In the mid-1970s, my dad coached my sister’s fifth grade Y basketball team. I suspect he did this because my mother told him that Carla wanted to play basketball and they needed a coach. I don’t know what their record was. In fact, I’d be surprised if they won at all. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was there for a ragtag team of 10 year olds, who have told me 40 years later, that my dad was really important to them.
He probably didn’t really do anything that he thought was special or different. He just went in, coached, listened and had fun and that was all those kids needed. He even took the time to take their pictures as if they played for the pros. I remember these pictures because my sister chose to wear her green nylon Snoopy socks on that day and while I think Dad was a little irked, he let her do it anyway. Those kids, some whose families were going through rough times, must have felt like rock stars.
And yet when you would try to explain to Dad the impact he had on his daughters and their friends, he would just shrug as though he didn’t really think he had done something different.
I never met anyone that didn’t just adore Carl Ulbrich. He was gentle and kind, giving and patient. My sisters and I wanted him to love each one of us best. I tried to get him to sign a card once to me, with “to my favorite daughter” to which he wrote “to my favorite 9-year old daughter in 1973.” Dad was just fun. He was so horrified by the quality of the cartoon shows on Saturday morning that he made a point of having the channel on CBS, so that we would watch Looney Tunes together instead of Land of the Lost. He loved Wile E. Coyote the best, dreaming of the day that he could put together a highlight reel to show his students, so they could identify all the laws of physics that were broken.
And he stayed young by remaining curious, about everything, with a certain amount of glee about him. He would call me, excited to tell me something new: “Hey Chris!” he would say and then pause. “Uh, this is your father speaking.,” as though I wouldn’t know who he was. Inevitably, he had found something new or interesting or funny and he wanted to share it. In his 70s, I remember him telling me he had been watching the Real World, just because he was curious. (I think he watched it once.) We would visit art museums, only for me to wait on him to finish looking at some truly strange modern art. He approached everything as though it might have value.
And he treated people the same. This is why everyone adored him. He could be loose and funny. His former graduate students talk about his wise and patient mentorship, shaping when he needed, backing off when he didn’t, and the excitement he had for his research. When I brought home my future husband, my father took him under his wing, becoming not just a father-in-law to him, but a father figure. Together, they built computers, went to NASCAR, worked on cars and enjoyed a few beers.
His curiosity sometimes led us to wonder about his common sense. Once, a tornado warning became so real that my manager made everyone hide in the basement of our office. Later that night, Dad sent us pictures he took while chasing down that same storm. Another time, he was in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Georges hit. I remember the first sentence of the email: “I am in the eye of the hurricane right now.” He tracked hurricanes on the Winn Dixie bags printed with regional maps, plotting the points he got on the Weather Radio. While he was sad for the destruction from these storms, he was fascinated by their power.
We were convinced he could fix anything. I found a letter once my mother had written my grandmother, saying that my sister asked him to fix her orange crayon. We didn’t get a toy kitchen from the store; instead my dad built one, with actual tiny oven racks and burners that turned on a Christmas light underneath the wood burners. A plastic tub was the sink. He made us toy furniture, using parabolas and ovals as the inspiration for the shapes. We were the luckiest kids in Clemson.
And so Dad, I wish you goodbye. You may have been a small man in stature, but you stood tall in our eyes. Your energy, your patience, your kindness and your love of life kept you young for 83 years. Your impact as a good man, husband, dad, granddad, teacher and mentor will not be forgotten. I can only hope to carry on those values and pass them to my daughter. You were the best dad I could have ever asked for. We will miss you every day. May we carry on your legacy. We love you.