Wally Austin with grandson Brian in the mid 1990s.
MODESTO — I spent last weekend with my extended clan of Austins, gathered in San Jose for my father-in-law’s funeral. Collective remembrances of his formidable presence, steely insights and ready chuckle testified to the power of one person to touch lives just by being there.
Wally Sr. was a pediatrician, in his early years a pioneer of pediatric cardiology. He left the cutting edge, so to speak, for private practice and more time with his own five children. He carved time with each child out of a busy day by asking for help with a project, short outings to a store or time sitting, chatting over soggy tuna sandwiches, as dawn broke over a chilly duck blind.
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Besides being a brilliant doctor, he was a wise man. He knew that in the life of a child, the steady presence of an adult who listened was as important as the daily plod of spreading peanut butter and sorting socks. He did that for his own kids, their friends, the neighborhood children and parents in his practice.
Long before there were mentoring programs, there was Wally Austin.
Make no mistake; the man was no one’s sweetness and light. He radiated tough authority. Praise was hard-won. Wry smiles often came with observations of biting clarity. With piercing questions he guided, helping folks get out of their own way and walk forward. Giving advice he saved for things that had to be said, for the long-denied and avoided, hardest truths to hear.
Pure Wally moments:
He believed in letting kids make mistakes. On one of my husband’s first duck-hunting trips, he helped steer their small boat to the marsh’s edge and eagerly hopped out to retrieve a bird. He landed thigh-deep in mud and fell flat on his face. Wally coolly exited onto an adjacent rock and stood looking at him. “Did you learn anything?” he asked.
As a first-time mom I confided a fear that my crying baby had colic. No, he said instantly, “You guys are doing too well.” With serious colic, he explained, parents get no sleep. Haggard parents who keep apologizing for the noise – there’s a baby that has colic.
Each day I walked my daughter to the school bus and waved goodbye until the bus was out of sight. My visiting father-in-law told her goodbye before she got on and left without a backward glance. Anything else, he later said, “sends the wrong message.” If you have confidence they can handle it, they will. Hovering parents tell them they can’t.
This week the world has one less keen-eyed and caring adult listening, but the good he did for so many lives on.