Ty Burr

Father would have known best, but then he was gone

Sturtevant “Sturdy” Burr (right, back row) collapsed and died in 1967 at age 57. His son, Ty (right, front row), was only 9.
Sturtevant “Sturdy” Burr (right, back row) collapsed and died in 1967 at age 57. His son, Ty (right, front row), was only 9.

Let us take a minute to honor a large and largely silent tribe: the people who don’t observe Father’s Day because we didn’t have fathers to observe.

Some of those fathers left and never came back. Some were never around in the first place. Others just died. I was 9 when my dad, a three-pack-a-day smoker, collapsed while taking out the trash one night in 1967. He was rushed to the hospital and was dead three days later. I never got a chance to say goodbye. He was 57; it was 50 years ago this month.

I still think about him a lot, of course, but the Father’s Day thing has always been a blank canvas for me. Other people’s greeting-card holiday. At worst, an annual reminder of a wound.


In fact, what I sometimes find myself contemplating on this annual Sunday is akin to heresy: that I may possibly be a better, more well-adjusted person for not having had my father around to raise me.

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That sounds like I disliked the man, when the exact opposite is true. I loved him and deeply wish I’d come to know him better, but he was an older father — born in 1910, he’d be 107 today — who came from the school of child-rearing that believed the mother guides the kids until they’re 16 and then the dad takes over. He was warm but at a distance; it says a lot that there aren’t many pictures of just the two of us together.

His name was Sturdy Burr, short for Sturtevant, which had been his mother’s maiden name; using poncey last names for first names is what WASPs do to torture the kids. He was a lawyer, mostly defense litigation, at the old Boston firm of Badger, Parrish, Sullivan & Frederick at 53 State St.

I remember visiting him at work: the long oaken railings, the names painted on frosted glass doors. An amateur actor and a total ham, he loved being in court. I still run into the occasional retired attorney, a pup when my dad was alive, who remembers him with a grin and a handful of stories.

And stories collected around him. Sturdy Burr was 5 foot 6 inches and full of energy — a fireplug with a vaguely patrician New England accent and an eye for absurdity. A character, he’d stay up late building creatures out of kitchen implements to delight us over cereal in the morning. At county fairs, he’d get the clown face at the makeup booth, rather than his children.

Courtesy of Ty Burr
Ty Burr's father, Sturtevant "Sturdy" Burr.

But he was also a proper Bostonian who believed in the primacy of class, and here is where we would have run into trouble. My father came of age in the 1920s and was older than most when he enlisted in the Navy in World War II; he was utterly unprepared for the seismic changes of the counterculture years in which his children grew up.

But he knew what he wanted, especially for his son. The same things his father (who also died young) wanted for him: an undergraduate degree from Harvard followed by a law degree from same, followed by a law career. Marriage to a nice girl with a pedigree. As many children as possible, as long as they were boys.

My oldest sister was 16 when he died, old enough for her to butt heads with him over dating. He was fine with her going out with a Jewish kid, but he made it clear that she was never going to marry one.

I also realize now that, like many who grew up during Prohibition, he was a highly functioning alcoholic. I never remember him without a cigarette and a cocktail glass; I also never remember him drunk. Some fathers spend Sundays throwing a baseball around with their sons; mine would take me to one of his two favorite Brookline bars, Novak’s or The 1280 on Beacon Street. He’d smoke, nurse drinks, watch the game, swap labyrinthine jokes with friends. I’d always get a plate of spumoni. As far as I was concerned, it was a win-win. The arguments would have come later.

But they would have come, of that I’m sure. The life I’m living — the me I’m reasonably content with — bears little resemblance to what he had in mind, even if we didn’t end up that far apart. I didn’t go to his Ivy League college, I went (oh, the shame) to a different one. I was a film studies major and became a writer; the former he would have found ridiculous and the latter he would have scoffed at until I started earning a living at it. I was deeply into rock music; he hated everything after Gilbert and Sullivan.


As a teenager, I grew my hair long and smoked my share of weed; this would have been unacceptable. Eventually I fell in love with and married a Jewish woman I met in college, and together we had daughters and no sons. This would have been unfathomable.

I think I’m at peace with the differences between what he wanted for me and what I became instead — which are, let’s be clear, two points on a continuum of luck and privilege.

So here is the heresy, the thing you’re not supposed to say: I think I may have dodged a bullet. I suspect I may be less damaged for his not being there, for the fights we would have had but didn’t. For being allowed to mold myself, by chance and by aim, rather than being cut to fit the suit of a father’s expectations.

I never really rebelled; I didn’t have to. My mother, a working single mom, was too busy putting food on the table to try to actively manipulate my future; besides, that was supposed to have been her husband’s trip. She made vague noises about following the plans he’d laid out for me, which I ignored with the cocksure rudeness of an adolescent. Mostly my two sisters and I got a lot of love from her while understanding why we weren’t able to get a lot of time.

And if my father had remained alive? I have enough self-knowledge to know I probably would have knuckled under to his combination of charm, insistence, and anger. I would have allowed myself to be talked out of a foolhardy career in exchange for something more solid. I most likely would have gone to his choice of college, not mine, which means I would not have met my wife, which means I would be celebrating Father’s Day, if at all, with another woman and other children — one of those infinite parallel universes that shadow the lives we lead.

About those children, the two daughters I did have with the woman I did marry — they’re in their early twenties now and by far the best thing I have ever done or contributed to in my life. Like him, they’re strong and sure and far-seeing and funny. He would have loved them. Oh, my goodness, how Sturdy Burr would have loved his granddaughters.

And here’s where the theory breaks down, of course, because I’m definitely better and I hope they are, too, for my not having checked out early. Have my wife and I warped them in our fumbling attempts to mold them into the best people we think they could be? Hell, yes. We hand our neuroses forward in nature and nurture, like some complicated cosmic passing of the baton. With luck, the strides become more assured and less hobbled with each generation. We escape our families as much as we’re doomed and blessed to never be entirely free of them.

This week, The Boston Globe moves out of its longtime Dorchester headquarters into new offices downtown — at 53 State St. To me, it’s a homecoming, even if the building itself is much different than the one in which my dad worked. (Aspects of the old structure have been retained, I understand). I’d like to think my father would laugh that I finally got something right. I’d like to think I’m somehow overlapping with him across the decades, a piece of tracing paper atop a faded original.

And I think I’m at peace with the differences between what he wanted for me and what I became instead — which are, let’s be clear, two points on a continuum of luck and privilege. Turning 58, one year older than he was when he died, was a big deal for me a while back; to quote Loudon Wainwright III, I’m “older than my old man now.” That’s a kind of freedom, however complicated, however rueful.

And of course I get it when I look at my daughters, racing ahead of me with their long, grown-up legs. I finally understand what I missed with him, and he with me, by seeing what they and I have had with each other and with their mother — the love and the fights, the laughter and the growing. And so, this once, I will say Happy Father’s Day to my dad. And I will say Happy Father’s Day to me.

Sturtevant Tice Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.