A Father's Day Remembrance

07/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On the day my father died I was 1,200 miles away.

I had gone to the hospital the morning before in San Diego to visit him. In his room I held his hand, said a prayer, kissed his forehead, and told him I loved him.

I then left to catch a flight to Denver, where Simon Hoggart, the well-known British journalist (now a columnist with The Guardian), was to speak the next day to the public forum I run.

Just before the luncheon event with Hoggart I received a call my dad had passed away that morning.

Simon had spoken for me several times in San Diego and Denver and we had become friends. I told him of my father's death, and he suggested we cancel the event. But that didn't seem right. I was quite sure my dad, whose name I bear, would have wanted the show to go on - and it did.

Back home the responsibility of preparing a memorial service for my dad was left in my hands. That was expected, as I am the eldest of six children and have an extensive church background (Church of the Nazarene and United Methodist Church). While a layman I have often been invited to preach in various churches and my four brothers and our sister thought I would know best what to do.

In his professional life my dad had been a bartender, cook, and small restaurant owner (in my dad's world people didn't have "vocations", they had "professions"). His public school education stopped at the eighth grade, because growing up in an immigrant family from Yugoslavia with nine children he needed to work to help support the family. He wasn't alone, his six brothers also worked, and would later serve in WWII; my dad didn't because he had six kids and one lung (he lost the other in a bus accident as a child).

But eighth-grade education or not, growing up in Chollas Valley, a melting pot community in San Diego, he spoke at least six languages, including Serbo-Croatian (as did all of his siblings), Spanish, Italian, Greek, and, hard to believe, Finnish. My education is vastly greater than his, but English, embarrassingly, is my only language.

As kids we never had much in material things but we had a stay-at-home mom and a father who, despite his Serbian temperament, loved his children (did I mention my mom was Irish?). We also had, in addition to our grandparents, 20 aunts and uncles and cousins without number (so it seemed). We knew the meaning of "family."

My father taught his children to treat every person with dignity and respect, and to never lose the grace of saying, "Thank you" (oh, if every parent today were so minded). He also believed to the core of his soul that whatever a person did to make a living if they did it with honesty they did it with honor.

He did something else. Not on the same level as honor and duty, but something big in my life. He introduced me to baseball. On a Thursday night in 1942 to took me to see the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast league play a game at Lane Field, the WPA ballpark creation across from the harbor downtown. Pitching that night was Ed Vitalich, someone my dad knew. He wanted me to know Serbians could play baseball.

Sixty-six-years later the kid of seven remains as enthralled with America's game as I did that first time. It's a memory that never goes away. (And, for whatever it's worth, I still play the game.)

The memorial service for my father was held on a Saturday morning in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church of San Diego. The church, a magnificent modern cathedral, seemed right to me. I knew we wouldn't fill its 1,100 seats but I wanted my dad to have a service befitting the status God in Christ had conferred upon him -- a child of the King.

More than three hundred people came that day to pay tribute to my father, including Dr. Lawrence Kline, his extraordinary doctor at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla and one of the nation's leading pulmonary disease specialists. At the service Dr. Kline spoke movingly of the impact my dad had had on his life. It isn't every day a patient impacts his doctor, but my dad did. I never see Dr. Kline without his mentioning how much he loved my father.

Many years ago when I was a college student my dad came to hear me preach. It was a Sunday evening service at the University Avenue Church of the Nazarene in San Diego. At the close of service an invitation was given and he came forward to accept Jesus Christ.

He never joined the church and his attendance thereafter was sporadic, but the memory of that moment lives on within me. And I know as surely as there is a God and a heaven, that one day, on "that great getting up morning", as the old Negro spiritual puts it, I shall see my father again.

Across America this Father's Day may the lives and memories of all fathers be truly blessed.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at