My Dad's Legacy of Genius, Humor, Humility, Adventure, and Love

Jennifer Van Laar and her dad, Mike, at her debutante ball in October 1989. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

The other day a Twitter friend, in the spirit of Father’s Day, shared a few of her dad’s “Dad-isms” and asked others to share their Dad-isms too. I clicked to reply, thinking I’d have to narrow down my dad-isms to what would fit in one reply. And then I sat there, and sat there, thinking I had writer’s block. Then I realized that the “catch phrases” we shared weren’t Dad-isms; they were inside jokes that no one else would understand and, with our dark Dutch humor, phrases that might make people look at us as if we were just a little weird. While my dad didn’t leave me concise “Dad-isms,” he left me with countless stories and shared experiences that serve as examples to live by.

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I once described my dad to a friend as a blend of three ’80s movie/TV characters: Han Solo, MacGyver, and Doc Brown. He was rebellious, handsome, and quiet like Han Solo; able to engineer solutions (seemingly) out of thin air like MacGyver, and a bit of an eccentric scientist like Doc Brown. Have a person with those inherent traits grow up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1940’s and ’50s, when it was mostly farmland, and come of age as a biker hanging out in the Topanga Canyon and Box Canyon areas (a/k/a areas with lots of hippies, communes, and the Manson Family) and, well, the result is one of the most interesting people who ever lived.

You can see the mischievousness on his face in the photo below – he is on the right, and was about 10 years old when this was taken.

Carolyn Chivvis Van Laar with her children in the San Fernando Valley, California, 1950. CREDIT: Van Laar family picture, used with permission.

Dad’s best friend until the day he died was his younger brother. The two had the type of connection that twins usually have, a type of radar for each other. They often worked at the same company, but even when they didn’t they always had some kind of side business or hobby they worked on together. Their stories of childhood shenanigans were legendary, and their jokes… well, let’s just say they are the patriarchs of a term called “Van Laar humor,” and anyone who marries into the family has to either possess it themselves or be able to roll their eyes and look the other way when we go off on a tangent. From the time I was a little girl I found myself sitting by them at family gatherings and being fully, if sometimes inappropriately, entertained all the while.

A perfect example of his sense of humor is shown in the photo below, taken at Halloween 1974, when my mom was pregnant with my brother. Dad is the Boy Scout; Mom is the knocked-up Girl Scout. Apparently summer camp was a little too fun that year!

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Jennifer Van Laar’s parents, Halloween 1974. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

From my dad I learned that even when serious things are going on in life, there’s always room for laughter.

Growing up, I knew that my dad was a bit of an adrenaline junkie and pretty much never met an adventure he didn’t like. He raced side cars and motorcycles (in fact, he met my mom at the funeral of one of his racing buddies), and I learned later that he’d been a championship marksman. While my mom did her best to shut all of that down while my brother and I were little, he still did a bit of racing and daredevil driving – but with my brother and me in the car with him. We were sworn to secrecy, and loved every moment.

But when I was 15 – and he was 47 – he got back into racing, but just demolition derby since those didn’t require a big financial investment. He would buy a junk car and get it running, then head out to Saugus Speedway.

Jennifer Van Laar and her father, headed out to Saugus Speedway for a demolition derby in 1987. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

From my dad I learned that you’re never too old to go on an adventure, or to do the things that make you feel alive.

My dad wasn’t extremely talkative and worked long, hard hours, but when he had time to just be “Dad” he did it 100 percent. When we went swimming, he was right there with my brother and me, throwing us up in the air and basically letting us climb all over him like a jungle gym. I would stand on his shoulders, crouch down, grab his hands, and then he’d squat down under water and launch me off his shoulders as he came back up. The man did that until I was 10 years old — because I loved it. Of course, as soon as he did it, we were saying, “Do it again, Daddy! Do it again!” Now that I’m a lot older and have three boys of my own I realize what an enormous physical sacrifice he made to give us those fun moments. He would sometimes tell us he needed a few minutes before he could play again, but never complained.

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Jennifer Van Laar and her father, 1977. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

From my dad I learned how important it is to be fully present with my family.

One would think that a guy as smart, handsome, and badass as Michael Van Laar would have a bit of an attitude of arrogance, but he was humble almost to a fault. He was an electrical and manufacturing engineer and worked for some of the big guys like Fairchild, Lockheed, and General Dynamics, but mostly worked with small defense contractors, building massive computers. Over the years he rose into executive positions at these companies, but he never acquired an executive attitude. During the years I lived in North Carolina, when I visited California I would always pick my dad up for lunch at least one day during my trip, to get some father/daughter time. The last workday lunch we shared was memorable because of what he taught me. He was the number 3 person in the company, and as we were walking to my car a woman who was obviously part of the janitorial staff was returning from her lunch. My dad’s face lit up and he gave her one of his famous smiles, then addressed her by name and asked how her children were – by name. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Van Laar,” she said, and quickly filled him in. Then, still with that big smile, he proudly introduced me to her. He was like that when I was a child, but it wasn’t until I was an adult and working in the professional world that I realized just how rare my dad’s servant attitude was.

I also saw that humility and concern for others after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012, just about a month after he was finally starting retirement. The stroke was so severe that he initially lost a lot of his ability to swallow and much of the functioning on the left side of his body, including bowel and bladder control. He spent five months in a rehabilitation hospital in Santa Barbara, undergoing grueling but necessary physical, occupational, and speech therapy. He did his best to not show discouragement or frustration or sadness to the family, but we saw it, and one of the orderlies, Guillermo, really saw through Dad’s facade. Dad and Guillermo forged a friendship and Guillermo was constantly encouraging my Dad.

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By the time my dad left that rehab hospital for one closer to home, he could only walk about 20 steps by himself using his walker. Dad knew that he had to go back to Santa Barbara around the year anniversary of the stroke for MRI’s and a checkup. He had a goal to stop by the rehab hospital after his doctor’s appointment, and to be able to get out of the car by himself and walk to the entrance of the rehab hospital to see Guillermo – and he did just that. We drove up to the facility and I went in and asked for Guillermo at the front desk. (Thank goodness he was working that day!) He came to the front and recognized me, probably thinking I was there to tell him that Dad had passed away. I told him that my dad was out in the car and wanted to see him. We walked just outside the door and tears streamed down both of our faces as we watched my dad get out of the car and steady himself with the walker, then slowly, methodically, walk up the slope to his friend.

As you can see from the photo of the two, it was an emotional reunion.

Mike Van Laar and Guillermo, the orderly he befriended while recovering from a stroke in 2012.

That concern for everyone and humble state of mind stayed with him until the very end. He beat the odds and lived more than five years after that stroke (the type of stroke he had only has a five percent five-year survival rate), but was then diagnosed with advanced acute myeloid leukemia and died just 16 days after his diagnosis. Even over his last five days, when the pain and suffering was excruciating, he’d still smile at the nurses and orderlies and try to make their jobs as easy as possible while minimizing his own horrible pain and discomfort. When I’d come visit, each one told me how much they adored “Mr. Mike” or even “Handsome Mr. Mike.”

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From my dad I learned the power of determination and goal-setting, and that other people matter just as much as I do.

Dad loved being a grandpa. During the five “bonus years” we got with him after his stroke, he was able to spend a lot of time with my youngest son since I’d moved back home to help care for him. While my dad couldn’t do the physical things with my kids that he’d done with me, my son cherishes the times he spent with Grandpa Mike building Lego spaceships and learning chess strategy from a master.

Mike Van Laar and his grandson, Sam, in 2013. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

From my dad I learned that despite whatever limitations I might have, I can still serve – and love – others.

During those bonus years my dad and I also grew closer, and being able to have such a close relationship with my dad as an adult is an experience I am extremely grateful for. He wrote me cards praising me as a woman and mother and told me I had evolved into the woman he always knew I was. He was there for me as I left an abusive marriage with literally only the things I could fit in my car and moved back home, cross-country to start a new career and life. He was there to support me emotionally as I dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace and the retaliation and blackballing that occurred after that. (The men who carried all of that out should be very grateful that my dad was physically incapacitated by the time all of that happened; he really didn’t enjoy watching his daughter be trashed on local television by name when he was unable to stand up on his own. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

Dad was still there to laugh with me and have fun. He learned to love hockey because I did, and together we watched the LA Kings win the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. We’d watch Los Angeles’ endless high-speed chases together and make bets on how they would end. He’d have me sneak over his favorite Del Taco crispy tacos on occasion, which he had difficulty eating after his stroke, and we’d sit there eating tacos and coming up with some of the darkest and grossest jokes one can imagine. I recall one Christmas Eve where we watched the South Park Christmas Special and then a Christmas Eve broadcast from a European cathedral that featured a gorgeous children’s choir – and transitioned between the two seamlessly. That’s just how we rolled.

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RedState Managing Editor Jennifer Van Laar and her father, 2015. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

He was a proud dad who taught me how important it is to celebrate your adult children as they go through life’s struggles. Now that I’ve watched as my adult children have faced heartbreaks of their own, I know how difficult it was for him to watch me struggle and suffer. I know he would have taken it away from me if he could, and how he hated not being able to do just that.

A ‘Wonder Woman’ bracelet my dad gave me for Christmas 2015 sits in front of a photo from my 1989 debutante ball. CREDIT: Van Laar family photo, used with permission

For Christmas 2015 one of the things he bought me as a ‘Wonder Woman” bracelet. As I opened it he told me that in his eyes, I was the true “Wonder Woman.” From my dad I learned that family is everything, and I miss him every day.

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