There's quite a celebration in heaven today

By Steve Sell
February 18, 2015

When I look at this picture and see how great my Dad looked, it’s hard to believe this was taken when he celebrated his 87th birthday a year ago.

Four months and six days later, he was called home by God.

I had a few theories:

1) Mom, who entered heaven in 1995, had badgered God for so long about him being late in coming home that he finally relented and placed the call.

2) Don Dancer, Jerry Webb and Glenn Hybarger had an opening for a fourth in their golf game at Heaven’s Gate Country Club.

3) My Grandpa Paul wasn’t available to play the piano at his gig and Dad was picked to fill in for him.

Dad would have been 88 today and he so much wanted to reach that milestone. That was his Dad’s age when he passed away and there are 88 keys on the piano. His birthday was four days after my Mom’s — she was a Valentine’s Baby — and the family joke was how much older she was than him. But they were always destined to be together from the time they were in high school in Girard, Kansas, and February was a big month at our house for celebrations.

This is the first time in my life I haven’t been able to celebrate his birthday with him, either by going to Independence or calling him on the phone. It feels very empty to say the least.

As many of you know, my Dad was an amazing pianist who played even up to a few months before his June 24 death. And, of course, he never used a sheet of music as he played by ear. His final couple of years he entertained the residents of the nursing home, even though he was bound to a wheel chair when his knees gave out. 

His friend Larry Green always called him “The Piano Man” even though most people called him "Doc" or "Little Britches" — because of his short, but powerful legs.

For decades he entertained the good people of Independence whenever he could in one of the many bands he played in, including “Something Jones and the Red Coats,” and “Ye Olde Dance Band.” He played downtown at the Neewollah celebration and lapped it up when people would call out his name. He definitely played to the crowd. The bigger the crowd, the more animated he was.

Dad was an amazing entertainer and always had a smile on his face. He once told me, “if you’re not smilin’, you’re cryin’. And I’d rather laugh than cry.” He would have a tip jar on the corner of his piano and more often than not after a performance it would be full. Dad was always the life of the party. Once he came to my fraternity house at KU and was the Dad I think most remembered after his jam session. I still have a photo of everybody gathered around the piano and he was belting out the blues.

Dad and I had little in common growing up as he was a hunter and fisherman, while I played basketball, tennis and golf. He did play some golf in my younger years, but his affinity for the game grew as I started to play the game because it gave us an interest together.

It took me a while — my sophomore year in high school — before I could beat Dad, as every once in a while he could shoot in the middle to high 70s, though he generally set 80 as a goal.

In his older years, and after Mom passed, Dad would always make me call after I would play my daily round in the summer. He wanted to know my hole-by-hole score as he had played Turkey Creek a few times so he remembered the holes.

A couple of weeks ago when we had that nice weather, I somehow turned back the hands of time and shot a 71. I was so excited that I wanted to call Dad, but then it hit me — he’s gone. It was an odd feeling because I always feel his presence and I can just hear his voice — “OK Boy, read ‘em (the hole-by-hole) off.”

He would have been so proud of that score and the fact I was able to beat my chief tormentor Craig Corrigan, who is squarely in my sights this year after he wore me like a hand puppet last year. Then he would have run down to the donut shop to tell his gang, who tolerated his boastings because they knew it made him happy even though their kids were good golfers, too, and far more successful in life than me.

And I was proud of him. That he was able to live nearly 20 years after my Mom passed is one of life’s great wonders. I really thought when he lost the love of his life, he would give up and his health would deteriorate.

But Dad fooled us all. He lived for my sister and I, and his two grandkids. And for his golf, his piano playing and his friends.

I’m just happy that he finally gets to share this birthday with my Mom. It’s been a long time. That is going to be one heck of a party up there today. I'm sure he'll be firing up the keys any time now.

Happy 88th birthday Dad. Say "hi" to Mom. I love and miss you both. There are two holes in my heart that will never be filled.