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Ray Bradbury taught me to tell Dad: I love ya

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:25AM

Ray Bradbury told me a story a few years ago about a stranger who stopped him on the street in Beverly Hills.

“He said, ‘You son of a bitch,’ ” Bradbury remembered, chuckling.

“I said, ‘What am I a son of a bitch about?’ ”

The man told Bradbury he was at a graduation ceremony a few days earlier in which the famed writer had given the commencement address — and the man’s son took the message to heart.

“My son came over and grabbed me up in the air and said, ‘Dad, I love you! Thank you for my life!’ ” the man told Bradbury.

“And we both cried,” Bradbury said, still laughing at the memory years later.

When Bradbury died earlier this month at the age of 91, the Waukegan native was correctly remembered as a master storyteller who raised the science fiction and fantasy genres to the level of literature.

But I’ll also always remember him as sort of the spirit of Father’s Day, a public speaker who spread a simple message to men with the zeal of a missionary: Tell your father you love him.

I learned this by chance. It was nine years ago and I came up with the not-so-original idea of asking local celebrities to share memories of their fathers for a Father’s Day story.

Bradbury, then 82, was gracious during the telephone interview and generous with his time. He had plenty to say about his own father — and fathers in general.

He remembered preparing to go overseas in 1953 to spend seven months in Ireland working with director John Huston on the screenplay of the movie “Moby Dick.”

As a parting gift, Bradbury’s father gave him a watch that had belonged to Bradbury’s grandfather.

“He took it out and gave it to me, and his eyes were wet,” Bradbury said. “And I suddenly realized, ‘My God. Why do you have to be so old to realize how much your father loves you, huh?’ ”

“And I grabbed him,” Bradbury said, his voice thickening with emotion as he recalled the episode a half century later. “And I crushed him in my arms. And from then on our friendship was even better than it was when we were younger.”

Bradbury said he told the story whenever he was asked to give a graduation commencement address, which then was about twice a year.

“Many graduations, I’ve changed the whole feeling of the graduation by telling young men to run over to their fathers. Because they’re constantly saying they love their mother, but how rarely do they go and grab their dad and thank him for their lives, huh?

“And I’ve done this many times and pandemonium ensues. . . . And it always gets results. There’s a lot of crying. A lot of yelling and a lot of crying.”

His message was intended for Chicago Sun-Times readers, but I took it personally. I vowed to tell my own father that I loved him, no matter how difficult it might be for one man to express his feelings to another.

But I did it — a full 7 1/2 years later. It was on the day that we buried my mother. Things like that tend to remind you that some things should not be put off.

It wasn’t a big emotional moment. And I’ve repeated it since then, usually mumbled or directed at him and my sisters: “I love you guys.”

My dad’s just not the kind of guy to talk about emotions. Ed Fornek will talk endlessly about corrupt politicians, whether the perch are biting in Lake Michigan or what store has the best bargains that day. But love? When we were kids, my dad said he loved us by working seven days a week, often 10 to 12 hours a day.

I’m certainly no Ray Bradbury. But Bradbury’s dad, who died in 1957, sounds like someone my dad would have liked. Leonard Bradbury survived the death of two of his children and weathered the Depression by taking his family from Waukegan to California and working whatever job was available. He was so frugal he collected stray golf balls hit outside the fence of a golf course near his California home.

“He was a very quiet man, but he had a wonderful sense of humor,” Bradbury said. “He was a true gentleman and a very sweet and wonderful man. . . . He sustained the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and stood there like a gentleman, took it like a gentleman.”

Sounds kind of like my dad — except for the quiet part.

As for Father’s Day, Bradbury called it — and Mother’s Day — “a lot of crud.”

“If you don’t tell people you love them every day, what’s the use?” he said. “Come on. Every time I saw my father I told him I loved him.”

So the writer who taught me as a boy how to see the fantastic and wondrous in everyday life wound up teaching me one of the most down-to-earth lessons when I was an adult: the importance of saying I love you to the man who taught me everything else.

I’m still working on the every day part.

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