Eulogy – September 14, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, McAllen, Texas
I’m Avrel, the youngest of Jan and Carl’s three sons, and I want to thank all of you for being here.
Dad enjoyed Bob Newhart, and especially the bit in his show about “Darrell and my other brother Darrell,” so I think he’s especially amused today by “Jessie and my other pastor Jesse.” Thank you, gentlemen, for everything.
Ruth, thank you for that beautiful tribute and all you and Mike have meant to our family through the years.
Dad’s decline was lengthy and difficult. My mother has been nothing less than heroic and inspirational, and I know you all will lift her up as she begins writing the next chapter of her remarkable life.
I also want to say a very heartfelt thanks to the two people who, next to Mom, did the most for Dad over many, many years: the local son, Erren, and Fernando. No thanks is enough for all that the two of you have done.
And thanks to all of you for your many kindnesses. Sometimes I think death exists by design to remind us of humanity’s inherent goodness, because that goodness is so on display at times like this.
* * *
Carl Seale was known to many of you for the passion around which he organized his life, music, and the public form that passion took. Straight from Central Casting, the maestro with a silvery mane and professorial beard cut a striking figure as he strode on stage to applause and brought the symphony to attention with his upraised baton.
But to say that he was from Central Casting is not to imply that this was some sort of act or pose. Carl Seale was the genuine article. He was an intellectual heavyweight with a clear and distinctive artistic vision that drove him. He did not chase trends but spoke from a place that was original and timeless. He was from the old school, in which one’s art was forged by years of disciplined study and a mastery of theory and form. And to his students he did not hand out easy A’s. To his family and friends, he was, of course, much more than a stock character.
He descended from English and Scots-Irish pioneers who, audacious and stubborn, had ploughed their way across the South and Midwest for three centuries, finally converging on the East Texas town of Athens. There, in 1936, Carl was born in the bedroom of a tiny wooden house. He was the third of four children born to a refrigerator repairman and a church secretary. He was the first in his family tree to attend college, a fact made more remarkable because he would ultimately earn a doctorate, and made more impressive still by the fact that he was dyslexic, though he made so little of this that I only learned of it two years ago while editing his autobiography.
If he was an intellectual heavyweight, he was also a ham, plain and simple. Show business ran in his blood. His grandfather was an itinerant band leader in Iowa, and while Dad’s mother was a girl, the family toured the Midwest playing the vaudeville circuit as “The Musical Hewetts.” He was fascinated by and envious of his cousins, who were circus acrobats known as the Flying Beehees.
Dad adored circuses. My earliest memories of him are not musical, but acrobatic. In sessions we called simply “Tricks,” he would lie on the floor and, one at a time, balance us above him on his feet — now I’m sitting in a very precarious high chair, now I’m flying like Superman with his feet on my belly and looking down into his grinning face. When we could little afford it, he bought us a trampoline, and it became a central part of our family life for years. I remember Dad lying on the trampoline with us under what were then darker skies, and staring up into the heavens. And as he adored circuses he also loved magicians and performed magic for his four grandsons.
Although he could silence a rowdy 80-person orchestra with an icy stare, he also reveled in abject silliness. He never missed a chance to costume up for a Halloween party or a church carnival. And he delighted in trying to embarrass us in public places by seizing our hands and skipping, or else trying to convince us to walk through a shopping mall or airport terminal in some synchronized goofiness: “Let’s do hand motions!” he’d say, eliciting from us a mortified “Daaaaaad!”
There are lots of other interesting nooks and crannies of his personality I could mention — the yoga and Pilates he took up in later years, his interest in UFOs, how he doted on the tortoises that roamed the backyard — what more perfect pets for one afflicted by slowness.
I think the biggest gift Dad gave me was entirely unintentional but a precious gift all the same — he gave me a model of audacious vision and tireless work. He showed us boys what it is to dream big — “I think I’ll write a ballet based on Toltec mythology, get it sponsored, then recruit a hundred people and partner organizations to help me carry it off.” — or — “Let’s move to the Valley, rent a dilapidated farm house in the middle of a citrus grove, and spend every waking moment getting it into a livable state!” And then, whatever it was, to see that project to completion. Others will have different takeaways from the life of Carl Seale, but that’s mine: Dream big, and do not stop working until that dream has become a reality.
Though he was often absorbed in his next big project, he also nurtured the creative seed in the three of us. When Ansen, was a teenager, Dad mail-ordered a canoe kit, and he and Ansen spent a couple of long weeks in the dining room screwing together its numerous parts and cutting the vinyl that covered it before paddling it down the Rio Grande. Who’s to say that episode and others like it didn’t help Ansen realize that he could build anything he wanted if he set his mind to it, even a digital camera, even his own beautiful works of art?
When Erren was 10, Dad cast him in the lead of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Erren and Ansen shared the role, and both learned the entire opera in English and Spanish. Erren later starred in Dad’s own opera, The Atonement. Who’s to say those experiences didn’t pave the way for his learning Spanish, or his memorization abilities, or for his attention to detail and the aesthetic sense that has been the common thread of his career and his own contributions to this community?
When I, at age 13, finished writing my sequel to The Chronicles of Narnia, Dad drove me to the print shop, ordered seven copies, and had them bound. This encouragement to creativity was lifelong. Just 10 years ago, I mentioned to him that I was thinking of recording a solo guitar album, and before I knew it, Dad had found a sound engineer and paid for the studio time.
Only once do I remember him pushing back on one of our quixotic projects. I was 10, and we had just seen the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course I immediately commenced planning my own full-scale reproduction of the musical to be staged in the vacant lot at Tamarack and 3rd. As the only person I knew with a beard, Dad was cast in the title role; he did not know this. As I informed him of my plan to suspend him from a cross using Erren’s scoliosis brace, he snapped. “Avrel, if you want to stage a full-blown Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar, you’ll have to do it without me!” I wonder where I got the audacity for such ideas.
Decades later, about 10 years ago, I did finally make a movie, and he agreed, very readily, to be in it. With his regal bearing, he had always reminded me of a king, and that’s just how I cast him. Nor did I have to twist his arm to get him to write and record the entire soundtrack. He was listening to that music when he left us on Wednesday afternoon.
As I was helping him bathe a few months ago during a visit, he lamented, “All dignity is gone.” For a dignified man, he had to accept a lot of indignities. He greeted his diagnosis with anger, as anyone would, but he soon taught himself to live a productive and satisfying life despite a handicap that grew just a little bit worse every day for nearly 20 years. He met each new milestone with anger, then stoic pragmatism. Toward the end, he wore a bracelet Mom had given him for Christmas inscribed with one of their sayings: “It is what it is.” The only thing I ever really heard him say about his future was, “It’ll be OK … until it isn’t.”
For a public figure, Dad was an extreme introvert and did not open up easily to others. We joked this week that his idea of engaging deeply in conversation was remaining in the room. But his illness softened that hard shell some. This week my brother reminded me of the line from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”: “… And we all lose our charms in the end.” I think, to the contrary, Dad gained some charms in the end — more patience, more openness. I’m reminded of a verse about God’s mysterious ways written in the voice God, Who says: “O Son of Man, My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy.”
On Wednesday afternoon, an hour after he had died, I stood at the foot of his bed, staring at his feet, and marveling that they had once held my skinny little body up, seemingly halfway to the ceiling, so that I could fly. Dad, you held us up in lots of ways, large and small, and because of that, we’re still flying. Thank you. Thank you for making the world around us a more beautiful and interesting place. We love you. I love you.
Photo by Erren Seale