Lessons From A Life Lived Boldy
A Eulogy for James B. Fee by Kathy Nickerson
August 14, 1942 – January 24, 2020
Thank you all so much for coming today to honor my dad. We are so touched by your love and care for us. And I know Dad would be so grateful.
Most of you are our oldest, dearest friends…. Some are new friends who hadn’t had a real chance to meet Dad. I hope you’ll get a sense of who he was from our time today… and that everyone will see elements of Dad living on in me, Jo, Rob, and the little monkeys.
In thinking about what I wanted to say today, I realized that in so many ways, Dad was like the universe he loved so much….
Mysterious, surprising, full of questions, deep and sometimes dark. He was truly a remarkable man and as I thought about the right way to commemorate his life, I thought about his deep love for knowledge.
Dad’s books were among his most treasured possessions and until the day he died, he was very mad at me for giving away a few of his books when he moved houses.
So let’s take a page from Jim’s beloved books and focus on the lessons we can learn from his life.
Lesson 1: Be true to yourself.
Dad was stubborn, brilliant, feisty, funny, and complicated! One thing was certainly true… he lived life the way he saw fit and he was very true to himself. When he knew he was right, he went in on the idea 100% of the way.
Two cases in point…
First, when Dad was working on his PhD at UCI, he got into an argument with his dissertation chair. The fight was about something rather minor, some detail on the impact of a particular solution to a problem. They couldn’t resolve the fight and so what did Dad do? He quit!
Can you believe that… almost done with his PhD and he quit.
Strangely, he never regretted it. He was over math at that point and decided he wanted to be an engineer. He often said he should have studied physics instead.
A second example, Dad met Mom and proposed within 1 week.
Dad was introduced to Mom by a mutual friend and even though he was dating someone else, decided to go on a date with Mom. He said he knew at the end of that first meeting that she was the girl he wanted to marry. He just felt it.
Their first date was a few days before Valentine’s in 1966 and they’d both laugh recalling how that Valentine’s, some other girl got flowers, but Mom got Dad. She always thought she got the better deal!
So the lesson to take from Jimbo here is to believe in yourself, trust yourself, honor what you feel is the right thing to do. Live your life boldly, because ultimately, it’s up to you to make yourself happy.
Lesson 2: Think deeply, break things into parts, and analyze them.
Despite Dad’s rejection of the math program at UCI, he really was a mathematician at heart. He loved to study problems, break them into different components, and analyze them for hours.
He didn’t just do this with math, he did it with everything… people, politics, space, science, wine, photography, art. You name it, he’d analyze it.
As you heard in Robert’s letter, he would see a scene and try to break it down, seeking its deeper, truer meaning.
He would do this with food and wine too. He’d taste the wine, roll it around in his mouth, think about oxygenation, and describe the flavors …
He truly loved anything he could deconstruct and analyze. Which made him a very good engineer, an exceptional mathematician – BTW, did you know he got a perfect score on his math GRE? – and a really fun conversationalist.
I bet many of us had wonderfully deep conversations with Jimbo that were so interesting.
The lesson to take from this aspect of Dad is that knowledge is valuable, thinking is valuable. We should dig deeper and think about what lies beneath something, not just outsource our thinking to others or trust what appears on the surface. Find the hidden beauty in life because the best stuff is buried deep.
Lesson 3: Be ridiculously funny.
Have you noticed that the funniest people in life are often some of the brightest? This was so true of Dad; he could make hilarious connections and tell wonderfully funny stories that would make you snicker for days.
I remember Dad coming down the stairs one Christmas morning and stepping barefoot on a glass ornament that had broken the night before. He screeched out… “You all are a bunch of savages!” before sitting down and waiting for mom to help him.
When we were in grade school, we took a bus from Newport down to San Juan every day and Dad would sometimes be tasked with taking us to the school bus. If we missed our pick up spot in Newport, Dad would have to schlep us down to Laguna. I can recall him doing stunt driving in his silver Cadillac… cutting off the bus on PCH so the bus would have to stop… and who could refuse 3 kids knocking at the school bus door to get on!
The banter between my parents was also so funny and millions of little moments replay in my head… bickering about silverware, talking about laundry, fussing over whether it was too much to ask for a little Christmas music!
I recall asking dad for help with my math homework when I was in 7th grade and he said, “Well, I really can’t help you do this until I teach you calculus!” So as you might imagine, that was the first and last time I asked for help with math homework. But don’t worry, he did in fact teach me calculus.
Some of the most recent funny moments with dad are most prominent in my mind…
When Dad first moved in with me and Daryl, I asked him what he liked to eat most… I wanted to get him some good things. His response was a 2 page handwritten list of fish he WOULD eat. He didn’t feel it was necessary to list the fish he would not eat. I mean who has the mental bandwidth to come up with 2 pages of fish names? Only Jimbo.
A couple years ago Dad became very interested in painting. Several of us suggested to him that he should watch Bob Ross on PBS and try to learn more about how to paint…. try creating some happy little trees. Dad was so offended and told me, “Kathy, don’t be ridiculous, for me to learn anything I would have to go to the Louvre!”
Many of you have read some of my Dad & Kathy shows on Facebook and one that I didn’t get to write was particularly good…
I walked in one night to find Dad stretched horizontally across his bed. I asked him what he was doing… and he looked at me and said, “What are you doing in here? You’re not authorized to be in here?”
Yes, I am Dad, this is my house. Now what’s going on?
This is not your house, this is the space station! How did you get here?
I took the shuttle.
Did you get clearance?
Yes, dad, obviously!
Ok well, it’s time for my EVA, open the portal and help me out… he said… pointing to the window next to his bed.
Imagine the scene…. Jimbo in his T-shirt and undies trying to flop himself out of the window.
Dad, dad… no… the EVA was scrubbed for today and we’re going to try again tomorrow… too many asteroids right now.
Ok, no one told me…. Hmmph…. Well since you’re here, will you get me a beer?
And I tell you, those moments happened all the time! I could have written one of those stories every single day.
I will miss Dad’s humor most of all and I think the lesson we can take from this is to try to find the humor in life, even in the dark moments, especially in the hard moments. Finding something to laugh about… and someone to laugh with… makes life so much easier.
Lesson 4: Care for others and love deeply.
Dad didn’t love everyone, in fact he was pretty picky about who he let into his inner circle…but those he did love, he loved very deeply.
He had a deep love for his mom, Roberta, and I remember us going up to her home in Altadena frequently as kids.
As she got older, he made sure she could stay in her home as she aged and he supervised her caregivers. I remember driving up with him after we got the call that she had passed; I watched as he went into her bedroom, picked her up, held her and just sobbed. It was such a sad scene, but also so beautiful. I had never seen my dad like that, so affected and so wounded, and it touched me deeply.
Dad loved animals very much. He had 2 beloved ducks as a kid – white sox and tiger – and when we were kids, he rescued a tabby that he also named Tiger. He loved that cat and would make sure it was safe and sound in the house every night. He even loved his grand-pets, so much so that he wrote a poem for my fist bulldog, Piglet, when she passed away.
He loved all of us and all of you so much…
He cherished hunting and fishing with Nick, loved talking about wine with David and Nicky.
He loved to talk math and engineering with Pat and Dave Hackett; tennis with so many of his pals from the club.
He wrote a 3 page list of potential jobs for Freddy; tragically none of them were of much interest to Freddy. Yacht sales isn’t for everyone.
I have no doubt that he loved my mom, me, Jo and Rob very deeply. He made countless sacrifices and did numerous loving things for us and our spouses.
I have never seen him exhibit as much pure joy and love as he did for his grandkids.
Dex, Jensen, Billy, and Charlie… even though you didn’t get to spend much time with grandpa when he was his happy, healthy self… please know how much he loved you, how proud he was of each of you, and how special you were to him. I know for sure he’s up in heaven watching you dance, do taekwondo, play baseball and shoot nerf guns.
The lesson here is…. Love people, love your friends, love your animals, love your family deeply. The most important thing is love. In fact, it’s probably all that really matters.
Lesson 5: Make a contribution.
As Dad got older, his body and brain were less and less able to do meaningful work. This really bothered Dad and he’d talk to me often about wanting to start a new business, or do something helpful, he really wanted to make a contribution to the world.
I told him that he’d done enough, that he could just relax now…. That his new role was to just be dad and grandpa.
But he wasn’t satisfied with this… he wanted to be helpful to the greater world.
So I had to invent tasks we could do…. I’d print out satellite pictures of Syria and we’d analyze them for any signs of trouble. I’d give him data from my website and ask him to look for patterns. I’d tell him people had commissioned some paintings and he needed to get to work.
He liked this and he worked for as long as he could.
On his last really good day, which was New Year’s Eve, he was obsessed with talking to Anderson Cooper. So much that I had to call him and pretend to be Anderson Cooper! He had a message that he wanted to get out to everyone….
It’s all going to be ok and it’s going to be a good new year!
So this final lesson is to stay mentally active, help people in your community, do things to make the world better. Dad believed in the goodness of people and in the value of others, he knew that together we are so much stronger than we are alone.
In closing, I’d like to say that I loved dad very much and I am so glad that we got to have a lot of special time together in the last few years.
He was a handful and it was quite hard, but I am so glad that we were able to keep him at home and help him feel safe and loved all the days of his life.
I truly believe that love and our families are the most precious things we have. I hope you will care for others as you wish to be cared for… and that maybe Jimbo’s story will inspire you to do more. He would like that.
Thank you so much.
Yet Another Picture
A Letter from Rob Fee to Commemorate Jim Fee
My dad had this weird obsession with selling notecards that featured one of his photographs on the front. He’d retired due to the Parkinson’s and had plenty of time. It’s all we’d hear about… notecards this, notecards that, “Hey honey, remind me to send some notecards to so and so!”
I can confidently speak for the family… we were sick and tired of hearing about the darn notecards.
One particular notecard rant was about needing to make more to sell, and he was having trouble ordering exactly what he wanted. I snapped. I’d had enough and I said, “Hey dad, you know what…I’ll make the cards, just tell me what photos you want on them and I’ll take care of everything!” Excited by having a partner-in-crime, he immediately shuffled into his office, mid-dinner mind you, to show me exactly which photos he wanted on the cards.
I downloaded the photos, laid them out into card format and ordered…. Not 10 or 20 of each… but 200 of 4 different photos, so he’d have 800 notecards with envelopes in total. I really didn’t want to hear another word about notecards ever again!
You can hardly imagine his excitement when they finally arrived… his head almost exploded!
He made spreadsheets and called every friend he had ever known and convinced them to buy a set of notecards. I think he sold about 50 sets. I imagine many of you in this room may have some!
This was not what I expected to happen. I thought I’d cool the jets on the notecard front, but… I had, in fact, made the notecard obsession much, much worse.
Then something magical happened….
I was over at the house and Dad motioned me over to the office. I knew what I was in for. Sure enough, he had a new photo for the next order of notecards that he wanted to show me. Even though he still had ½ a ton of notecards, he needed more… much more.
The picture he showed me was of a wave. Not even a particularly good one. It was just some random wave, not a tropical majestic wave at sunset in Hawaii, but a small, pretty plain-looking generic wave.
I almost thought he was kidding…. Then he started to talk about the wave:
“Look at this wave. Water forced into shape by lunar gravity. Calming and powerful simultaneously. Beauty beyond words, yet the most destructive force. The world is water, we’re made of water. This is nature playing with us. It gives us fun little waves to splash in and laugh and play with. This is why we like waves, because they like us. This isn’t a big wave or a beautiful one, it’s just a normal one, a working one, a simple, everyday wave. Nature’s casual high-five with us and I like it.”
I sat looking at that wave a very long time. For the first time in my life, I truly saw the man that took that photo. Suddenly, it all made sense.
His images were metaphors. All the strange tree bark and rocks and sand and leaves. All nature’s gifts to us. He just wanted to remind the viewer of the casual, natural gifts all around us… not stun you with unusual beauty… rather he wanted to highlight everyday beauty and the meaning within.
My dad always seemed a little strange to me. I am not sure if all sons think this about their dads, but I sure did. However in that moment, talking about the waves, he stopped being strange and became a very special father.
I’ll miss you dad.