When people remember my dad, Sen. Jerry Relph, this is what they should remember

The author and her father, state Sen. Jerry Relph, who died recently of complications related to COVID-19. They bridged their political differences through love, she writes. Photo courtesy of Dana Relph.

Because of who my dad was, and how he died, the media is speaking most prominently about him as the first Minnesota lawmaker to die of Covid-19. The events that led to his death are deeply significant — both to me and in the greater context of a Covid-19 health crisis that has been impacted by partisan decision making. But to see him only for the way he died, or even as the person his colleagues in the Senate remember him as, is patently unfair to the person who shaped my life. 

Although I have read many wonderful, true things about my dad over the past few days, they still fail to describe what and who he was to me. People have said things about him as a legislator, about his service, about his work, even about him as a parent. And I agree with all of it, but they also feel flat to me. These words do not begin to describe a man who was at times contemplative, convoluted, rational, and fierce. Nor do they describe how he passed these qualities on to me, and in turn allowed me to pass them on to my daughter.

The most vibrant memories I have of my dad are the many, many conversations that we had during early morning and late afternoon drives to and from school. We would talk about science, philosophy, religion, democracy — anything that came to my mind or his. The most important thing that I learned from him during these conversations — and that he believed all people should know — was how to think critically. Although the substance of these interactions often had great and deep value, it was the form that they took — with a series of questions that led us deeper into an issue — that really stuck with me. In this way I learned the importance of words and ideas, the capacity to speak them with confidence, and also the ability to accept that sometimes those words and ideas might be incorrect and require re-evaluation. 

Later in life as we would check in on the phone or at family gatherings, the subject of these conversations turned more and more to politics, economics and social justice. Up until this point, I had not realized that he was a Republican, and that my own political beliefs were in conflict with his. My older sister has little tolerance for divisive issues, and we would drive her crazy, but he and I couldn’t get enough of these discussions. It was during this time that I began to understand that for him, disagreement was not something to be feared, but to be learned from, so that through conflicts we can better understand what, in turn, brings us together. 

As I delve deeper into how he shaped my childhood, I think of the hours we spent on one of the many beautiful bodies of water that surrounded our home and beyond. My dad loved being in nature, and especially loved to fish. It was more than a hobby for him, it was his passion, perhaps even his church. He felt at one with the world when he was on the water, patiently waiting to hook a fish. Never so patient or so able to be one with my thoughts as a child, I would sit with him with a book, content to explore the world beyond me instead of what was in front of me. Despite his love of conversation, these moments of quiet, of peace, were just as big a part of who he was as his more vocal times, and I learned to be still in them, as well. Eventually, I found a way to settle the endless cycle of my chaotic thoughts through his example, finding my own places of contemplation. 

It is impossible to separate the man my dad was from the acts of service he performed. I hold images of him constantly volunteering at our schools, at different community organizations and serving on different charity boards. One of the things that sticks out to me about this is how he helped me to understand the real challenge that comes with such actions. Anyone who is consistently involved in dedicated service recognizes that it can be rewarding, but it is often tiresome and frustrating. It feels like you are taking one step forward and two steps back. My dad recognized this and yet was not swayed by it. He worked hard to help people, showing me both the successes that resulted from this work and the failures. Through his efforts I came to understand that to serve, to genuinely help people and improve their lives, requires immense dedication, a dedication that often doesn’t see results until years after that service has begun, if ever. 

When I reflect on the sum of these memories, of these experiences with my dad, the legacy he has left me with is clear. He gave me an example of the kind of person I should strive to be. Because of him, I have a strength of purpose and a conviction in my beliefs that allows me to fight for them steadfastly. I have an understanding that though people might differ in their beliefs, that a space can be made to talk through those contradictions. And when families are in conflict over an issue, there can still be love. He has helped me to fight with and for people who struggle, and learn from their struggles so that I can be a better advocate for them.  

Most of all, his example allows me to raise a daughter who makes me proud of her depth of understanding of the world around her, her ferocity and her desire to create a better world for her generation and those that come after. I could never have helped her develop these qualities without my dad. For her, I feel his loss most profoundly, and for her, I fight for a memory of him that is more than how he died.