A Different Kind of Dad

A tribute to my FATHER, a complex man

My father, Paul DeWitt Urbano, was born in 1917 in New York City to an Italian Episcopal priest and an upstate New York lady of Dutch heritage. He grew up in Lawrence, Long Island, went to Berkshire School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Williams College.

Upon graduation, much to my grandmother’s dismay, he got his hunting and trapping license in Juneau, Alaska, worked as a long-shoreman at the Yukon docks for $.99 an hour, went to Fairbanks, and then on to Lake Minchumina to trap for the winter.

The weather was treacherous, and he and his partner nearly died.  It was there, near Lake Minchumina, that my father discovered Jesus Christ and made Him a promise. He returned east to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

My father, Paul Urbano, in 1941

He didn’t finish at that time because the day after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was trained for the Ski Troopers in Camp Hail, Colorado, in the 10th Mountain Division, 87th Regiment, and sent to the Aleutian Islands. He later became a Medic and served in Italy. He spoke very little of the War.

The 10th Mountain Division during WWII

While home on leave in 1943, my father met Mary-Louise Strong at a cocktail party in Manhattan. She was a Juilliard-educated concert pianist and a beauty. After a courtship-by-correspondence, they were married on December 31, 1943, at St. James Church in New York City, where Mary-Louise had grown up.

My Mother, Mary-Louise Strong circa 1943

My sister Marilou was born during the War, and my mother and Marilou stayed with Mamá’s parents in New York City until my father returned for good and graduated from seminary. He was then called to be a curate at St. James Church in South Pasadena, California, where I was born, and ordained a priest in May of 1948.

In 1952, after positions in San Gabriel, where my sister Alice was born, and Beaumont, we moved to Phoenix, where my father had accepted a position as curate and soon became the first rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

My father’s preaching was an amazing mix of scholarship, sound theology, and beautiful writing. He was tall, handsome, and had a deep voice. He would place his hands over the top of either side of the pulpit and wait patiently for people to settle down before speaking.

God help you if you had to blow your nose.

He would say a lot in 10 minutes — his self-imposed timeframe – make his point and end the thing. People loved that. And his reputation as a brilliant preacher quickly  spread, taking church services from a date barn to a parish hall to the large structure that stands today at 6300 N. Central Avenue.

The Rectory was built for us at the end of the property, and we moved in when I was in the fourth grade. By then we had two more kids in the family, Francesca and Paul. My mother was the busy mother of five and a piano teacher.

The parish had grown into the largest Episcopal church in Arizona, and my father began to plan a day school, which now sits next to the church and has spread out over the adjacent 10 acres.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Phoenix, AZ

In spite of the demands placed on him, my father made time for me and encouraged me. He took me out to the desert to practice target-shooting with a rife and a pistol, and taught me how to fly-cast and shoot a bow and arrow. When I got to high school and had learned to sew, he made a deal with me that he would pay for the clothes I made. So, I sewed up a storm.

One summer when I was about 12 and my siblings were off on junkets with my grandmother, my mom, and friends of the family, I stayed home to take care of Papá. I planted flowers so that I could put then in his study. I learned to cook. And I read voraciously. He loved horror movies, and we saw “Godzilla” and “King Kong” that summer.

Papá loved toys, and somehow managed to have them, despite his minister’s salary. He had a string of sports cars, beginning with a TR3. Next came an Alpha Romeo, and several Porsche 911s (which I was not above “borrowing” to go to orthodontic appointments, cruising Central Avenue on the way), and finally, a “Benz” convertible. He had a 16′ Glasspar boat, and he would occasionally let me skip school and go fishing with him on Canyon Lake. And when I was 17 or so, he was given a BMW 1200 motorcycle. I’ll never forget my dad riding around in his clerical collar, fringed leather cowboy jacket, and ropers.

During high school, I read lots of books my father was reading because I found them lying around, and they looked interesting. Some that stayed with me are The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant, Madame Bovary, Mere Christianity, and Sri Ramakrishna. The last one was fascinating, and an example of my father’s open mind and curiosity. He felt that there were many paths to the same God, and I do, too.

My father told me I was intelligent, wise, and beautiful, and made me believe it (even during my skinny, flat-chested girl-with-braces stage). His attention made me feel loved and confident. But much as he loved and appreciated women and said more than once that women are the superior sex, he could be sexist. For example, he did not like having females as acolytes; he felt they were a distraction at the altar. And he did not see the need for girls to go to college, although he helped me when I pushed back and began applying to small liberal arts schools.

My parents were beautiful dancers, and I learned to dance standing on my father’s feet. I remember with great pride the night he presented me at St. Luke’s Ball, and I curtsied and danced with him in each of the three ballrooms at the old Westward Ho Hotel.

Papá and I 1966

 I loved dancing with my dad, and as it happened, so did others. He and my mom were divorced during my freshman year of college. His was the first divorce in Arizona of an Episcopal priest. He and my mother had to ask Bishop Harte for special permission, and it took some time for the bishop to agree. 

Men loved my dad, too, because he was brilliant, original, and accomplished. He was an outdoorsman, having trapped fur in Alaska. He tied his own flies and made his own bullets. When he decided something was interesting, he threw himself into it, whether it was the Bible or fish. He had a bank of aquariums in his study filled with all manner of fish. He taught me a lot about them and raised Bettas and even sea horses and the brine shrimp to feed to them.

Papá’s study was a fascinating place. It was the room where he did his counselling of parishioners, where he wrote his sermons on Saturday mornings (using two fingers, smoking, and nursing a vodka), and where he entertained his friends. It had sliding wood doors along one end, which, when opened, revealed a wall of equipment for tying flies, reloading shotgun shells, and making bullets (which he did on the patio).

Papá spoke Spanish and French, played the banjo, and practiced the same piece on the clarinet – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major – over and over the whole time I was growing up. I never heard him finish it.  And I never tired of it.

Papá was a Barry Goldwater conservative. And his best friend was Paul Roca, a true liberal. The relationship worked because they shared the same values. They were both Episcopalians, they believed in the innate goodness in all people, and they were kind. The two men explored Sonora every springtime, Roca writing two books on the old Spanish missions and Papá collaborating and taking a lot of the pictures. In one of Roca’s books, The Paths of the Padres, they mapped out all the missions they had visited.

The adventures on these trips were numerous, from finding cave people to eating raw meat to sleeping in a rat-infested barn. Papá was bitten by rat fleas on that trip and came down with the first case of Typhus in Arizona in 20 years. He never recovered completely.

Papá had remarried in 1972 to a remarkable woman 20 years his junior, Carol Belcher. Carol got his finances in order and was content to live a quiet life with a man who had lived a life of adventure. 

In 1975, Papa was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He let Carol and my stepsister Teri take care of him. He stopped smoking. He drank all sorts of concoctions Carol and Teri made from the enzyme juicer. He ate tons of almonds. And when the cancer metastasized to his brain, I remember sitting in his study with Roca, his wife Lucy, and Carol, hearing him say, “I won’t live that way.” Four months later, at age 61, he was gone.

People still tell me how wonderful my father was, how much they loved him, and how he brought them to Christ. I believe he was a great teacher, and I know he was a great preacher. I adored him, warts and all. And I miss him every day.

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