06/13/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

An American Hero

What do you call him?

What do you call a boy born into a working class Irish immigrant family, the fifth of five children -- Mary, Joe, Pat, Ann and he?

You call him beloved, and you call him Billy.

What do you call a little boy who played cowboys and Indians and never lost his fascination with Seattle's old cable street cars? A little boy who swallowed a rock but got through it -- or got it through him. Who once cracked his head on the cement when he fell off his porch, was swarmed by yellow jackets and even fell out of a tree? Who, when a boy bullied him let his helpful older brothers set up a time and a place to settle things -- and who did settle things with that bully.

You might call him impish, hardy, a bit scrappy. A boy's boy.

What do you call a little boy whose dad died when he was six months old, and his mom when he was eight years old? Who was then raised under the sometimes harsh treatment of the Christian Brothers? But whose memoir made a point to make sure to tell that he knew of no impropriety on their part?

You call him an orphan, who grew up to be gracious.

What do you call this boy, who instead of withering, joined the band, played soccer, football and basketball? Who collected stamps and got a job ringing the Angelus Bell -- a position he described with pride 70 years later?

You call him resilient.

What do you call a boy who talks himself into employment, fudging his age, to pay his high school tuition? Who thrives socially and athletically while living in foster care? Whose most memorable work mishap involved spilling coffee on his principal's lap? Who loved his letterman's club -- and emceed the school dances. He became quite the dancer, even though his first dance didn't go well -- during ladies choice, a girl asked him to dance, and his gum ended up in her hair. And he didn't just dance with his feet -- he could walk on his hands.

What to call such a boy? Charming, persistent, resourceful, an all American kid, who miraculously defied the odds of his situation.

What do you call a teenager who so often lived apart from family but who structures his childhood narrative around them anyway? His highlights involved his sisters and brothers and cousins. His lows often surrounded separation, and he did what he could do avoid this (he once faked missing a bus, talked a policeman into giving him fare, and chased down his big brother Pat's trolley just so he could stay with him one more day.).

You call him a kid who knew what mattered.

What do you call a man who once, when driving me around Seattle, had me rapt with stories from "the castle", the dingy bachelor pad he shared with his brothers and their dog Stinky? Here he made his first attempt at college -- but took passing withdrawals because, in his words, he had "been in an all boys school, I was now pleasantly distracted by all these lovely young girls, and forgot why I was there."

After my car tour with him, I'd say he was a great storyteller and that that eighteen year old was a typical testosteronal kid.

What do you call a man who was soon reporting for the draft? Who spent his life's most terrifying moments repairing communication towers on the front lines in Korea and in no-man's land, exposed with nowhere to run? Who lived in frigid misery in a bunker he dug with his comrades? Who stood up against a superior who was encouraging new enlistees to engage in behavior that endangered their health? You call that man principled, brave, a patriot, a hero.

What do you call a man who meets a young woman named Margaret and falls in love, but before marrying her, learns that she suffers from deep manic depression? Who marries her anyway, loves her through stillborn twins, and together with her raises four beautiful children into adulthood. Who stands by this woman -- my grandmother -- for almost 30 years? Who, even after their marriage unraveled and she later passed away was careful to always speak of her respectfully.

You call him a father. A family man. An honorable, dedicated husband.

What do you call a man who wrote letters to the editor almost every day after breakfast for years? A man articulate enough for publication and passionate enough to keep on writing?

Aristotle might have called him a citizen, that special man who participates in political deliberation, who cares enough about others to fight for the common good.

What do you call a man who remakes himself over and over again? Who chose to be more than a victimized orphan? Who, after the terror of war raised a family, was a salesman, a company man, and even an entrepreneur for a time? A man who went on to find love again and dedicated his heart to Anne, his widow, for two decades, and took on her family as his own?

You call him adaptable and irrepressible.

What do you call a man who was hard to get to know deeply--who checked in regularly, but wrapped up conversations quickly? As the years wore on, I figured out that he had a lot to say, if you just asked the right questions. And that he was willing to share--he just never assumed people wanted to know.

I'd call him private, reticent, maybe even self-protective. Even shy.

What do you call a man who was born in a time of bigotry, but who came to vociferously argue for the equality of others, who signed his letters "Anne and Bill Dillon", putting his wife's name before his in an act that was surely more than symbolic. A man who decried torture and reproached White House chest thumpers who sent us to war without any real appreciation for the horrors of battle. A man who once pooh-poohed his family's fascination with their own ethnic heritage stuff but let himself be corrected by experience and plumbed the wonders of his family tree in Wexford County, Ireland.

You call him progressive, cosmopolitan, and visionary. A man of conviction and of humility. A man who is willing to learn.

What do you call a man me who let his curious grandkids convince him to write a memoir? Who let us peer into the life of this sometimes mysterious man? Who recently said he'd be willing to share about my grandma with me and my sister -- but wanted to be sure to protect her honor and his kids' feelings about their mother.

You call him a conscientious, tender father and grandfather, and a damn good storyteller.

What do you call a man who calls you every single birthday, even your 31st, and sings happy birthday to you?

He's consistent and thoughtful and loving.

What do you call a man who has faced much hardship, but even when sick in the hospital wants to know when he can go home and get on his treadmill? Who truly embodied the Dillon family motto, dum spiro sparo, which means, "While I breathe I hope."

You call him an optimist.

What do you call a man who clings to life for two days, apparently unconscious, ready to be gone at a second's notice, until his son Damian can arrive from across the ocean and sit beside him for a few minutes?

Tenacious, stubborn, Irish, perhaps.

What do you call a beloved boy named Billy, an impish, hardy, scrappy boy's boy who was orphaned but grew up to be gracious? Whose resilient odds-defiance shined brightly through his charm, persistence and his resourcefulness? Who became an all American high school kid, then grew into a hardworking but slightly typical testosteronal young man. Who knew what mattered. Who grew into a principled, brave patriot -- a hero. And then become a father and a family man -- an honorable, dedicated partner. A true citizen, he passionately advocated for the common good, and irrepressibly adapted himself to new times and new people. A man who was progressive, cosmopolitan and visionary. A man of conviction and humility who was willing to learn. A private man, sometimes reticent, self-protective or even shy. A consistent, thoughtful, loving, conscientious and tender father and grandfather, a loving husband and a damn-good storyteller. A tenacious, stubborn, Irishman, optimistic to the end, always answering the family call to keep on hoping.

What do you call that man?

I call him Grandpa.

Bill Dillon's 83rd birthday would have been June 13th. He passed away on October 22. He is sorely missed.