From The Top – A Father’s Story

Paralyzed Veterans of America National President shares memories about an important role model in his life.

By David Zurfluh

I know you are probably becoming fatigued with stories about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, so I decided to write about a man who I look up to­­ — my father, Thomas Zurfluh. Perhaps this will inspire you to write about your father this Father’s Day on the media platform of your choice.

Thomas Zurfluh was born in Steilacoom, Wash., in 1927 to Leonard Zurfluh and Inez Zurfluh (Mason) and was the middle child of five children (two older brothers and two younger sisters). He grew up during the Great Depression, the son of a farmer, and was a jack of all trades.

Thomas Zurfluh. Photo courtesy of David Zurfluh.

My dad told my siblings and me about rural life — how he went hungry for many days and the humility of walking miles to wait in line for food to bring home. Back then, he said, fishing and hunting were not sports but a necessity to put food on the table for the family. Even through the Depression and leading up to World War II, Dad found a way to be a kid, have fun, go to school and play sports.

When World War II started, he and other young men felt the need to serve their country.   My dad’s father, my grandfather, served in the Navy during World War I. When he was just starting high school, my father’s older brothers joined the Army and Merchant Marines. Dad, like many boys then, lied about his age to go into the military. Dad tried to enlist when he was 17 but was delayed until he graduated from high school.

He went into the Army when World War II was ending and was fortunate to be selected to serve in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s honor guard. Dad was part of a unit that guarded MacArthur and his family as the general maneuvered around the Pacific, visiting Hawaii, the Philippines and eventually settling in Tokyo during the occupation years.

Dad finished his tour guarding and protecting the U.S. embassy there from protesters and occasional snipers. He was honorably discharged stateside at Fort Lawton in Seattle in 1947.

After the war, dad went to Pacific Lutheran University, played on the basketball team under coach Marv Harshman (longtime University of Washington coach) and graduated with a teaching degree. Between then and his first teaching job, Dad met Bonnie R. Hale while umpiring her softball game. They married about a year or two later and settled into their careers, with Dad teaching and Mom working as a nurse. 

At first, they lived in a downtown Tacoma, Wash., apartment with my oldest brother. Soon after, they bought their first house just outside of town, converted to Catholicism and raised seven children. My dad spent the next 36 years teaching at the elementary and high school level. He became the first boys’ basketball coach at Curtis High School, a middle school principal/athletic director and, lastly, the first vice principal and athletic director at Steilacoom High School.

Dad also worked on the organizing committee to build and open Steilacoom High School. During summers, he did construction, painted and worked on a fishing boat that made runs to Alaska.

As I grew up, my father always pushed me to be responsible for my actions and always had chores for my siblings and me to do. He always told me three quotes growing up that I remember to this day:

1) Finish what you start.

2) If you put the work in, you have a good chance at anything; if you don’t put in the work, you have little to no chance at anything.

3) If BS were dynamite, you’d be a secret weapon.

The third quote was used often when my siblings and I were full of ourselves and trying to tell tall tales.

As I was preparing to graduate from high school, we discussed my future numerous times. When I told him I wanted to serve my country like my brother Tom, Dad asked me if I was sure. I said, “Yes,” and Dad supported my decision and gave me a handshake I will never forget as I left for Air Force basic training.

My dad tragically suffered the murder of a daughter in 1982 and my paralyzing accident in 1995. During my rehab, he was the man who pushed me mentally to not give up and to focus on finding something meaningful to do with my life.

When I chose to get involved with Paralyzed Veterans of America, he was my biggest supporter, along with my mom, siblings, extended family and friends.

On Oct. 31, 2006, and after 50-plus years of marriage, my dad died at age 79 from complications of old age, congestive heart failure and Type 2 diabetes. My dad’s passions were family, faith, sports, gardening and helping to shape young people’s lives to pursue their dreams and goals.

Perhaps my dad’s story may inspire you in some way to reach out to your own father (or father figure) with a personal call, text or visit. If the dad in your life has passed, I hope you have the opportunity to reflect on a favorite memory this Father’s Day, and join me in raising a glass of a favorite drink and saluting our fathers.

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