone else about them.) He had parented by getting down on the floor and playing with my sister and I, and braiding our hair in the mornings before school. He was happy to have so much time with Mato and Evie, to see them on a daily basis and watch them grow, noting their every accomplishment.
Most recently, this June, we somehow pulled off a surprise celebration for his 75th birthday. He was truly astonished, and happy, to see so many friends and family in one place, to celebrate him, as he said, gathered together for “a good reason”. He was grateful to see everyone, to be toasted, and to share a meal. On a more intimate scale, we spent time shortly thereafter as a family in Rhode Island, as we have done many years past, for the first week of July. He and Lydia sat by the ocean, graced with a week of good weather, and watched the children play in the yard. We enjoyed meals in favorite places, toasting Bob and Lydia’s 46th wedding anniversary, his birthday, and mine. We will fondly remember spending time in that favorite place together as part of our last memories with him.
How do we move on from the loss of one whom some might call a patriarch in many areas of his life? (In our inner family, we know it is truly a matriarchy, or at least, an equal ground.) He was a feminist father, instilling in my sister and I, and now Evie, that we could do whatever we set our minds to, despite what the world may tell us. “The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual, and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.” This quote is from one of his favorite books to work with when he taught high school- “Lord of the Flies”. In this book, there are 12 chapters. His assignment to the students was always to write the 13th chapter- for them to imagine, through writing, what lessons would the children, who had survived as their world was turned upside down, take back into their respective smaller worlds?
Those of us here never wanted to imagine what a world without him would be like; however, we are tasked with doing that now. What does it look like? There is a space that he held that will never be filled. I, for one, hope to carry on his legacy of generosity, insight, and teaching others. His life was defined by hard work, responsibility, and a commitment to education. We will start a scholarship in his name, to give others the opportunity to learn, as he would have wanted. We will remember his faith, despite the immense hardships he faced. We will remember another quote from The Lord of the Flies – “As long as there’s light, we’re brave enough.” The light of his spirit, and his faith, will keep us brave, as we walk forward, holding his memory in our hearts.