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Steve Whitmore

Steve Whitmore is the spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He submitted this post to honor his father, the actor James Whitmore, who died on February 6.

Framed photographs line this old Marine’s fireplace mantle like so many soldiers announcing their presence with impressive authority. These photographs hint at the size of this man’s footprint. It is large.

WhitmoreThe photographs are of president’s past and present, leaders of the free world, who are laughing, shaking hands, posing, and discussing events of the day with this man, veteran actor James Whitmore.

There are other photographs, such as the one of him laughing heartedly with his dogs as well as holding grandchildren in his lap. There are, indeed, other photographs on this mantle, but it is the photographs of Whitmore with Presidents Clinton, Ford, Carter and Obama that catch your eye. They are impressive. Not only because of the subjects but for the content as well.

These serious-minded people are laughing, discussing, devising ways to make this a better place to live; a necessity to Whitmore. Whitmore was committed to life. Sounds almost silly, doesn’t it? Being committed to something we naturally do. Whitmore wanted to make this a better place to live; through politics, gun control, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the purely American belief to pursue one’s own brand of happiness. He held high the principle that your money is a tool to make the world a better place.

So you have photographs with world leaders prominently displayed while his impressive and massive achievements in theater, movies and television are almost in shadows, placed on walls out of view, hidden, unimportant to this man who called the theater his office.

The paradox is that in the room just behind the impressive array of robust political photographs is this man ravaged with stage 4 lung cancer, sitting in his chair, semi-conscious, holding on to each life-saving breath he forcibly utters. Holding on for dear life because he is leaving it behind. He can’t stop the inevitable, but he wants to. He is willing to go to any lengths to stop the inevitable. He was diagnosed with this aggressive, fast-moving lung cancer a week before Thanksgiving.

He is my dad and I love him. He drops his swollen hand from edema, open slightly, encouraging my hand to join his. I place my hand in his and we sit; my hand in his just like when I was a baby. Only now my hand swamps his as before his swamped mine. Time changes everything as it changes nothing.

Everything is right between us. He knows I love him and I know he loves me. And that’s all you can ask out of life, it seems to me. In fact, it’s more than somebody like me deserves.

In his fading state of health, he looked forward to certain events; the Super Bowl, my son, Brennan’s birthday, Christmas where he would play Santa. And he looked forward with great anticipation to the Inauguration of Barack Obama.

Dad discovered Barack Obama long before the President decided to even run for president. Dad had read his books and believed this man could navigate this country’s most complex and daunting problems. When President Obama did decide to run, dad volunteered to do whatever was required. Dad spoke at rallies, offered televised endorsements, manned phone banks and donated money.

When that historic day did arrive, dad was semi-conscious in his chair. He wore an undershirt only. His hair had been stolen by the chemotherapy as had his focus. They call it chemo-brain. He was lucid and sometimes not. More not around the time of President Obama’s Inauguration.

Inauguration morning, I was sitting with him and his wife, Noreen when Obama took the oath of office. We had to wake him up so he could see it. He was too weak to talk and could barely open his eyes. He tried to watch and listen as best he could. After the speech and just prior to the singing of the National Anthem, my dad motioned to me with great intensity, fists tight, eyes closed and teeth clenched. He appeared to be saying with his body, “Get me up! Get me up!” I thought he had to urinate.

I stood him up. He was holding me tight, legs shaky, grip weak. But he was upright. I grabbed the portable urinal and he shooed it away. The National Anthem began to play. He stood straighter. This old Marine, this proud American, was standing at attention for his country’s anthem. When it was done, he allowed me to sit him back down in his chair where he returned to his state of semi-consciousness.

My dad died on Feb. 6. He was 87. He concluded most every conversation with everybody with this saying: “Onward and awkward.”

So, I say it to you, hat in hand, “onward and awkward.” It worked for an old Marine for 87 years. I betcha it’ll work for the rest of us.

A public memorial for James Whitmore is scheduled for March 28 at 1 p.m. at the Directors Guild of America on Sunset Boulevard.

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