My dad had just been diagnosed with stage IV melanoma when my husband, 14-year-old daughter and I flew from our home in Philadelphia to the house in Florida where my parents lived as snowbirds each winter. By the time we arrived, my dad was down 20 pounds, his trademark spark of humor gone from his eyes. It was hard to believe this was the same 76-year-old who, only weeks earlier, had been playing tennis twice a week.
Dad spent much of our visit resting on the couch. I assumed we would skip my Jewish family's annual tradition of a Christmas matinee, but the remake of "True Grit" had just been released and my father wanted to see it in a theater. I called my siblings, and we made plans to meet.
That afternoon, three generations of my family filled a row of seats at the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton, and for two hours, we escaped our sadness. Dad even managed to stay awake for the entire movie — even before his illness, he was notorious for nodding off when the lights went down.
As we shuffled out after the credits, he smiled and pronounced it a terrific film. By mid-February, he was gone.
It was a bittersweet twist of fate that the Coen brothers' masterful reboot of "True Grit" would be the last movie my dad saw before he died from cancer almost 12 years ago, given his connection to the original starring John Wayne.
It was a bittersweet twist of fate that the Coen brothers' masterful reboot of "True Grit" would be the last movie my dad saw before he died from cancer.
The John B. Stetson Company, founded in 1865, was the world's largest hat maker during the early 20th century, and the originator of the Western hat. My dad was the art director who designed the ad making John Wayne the face of the brand — a pairing so iconic, the name Stetson would become synonymous with cowboy hats.
My father and his copywriter friend quit their advertising jobs to form their own Philadelphia agency in 1968, with only a single client and their shared determination to keep them afloat. They landed the Philadelphia-based Stetson Hat account shortly after, around the time the film "True Grit" went into production.
Displaying grit of his own, my dad contacted Paramount Pictures and wrangled permission to bring a crew onto the set to take pictures of John Wayne in action, wearing a Stetson in every shot. His partner wrote the copy, and the resulting campaign established their reputation as a creative force.
Design was a language I shared with my dad. We bonded over elegant typography and an appreciation for white space on the page. Of the four kids in my family, I was the one who followed in my father's footsteps, graduating from art college before taking a job as an art director at an advertising agency.
As a little girl, I couldn't wait for my dad to come home from the office. He'd greet my younger sister and me with a cheerful, "Hi, pals!" and hand us each a treat from his briefcase: a box of Raisinets or a coveted sheet of "poppers," I'd later learn was just bubble wrap. I can still picture him walking in the door with a wool felt fedora on his head of black curls, as dashing as Don Draper in "Mad Men." His hat, of course, was a Stetson.
My dad's biggest clients were fashion accounts, and he took the train from Philly to New York to work with top photographers and modeling agencies. He often brought work home, using an X-Acto knife and rubber cement to cut and paste layouts, decades before I'd learn to do so on a Mac.
I can still picture him walking in the door with a wool felt fedora on his head of black curls, as dashing as Don Draper in "Mad Men." His hat, of course, was a Stetson.
As a young teenager, I'd walk downstairs to our basement and find the ping pong table covered with large glossies of Carol Alt, Paulina Porizkova, Patti Hansen, and Iman, from photoshoots my dad directed. Casually, he'd slide two photos in front of me and ask which I liked better. I'd pick one and he'd pit it against another until we narrowed them down to the best.
When I was older, he brought home presstype, sheets of alphabets in different fonts that you would transfer to illustration board by rubbing the waxy paper with a burnisher until the letter stuck. He put me to work setting type by hand, and taught me how to eyeball the space so the letters would barely kiss, creating the perfect kern.
What felt like fun was an apprenticeship in art direction, Mr. Miyagi-style. By my senior year in high school, I had a well-developed eye and could set headlines like a pro. Wax on. Wax off.
Dad was a kind and generous man whose soft-spoken voice belied his ability to get his way. He was a perfectionist, sure his method of taping a package or setting up a beach umbrella was the only way that made sense. But it was his professional work ethic and bold creativity that earned him recognition as one of the best in the Philadelphia ad community. Competing against much larger agencies, he used to clean up at awards shows. From him, I learned to strive for excellence, and that if you don't ask, the answer is always no. His campaign for Stetson was all the proof I needed.
After he died, I helped my mother clean out my childhood home so she could put it on the market. Mom asked if I wanted my dad's old collection of portfolios, giant vinyl cases stuffed with proofs from print campaigns spanning his career. Here was the physical embodiment of our special connection. Of course I wanted them.
Losing my dad so suddenly was a gut punch. His absence was palpable and my grief, at times, felt bottomless. Then one night, I recognized one of my dad's favorite fonts in the title of a TV show. He had used Goudy Oldstyle in several of his long-term ad campaigns, and the typeface was as familiar to me as his handwriting. Seeing it reminded me that he wasn't completely gone from my life.
My dad's design aesthetic, creative drive, and attention to detail were ingrained in me from decades of watching and learning from him. More importantly, I carried inside his trust in my abilities, which gave me the courage after his death to pursue my dreams.
And when I forget, there's a framed magazine ad for Stetson Hats hanging on my wall to remind me — a tribute to the power of aiming high, and a memento of our last family holiday spent together.