Jeff Tayler, writer, Atlantic correspondent, and erstwhile publisher of stridently atheistic essays in Salon, wrote a godless “eulogy” for his father’s recent funeral. This is a 1200-word condensation of what he wrote and delivered, and I wanted to put it up here.
Eulogy for My Father, Charles William Tayler – a Progressive Man
Buffalo, NY, November 13, 1923 – Washington, D.C., December 3, 2017.
We’re having a secular service for my father today, Charles William Tayler, because he was a nonbeliever. I had confirmation of this a couple of years ago, when one of his caretakers asked him if she could “talk to him about Jesus.” My father answered, “No! I’m an atheist!” He was a person of integrity and a rationalist and a realist. You could count on him in a crisis to give you his honest opinion.
The last time I saw him, a few weeks ago, he was extremely diminished. He had lived to be ninety-four. He told me, “I’m in the final stages of life.” He said that with a smile on his life. He was not resisting his fate.
He used to tell me, as he approached the age of sixty-five, that “You know when I was a kid, the Roosevelt Administration adopted social security, and set the age for pensions at sixty-five. We all said, ‘this is a scam! No one lives to be sixty-five!’ But I see people living longer and longer, and I’m concerned that I not be a financial or a personal burden on you.” And he told me about his living will and something new at the time – his advance directive. He said, “If I have a heart attack on the tennis court, I don’t want to be revived.”
He was concerned throughout his life that he answer for himself and that his children answer for themselves. As a result this meant at times that his spirit would come out in ways that people might not have fully understood. When he saw someone with a cane or in a wheelchair, he would say, “your life is over if you have to use a cane or a wheelchair!” But when he did end up using a cane and a wheelchair, he accepted it.
Cicero wrote that we should reap and gather the fruits of life as they come. My father did this. It might sound clichéd to say that he led an extraordinary life. But he rose phoenix-like from the ashes of a serious of crises in the middle of his life to have a second half of life that would have been the envy of anybody. He met those challenges with courage. And soldiered on. And I use that verb advisedly.
My father was born in 1923 in Buffalo, New York, to a British-Canadian father and to our grandmother, who was born in Bagheria, Sicily, although she avoided discussing her Italian past. She would say, “I’m an American! I’m as American as anybody here!” That was the idea back then. Immigrants tried to blend in and feel that they were Americans, with a common purpose. She was a smart, tough woman. At a time when few women went to college, she graduated from a state university in New York with a chemistry degree.
When my father reached his mid-teen years, his mother asked him to go to the Catholic priest at the local church and be confirmed. My father went to the priest, listened to him, and came back saying “I’m not going to be confirmed. I don’t believe in it, and it’s not good for the world we live in that people have these religious views.”
When the Second World War broke out, he had just lost his father to stomach cancer. He went to his mother and said “I’m going to enlist!” She said, “No, wait until you’re drafted! You can’t leave me here!” He told her, “I’m going to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot.” She broke down and fell onto the bathroom floor, sobbing, saying “you can’t do this to me! I have your sister to raise, and I’ve just lost your father! I don’t have a way to make a living anymore!” Nevertheless, my father left with his friends from the University of Rochester to enroll in the Air Force, but they wouldn’t take him because of his vision. He enlisted in the Army. They put him in the Army Corps of Engineers.
He ended up in Patton’s Third Army, where he served as a combat engineer and machine-gun crew chief. He landed in France. He and his unit followed a route that led through France and Germany, and he witnessed the liberation of Dachau. He told me about what it was like to be an occupier. The Germans had surrendered, of course. When American soldiers would go out in the evening to get drunk, everyone wanted their business. But going home, they could count on gangs of German guys waiting to beat them up.
He returned to graduate from the University of Rochester. He then went to Harvard Law School on the G.I. Bill, and finished in 1949. Then he moved down to the District of Columbia. He had to pass the bar, but he had no income. So he worked on construction sites all day and studied all night. He had decided to become a lawyer because he believed in due process of law.
He worked for the Justice Department as special counsel investigating the corrupt congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, he went on to co-found Sachs, Greenbaum, and Tayler, and later worked with Whiteford, Taylor, and Preston. He had quite a few major clients, including the McDonnell Douglas corporation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Watergate building, and Dale Carnegie and Associates. Sometimes they were controversial, with a lot of write-up in the press—as when the Saudis wanted to buy F-16 fighter jets. They still do buy F-16 fighter jets, but they first did so with legal counsel from Sachs, Greenbaum and Tayler.
When his law firm broke apart in the 1980s, my father said that he was under the most pressure that he had ever experienced in his life. But he told me, “Don’t worry about it. There are much worse things in life.” He had seen the poverty of the Depression in Buffalo and Europe destroyed after the war.
When my sister and I were starting our school years, he and my mother decided to send us to the first integrated school in Washington, D.C. —Georgetown Day School. We didn’t think anything of it. You go to school with people of different races and religions, and you don’t know that there are these prejudices. At one point I asked my father, “Dad, you sent us to an integrated school. How did you and mom come to decide that?” And he said, “Well, we knew that integration was the future of the country. We were not going to start you off in an environment where you would develop prejudices.” I asked him, “were you prejudiced?” His response: “I once had prejudices that were inconsistent with the future we wanted for this country.” So he changed his views. At a party he was hosting, my father also welcomed one of the first openly gay attorneys in Washington, and took great care to make sure he felt comfortable.
My father, up until 2008, lived up to François de La Rochefoucauld’s maxim: “Few people know how to be old.” He accepted the fruits of each age as they came to him, just as Cicero urged us to do. His ashes will be interred at the Arlington National Cemetery Columbarium, with, as he requested, the words “Sergeant — U.S. Army WW II” inscribed under his name.
The last time I saw him, he seemed resigned and content. He was happy to see me.
I’ll miss him.
Delivered on December 9, 2017 at Ingleside at Rock Creek, Washington, D.C.