My dad died.
I’ll let that sentence sink in. For a long time, I didn’t know what words to write after that. What could I possibly say that would be worthy of a man who had meant so much to so many. And who meant so much to the cherished few he left behind. My dad is gone. What a vast emptiness his death has created for us, his family.
On Saturday, January 27, while attending the Metropolitan Opera simulcast performance of “Tosca,” Edward Paul Lester died at age 91. My dad had been in end-stage congestive heart failure for several years and he died after taking his seat. He was with my mom, Virginia, his beloved wife and best friend for over 61 years.
Dad loved telling people the story of their relationship, their great love and grand romance. Especially how they met on a blind date and eloped five weeks later. He reveled in telling stories. His tales were always based in facts and the knowledge he had acquired over a lifetime of an incessant search for the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. He was the smartest man I knew and, in the end, that brilliant mind was trapped in a body that was failing him.
My dad especially loved sagas about boundless passion and overwhelming loss. He valued music and science, history and philosophy. He loved paintings by such diverse artists from da Vinci to Dali, from Botticelli to Sargent. Our home was always filled with music .art, books, dancing, music and impromptu tests! Yes, tests!
Can you decipher this First Nation’s Totem?
Who is the composer of this music? Yes, but can you name the movement?
Who is singing this aria? She’s very famous, you know.
Do you know this artist? We saw the original work at the Musée d’Orsay.
Sometimes, it may have seemed as though my dad was lecturing but his embrace of all knowledge and the development of one’s own capacity, as fully as possible, was one of his greatest obsessions.
My dad was born in Los Angeles, California on April 28, 1926. Actually, he came from Boyle Heights, a predominantly Jewish, Yiddish-speaking community, teeming with union halls, synagogues, impassioned politics and music. It was all of what Boyle Heights was, that shaped who my dad would become.
My grandmother insisted he play “the violin!” He was only five years old and deemed a gifted violin prodigy. (Many years later, when my brother Paul was born, my grandmother arrived at the hospital with a quarter-size violin for him. Being born a girl, I was relegated to the piano and thus began our sibling rivalry).
For my dad, the study, composition and performing of music, consumed yet grounded him. Dad’s first paying job was with the National Youth Orchestra in L.A., part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. Through the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Music Program and the Federal Music Project (FMP), the U.S. government of the 1930’s employed musicians, conductors and composers during the Great Depression.
He later went on to play with several companies throughout Los Angeles including Pasadena, Santa Monica and L.A. Philharmonic Orchestras. Later in life, he was the assistant concert master of the Fresno Philharmonic in California.
Although Dad liked to say he was stolen by Gypsies as a child, explaining away why he played the violin with such passion, he loved performing with string quartets or with a pianist for a “good duet!” He would get a quartet together, to play a little Brahms, Mozart or Chopin wherever he and my mom lived or traveled.
My dad taught my brother to play and Paul became a very accomplished, sought-after musician. Paul plays many stringed instruments from violin to mandolin, from dulcimer to guitar. We all played an instrument. My cousin Tamara, (whom my parents raised) played the clarinet and the bagpipes! Tammy was often asked to practice her “Great Highland bagpipes” outside, on the back 40, as far away from the house as possible.
He valued almost every musical art form – except rock n’ roll or “Junk!” as he called it. My brother did get him to painstakingly practice and perform “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” Dad called this foray “an experiment into alternative and modern” music.
I practiced and finally was good enough to play the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major – the Allegro – with him.
My Dad was 17 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, early in 1944. At recruitment, they asked what he had done as a “civilian.” “Violinist – a Professional Musician” he told them. They thought he would be perceptive, discerning and “good with his hands.” So they placed him in the Medic Corps. Of course, it made perfect sense…for the military.
After boot camp and medical training, my dad joined the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One) in WWII taking part in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and entering Germany on March 15, 1945. At the end of April of that year, he was part of a special medical unit transferred to meet up with three US Army divisions: the 42nd Infantry, the 45th Infantry, and the 20th Armored.
On April 29, 1945, the units were ordered to liberate the Dachau concentration camp. When the three units arrived at Dachau, they discovered more than 30,000 prisoners in the overcrowded camp.
My dad rarely spoke of his time in the military. When he did, it was with reluctance. All the color would drain from his face. My mom says he had never-ending nightmares his entire life about his experiences with the survivors of the concentration camp. The horrors of war were not in his repertoire of storytelling. Dante’s Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of Dachau.
When dad returned from the war, he found a great new interest and passion in medical science. He received a Doctorate in Laboratory Science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Ultimately, he wooed my mom, moved to Fresno, raised a family, grew a thriving laboratory business and built a life. My dad was the chairman of March of Dimes of Fresno County and was presented an award of distinction by one of his personal heroes, Dr. Jonas Salk.
In the laboratory, dad developed several diagnostic tests for diabetes, thyroid and cholesterol. In 1960, he developed a diagnostic lab test to identify rheumatoid arthritis and presented his ground-breaking findings at the Fourth International Congress on Clinical Chemistry in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In 1964, dad organized the Proposition 14 “march against housing discrimination” led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of his most proudest moments, was having his photo taken by the Fresno Bee, as he marched side-by-side with Dr. King through the downtown streets of Fresno.
Later in that decade, he would testify in support of his friend Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the San Joaquin Valley and their claim against growers who sprayed their land (and workers) with poisonous organic phosphates.
My dad and mom retired – for the first time – and left Fresno in the mid-1990s to … sail! And to live out their “Golden Years” in the Pacific Northwest.
Sailing. Boats. All kinds of boats. The fourth cardinal point on my dad’s compass. Music. Medicine. Mom. And, Boats. His four great passions in life all floating in a boat.
Long before the advent of GPS, my dad taught us maritime navigation using a watch, the celestial map and a sextant to measure a star’s place above the horizon to find our position at sea. Easy. My dad, forever the fountain of ancillary information, would recite quotes from famous sea captains. Although, the one he would repeat for my university friends came from President and PT 109 Lieutenant Commander John F. Kennedy, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.” Our Renaissance man, O Captain, My Captain, our fearful trip is done.
They first moored their little 55-foot power sail boat in Anacortes and then Bellingham. They would sail by the Sunshine Coast and around Vancouver Island, summer after summer for five to six months at a time devoting extended time in Victoria, Campbell River, Sitka, Nimmo Bay and Juneau. Each voyage would unfold thundering waterfalls, pristine glacial ice shelfs, whales and grizzly bears, remote hot springs and monumental First Nations art. And so many Totems!
My dad and my mom finally settled and have been members of your Point Roberts community for 16 years. They first arrived and lived on their boat Cadenza in the marina. My mom, and then my dad, were recruited to build, open, manage and provide quality healthcare to the growing Point Roberts population. My mom provided her vast knowledge of family practice nursing and management experience and my dad set up the laboratory and collected samples from the stream of patients coming through the door of the new Point Roberts Aydon Medical & Wellness Clinic.
With the lab set up on the Point, none of the acute patients needed to waste time or energy traveling to Blaine or Bellingham for routine blood tests. Dad did most of the tests “in house.”
Clearly, seeing to the good health of this community’s citizens was not enough to keep Ed and Virginia busy. So, along with Michael Tan and Henry Rosenthal, mom and dad helped revive the Point Roberts Emergency Preparedness group or PREP. They both joined the governing board for PREP in 2004.
PREP’s mission is to educate our residents and property owners and to produce and maintain an Emergency Operations Plan for Point Roberts. PREP was founded by a group of concerned residents in 2005 to help face the unique challenges of emergency preparedness facing the geopolitical anomaly in which they live.
And after many years of local directory publication, go-bag alacrity, growing partnerships with the fire chief and Whatcom County, FEMA and CERT training, pancake breakfasts and Fourth of July parades, you all know how invaluable PREP is to this community. My dad really wanted you all to be prepared for the next flood …o r tsunami.
Their next “retirement” came in October 2012 when they left the Wellness Clinic. They traveled a bit more, spending weeks in a lovely pension in Budapest, revisiting Paris and London and wandering the United States by train.
My dad stayed current in all the advanced continuing education classes offered and only stepped down from his position on the PREP Board in December 2017.
Most of their lives in Point Roberts have been focused on providing exemplary healthcare and necessary laboratory tests required by patients who came to the Wellness Clinic. However, my dad always found time to return to his first love, music.
He’d pick up his “fiddle” and to his surprise and astonishment, had a tremendously good time with his friends, playing quartets. When she was still alive, my grandmother would always ask him when he was going to give up this medical nonsense and return to his “real profession.” The joy he felt, playing with his Point Roberts musician friends, was immeasurable. He was always a bit astonished he could still play, “at his age.” He liked to tell everyone e was the world’s oldest child prodigy.
Being my father’s daughter, I would always follow-up with him by saying, “You continue to show great promise, dad, great promise.”
A Celebration of Life will be held on Saturday, April 28 at the Point Roberts Community Center. Further details to follow.
Written by Silvia M.H. Lester Ponedal