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Maxisms: 8 Things I Learned from My Crazy Father

06/21/2015 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2016

My father, Max Feldt, stood 6' 3" with a personality so big (and the towns we lived in so small) that the postal service once delivered a letter to me addressed only: "To the eldest daughter of Big Max, Stamford, Texas."

Family lore says he roared, "Who said I wanted a boy?" when reminded that prior to my birth he'd boasted HE was having a son. (No ultrasound back then, folks.)

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Daddy was the dominant influence on my life -- eventually. It wasn't till I delivered his eulogy, when I was 50 years old, that I realized he had given me an entire philosophy of life and leadership.

He had many aphorisms I refer to as his Maxisms, including this all-purpose one he repeated to me on hundreds of occasions:

You can do anything your pretty little head desires.

He bought me an enormous electric train when I was three. It hissed and sparked as it chugged around the track that took up half the living room. As was typical, he never bothered to ask whether this would be inconvenient for anyone else -- it was good fun to him.

Maxism: That's why there are nine horses in every race.

He was known for being stubborn, and this is what he would say to those who didn't appreciate his point of view.

For example, he reveled in bringing home exciting things to share from his business trips: Broadway musical soundtracks to which we would sing and dance, interesting food like varicolored and flavored popcorn, salt water taffy unknown to landlocked Texans, and canned meals that heated themselves like prehistoric MREs.

He took me flying in his Beechcraft Bonanza on Sunday mornings and to the Post Office to get his Sunday New York Times that arrived on Wednesdays. This is why I've been reading the Times book reviews since I was five: it was the one section I could sort of understand. And he'd let me buy an Archie comic book to go with it -- if I asked.

Maxism: She who asks, gets.

Yes, he used female pronouns, a subtle boost to my self-esteem that I did not appreciate until I had children of both genders and the burgeoning second wave women's movement had raised my consciousness.

Daddy manufactured Western wear, so I grew up playing with fabrics, helping him select trims, and sketching out fancy yokes. I loved the oily smells and clacking sounds of the sewing machines. Mother ran the company office, but was quite traditional in thinking of herself as a helper rather than the partner she actually was. And in truth, Daddy dominated her and many others. "Max," she would say, "don't be obnoxious." But he often was.

Though not an activist, he had a sense of fairness and a healthy disregard for arbitrary social status that helped me traverse many challenges in my career, from the grassroots of a movement to the highest halls of power, without being intimidated.

Maxisms: I want to clothe the asses of the masses, not the select few.
Somebody has to look out for the little guy. Everyone puts his pants on one leg at a time.

He repeated cycles of business successes and failures. Yet he was a talented entrepreneur with vision and courage bigger than his size 13 yellow and green monogrammed cowboy boots. In his effects after he died, I found 50 copies of Theodore Roosevelt's famous quote:

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Maxism: There's nothing wrong with me a million dollars wouldn't cure.

This is the one that best expressed his resilience.

He never lost the ebullience that prompted him to buy a three-year-old girl an expensive electric train, not to mention that Beechcraft Bonanza airplane that prompted Mother to retaliate with the biggest shopping spree of her life.

Maxism: What are they going to do to you? They can't cook you and eat you.

He said this when he failed while "daring greatly." I have often seen my staff doubled up with laughter when I channel Daddy's irreverent philosophy about making mistakes. I mean, what IS the worst think that can happen if you try and fail? You always learn something.

I broke his heart when I married and left home at 15. But when my first child was born, he immediately drove three hours to see me and embraced his grandchild with unqualified love. When I decided to start college at 20 with three children in tow, who did I call to ask for the $100 community college tuition that was beyond our household budget? Big Max, of course.

He was visibly proud of my accomplishments. I doubt he thought of himself as a feminist when he drilled into me the notion that I could do anything I set my mind to. Like many fathers, he wanted his daughter to have opportunities, but didn't necessarily connect the personal with the political.

Nor did I at the time. His empowering advice conflicted with everything I saw at home and in society: my mother's deference, the culture's generally low aspirations for girls, the pervasive June Cleaver/Marilyn Monroe-and-nothing-in-between 1950s images of women.

And so I spent many years trying to fit that mold, before I broke it once I realized that my Daddy was right after all:

Sure enough, I really could do anything my pretty little head desired.