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What I’ve learned from my father

Gerald Ambrose O'Reilly took a three-year hiatus from

Gerald Ambrose O'Reilly took a three-year hiatus from Notre Dame Uiversity to join an elite, newly formed 10th Mountain Division. Credit: Courtesy / William F.B. O’Reilly

There’s never been risk in saying you’re one of Gerry O’Reilly’s six children. You just had to be ready for the bear hugs and kisses. No sideways glances; no broken eye contact; no bills pressed into the hand for uncollected debts, real or metaphorical.

My father’s children have known nothing but pride in speaking his name. It has set faces ablaze with smiles and goodwill all the days of our lives.

Gerald Ambrose O’Reilly was born on April 17, 1923, the day before Yankee Stadium opened, already a Dodgers fan. He grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to parents who had seen much of the world before settling down on Sycamore-lined East Third Street, a block from Prospect Park.

His father, Gabriel A. O’Reilly, was born in 1868, as Ulysses Grant was being pressed to run for president. Gabriel worked as a Wyoming cowboy in his teens, where he developed skills as an equestrian that would make him a superb polo player later in life.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota and its law school, my father’s father shipped off to the Philippines to fight as a U.S. Army infantryman in the Spanish-American War and in the insurrection that followed. He would later serve as Manila’s superintendent of schools following government and business stints in Washington, San Francisco and Copenhagen.

My father’s mother, Carmel Egan O’Reilly, was the daughter of a prolific author and diplomat named Maurice Francis Egan, who served as ambassador to Denmark under three U.S. Presidents (he negotiated the purchase of the U.S. Virgin Islands). One of those presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, would introduce Carmel to a dear friend and outstanding horseman named Gabriel O’Reilly, whom she would marry in Copenhagen in 1911.

Carmel had lived in Philadelphia; in South Bend, Indiana, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame (in a home built for them by the University called “The Lilacs”); in Washington, D.C.; and overseas in Denmark and Manila before settling in Brooklyn. (The ship on which she, Gabriel and my father’s eldest brother embarked from Manila for New York promptly sank in Manila Bay along with everything they owned.)

I mention my father’s parents because they formed him, just as he has formed his own children. You could tell instantly upon meeting him, for example, that he was from another time. Manners were impeccable, effortless, never showy. His values were Catholic, uncomplicated and unswerving. You wear a tie to church, never speak ill of anyone, and “if you can’t see it, don’t talk about it.” He suffered no wanderlust; all he needed was already around him. People were more important than things, and life was about others; not oneself. Me-generation thinking was entirely unknown.

My father loved sports passionately, particularly amateur athletics. He viewed physical competition as an expression of the human spirit every bit on par with music and literature. His parents, returning home from the Metropolitan Opera one evening in 1930, found him waiting up with a burning question: “Who won?”

My father captained the tennis team at Brooklyn Prep and received a very-much-needed tennis scholarship to Notre Dame, where he played competitively and sang in the glee club. He took a three-year hiatus from Notre Dame after Pearl Harbor to join an elite, newly formed Army unit called the 10th Mountain Division. It would be the job of the 10th to dislodge entrenched German soldiers along the “Gothic Line” in Italy’s Apennine Mountains — on skis!

A waxed sheet of cardboard under the behind in Prospect Park would have been the extent of my father’s knowledge about mobility in snow at the time.

A year of training at altitudes of up to 14,000 feet in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains would be even more brutal than the combat, he would recall. Soldiers of the 10th were taught to scale cliffs wearing 90-pound packs at temperatures of minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit. They were sent out night after night, individually, and without food, and instructed to survive or die. The “D-Series” training is regarded by many as the toughest ever given to members of the U.S. armed forces — of any branch — which is saying something.

Many books have been written about what happened to the 10th in Italy, including one on my father released last year by author Tim Pletkovich called “Nuns, Nazis, and Notre Dame,” but suffice it to say its members suffered appalling losses in achieving their objectives. “You are crazy college boys,” a captured German officer remarked to my father bitterly, and in perfect clipped English. “You fight as though in jest!”

My father had a pat line for those asking about his service, characteristic of so many of his generation: “We won despite me.” He was twice wounded and was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery under fire.

He married my mother, Maureen Buckley O’Reilly, at her family church in Sharon, Connecticut, in June 1958. Six years later on a Monday, just before noon, he would receive a phone call at his office in Manhattan. Maureen had suffered a massive brain hemorrhage at their home in Scarsdale while preparing breakfast for their five children, all under the age of six. She died at White Plains Hospital a day later at age 31. A note from her mother still rests on his dressing table: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.”

My father remarried eight years later, to the beautiful Seton Lindsay O’Reilly, with whom the sixth O’Reilly child was realized. He proposed to Seton from what was believed to be his deathbed at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, a story I won’t even go into — nor will I mention his being struck by lightning while playing golf at age 11; laying himself under moving subway cars on a bet; getting a signed baseball from Babe Ruth only to play the ink off it in Prospect Park; drinking Benito Mussolini’s wine after helping capture the dictator’s house; lying to Pope Pius XII at the Vatican in 1945 (white lie) or being billed by a radio-announcer brother as the “next Frank Sinatra” on WHOM radio, only to go mute with fear when the on-air light lit up. But trust me when I say that my father lived a wonderful and eventful life.

In 54 years I never once heard him raise his voice in anger. “What could be better than living life in perfect harmony with your fellow man?” he would say to his children. It was how he lived his own.

Gerry O’Reilly, a gentle American, died peacefully on Saturday, square with the world. It was all he ever wanted.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.