Central Missourians may know Tony Messenger through his words and stories. I’ve never met the guy nor his subject … but I feel like I know them both.
And, after reading his column in today’s Tribune, I feel like I know them both a little better.
And I’m a little better for choosing to read it:
Shakespeare’s Parking Lot Guy leaves behind lesson on choices
By TONY MESSENGER
Sifting through her father’s old belongings in his cramped one-bedroom
apartment, Katherine Guffey is focused on a box of old photos that just
arrived via overnight delivery.
Her father, William Findlay Guffey, died Saturday night at his home above Boone Tavern.
Guffey had traveled to Columbia from her Sedona, Ariz., home a few days
earlier, having heard from friends of her 65-year-old father that his
time on Earth was nearing its end. Her dad was simply known as Fin, but
truly he was much more complex than the name implied.
It’s why she had her husband send a package of her old family photos of
Fin. She wanted to show them at his memorial service so her father’s
Columbia friends could see the man she grew up loving.
There he is as a young man dressed in a goofy winter hat and wearing snowshoes inside the family’s home in Maine.
There he is posing in his football uniform during high school.
There he is smiling at his wedding surrounded by family dressed to the nines.
Most telling, perhaps, is a yellowing newspaper article about the
overachieving high school senior getting another scholarship offer,
this time to Cornell University. “Young Guffey,” the article points
out, was the president of student council and editor of the yearbook.
He played football and sang in the a cappella choir. He was an Eagle
Scout and was in the Latin Club.
“I think he got tired of all that stuff,” Katherine says. “Along with
it came demands and high expectations. He was exceptional, and that
created a lot of pressure.”
No doubt, folks in Columbia thought Fin was exceptional, too, but in a different understanding of the word’s meaning.
Exceptional in Guffey’s youth meant Ivy League schools, Fulbright
scholarships, advanced degrees and teaching appointments at the finest
schools back East. Guffey lived that life. He also lived the kind of
life that made him known as just a local guy with a heart who cared
about nothing but the people around him. That life was exceptional,
also, say the people he left behind.
“My dad sort of lived his life in phases,” Katherine says.
The last several years have been the parking lot years.
Fin was the guy with the funny hats who directed cars in the parking
lot at Shakespeare’s Pizza. For $6.50 an hour, he stood or sat outside
and made sure the lot was used only by patrons. He came by his latest
endeavor just by being in the right place at the right time.
Fin was known as a guy who liked to enjoy a pint of beer now and then.
He enjoyed enough of them that the proprietors of The Old Heidelberg
gave him his own barstool, replete with a brass nameplate, on the
occasion of his birthday in 1989. It’s among the belongings his
daughter was packing up yesterday. About six years ago, remembers
Shakespeare’s General Manager Jen Brouk, Fin was sitting at the bar
when they decided the restaurant needed a parking lot attendant.
He worked his job all the way until about two weeks before he died. He
worked through the broken hip caused when he couldn’t get out of the
way of a car. He worked through the cancer that eventually killed him.
He worked in all kinds of weather, protected from the elements by his
top-quality L.L. Bean gear.
His winter clothing was, well, exceptional. That was his daughter’s
biggest surprise upon packing up his apartment. For a man who lived a
simple life just a few steps removed from the street, he had invested
in the finest winter clothing, most of it from clothiers such as L.L.
Bean and Land’s End. She pointed to the new boots on the floor. She
pulled out of a brand-new backpack a pair of expensive-looking arctic
mittens still in the package. These are Fin’s final gifts to the world.
Katherine believes he collected such quality winter clothing with the
intention of making sure folks in need got their hands on it after he
left the world. His daughter is committed to getting her father’s final
gifts directly to the hands of folks who need them most. “I’ll stand on
the street corner and hand them out if I have to,” she says. “It’s what
he would want.”
It’s one of the things she’ll remember her dad for: his gifts.
She remembers him declining to participate in a school library book
drive when she was a senior in high school. Instead, he bought her a
book. The book, “Death at an Early Age” by Jonathan Kozol, helped lead
her to a career in social work. Later, when she became a mother,
Katherine said, Fin would send her granddaughter books.
“All of the best books she has came from him,” she says.
At 6 tonight at Shakespeare’s, Katherine will give a gift to her
father, sharing the rest of his life with the folks who knew him only
as the Parking Lot Guy. “I think his time at Shakespeare’s was the
happiest of his life,” she says. “He loved the people there. He called
them ‘the kids.’ He liked being sort of a father figure to people. He
never really stopped being a teacher.”
In the end, Fin was the man he wanted to be. That’s what Katherine says is his legacy.
“It’s one of the real lessons that my dad’s life could teach,” she
says. “He did make choices that some people would say, ‘What a shame,
what a mistake.’ But if you listen to the people who knew him, his life
was not a mistake. He didn’t lecture people on their choices because he
didn’t want them to lecture him about his.”
Fin Guffey chose to be a Parking Lot Guy. And he was so proud that he
actually monogrammed his fancy L.L. Bean shirts with the letters P.L.G.
Pretty lucky guy.
Tony Messenger is a columnist at the Tribune. His column
appears on Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday. He can be reached at
815-1728 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks, Tony, for permission to reprint.