Today is my dad’s birthday—would be, if he hadn’t died this year.

I happen to be backing up some computer data and came across a large archive of documents that I took from his computer in the days after he died.

Going through a dead family member’s documents is always a strange experience, but it’s also a time for learning. There were no skeletons in my father’s proverbial closet, neo-Naziism or secret lives or anything like that. All we found was a shitload of credit cards, investment accounts, and backups of backups on his computer.

My father was a bit of a packrat, never throwing anything away. He was even worse with computers: since he was an early adopter of computer technology, he had computer parts and digital data that stretched the limit of imagination. Since I was the resident computer guru in the family, I spent the week or two after his death going through his computers, backing up what personal files I could and social-engineering my way into most of his accounts, sounding out what he had and where; canceled his book club subscriptions, documented his credit cards, saving into many media his documents, photos, and any scrap of material that could possibly preserve Eric Gunnink after his body had been committed to the ground.

There were a lot of work-related documents that ended up being preserved. My father, before he switched jobs in the Fall of 2007, worked as the Registrar in a small Fransciscan university in Joliet, IL (where I am now employed); he had become something of an expert at the administrative software system / database used there, known as Banner (a product of Sungard HE). So, surprising nobody, I found a lot of documents pertaining to registrar procedures, data extracts of various types from various years. I found a “Goals to Achieve” from 1999:

Goals for 1999-2000: Eric Gunnink

  • Produce 2000-2002 University Catalog on time.
  • Increase knowledge of Access and Excel to improve reporting capabilities from Banner.
  • Develop processes and procedures to identify and report graduates by semester in Banner.
  • Assist with the implementation and maintenance of degree audit in Banner.
  • Assist with the implementation of WEB based registration for students in all colleges.
  • Assist in developing processes and procedures to insure the accuracy of the data in Banner
  • Review records retention practices and evaluate the effectiveness of microfilming records vs. other storage methods.

I found an old Christmas list:

  • Two Towers Extended Ed. DVD
  • Heart Rate Monitor
  • Casual/Dressy casual LS shirts
  • Lightweight sweater (s) (blue or brown/tan)
  • Brown tone dress shirts (17.5″ X 36″)
  • Best Buy, B&N, or gift certificates
  • Tall sweatpants (XL)
  • Glide Comfort Plus dental floss
  • Red, Blue, and Green retractable pens (big around)
  • Talking Dictionary program (one that loads on the hard drive)
  • Popcorn (like Brian’s)
  • USB Hub (4 port USB 2.0)
  • Almond patties

I was able to recover dad’s original masters thesis from a floppy disc, stored in a propriety (ASCII + control chars) format in files that are older than me. That’s right: when I recovered the data, the timestamp on the files was 1984 (I was born in ’85):

Heinlein develops the theme of sexuality and the roles of men and women through the “Success” period, changes the idea somewhat in #Starship Troopers# and moves on to new ideas in the “Alienation” novels. Heinlein has women play many different roles in his novels. The competent female is one main role. The role of father seems to be an important one to the author. There are many “neutered” male characters with domineering females in their backgrounds in the “Success” novels, culminating with Starship Troopers and Farnham’s Freehold.

The theme of free will is subverted in Starship Troopers from its strong showing in the “Success” novels. Determinism takes over in Starship Troopers and the “Alienation” novels. The hero who determines his own destiny is made into the “hero” by virtue of forces beyond his control.

Heinlein frequently uses sociopolitical themes to make his points. The themes examined in chapter four are: Heinlein’s Utopia, “benevolent” vs. “corrupt” government, libertarianism, and communism. Each of these themes develops in the “Success” period, changes in some way in Starship Troopers and continues the change in the “Alienation” period.

Think of “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket,” but no longer so abstract and literary.

It’s almost as though dad left a legacy in two parts: that which he passed on to those he knew, and that which he left written or photographed. How to process his notes about databases, or his letters of recommendation for students, or his resumes, notes to self, and data extracts? From a document of questions to ask his cardiologist called How do we know that my arteries are not clogging up again.doc, which is utterly devastating to read. Can I learn anything from the fact that his “To-Do” list from February 11th, 1999 lists ‘Complete 993 degree audits” as the first item? That he had written documentation for web-based frontends that I created (I think he was immensely proud of me)? Or his set of photographs from the last Gunnink reunion he ever attended (summer 2007, in Iowa).

Today, my father would have been 52 years old. I am tempted to rail against the cosmic injustice that denied him such a relatively small number of years; I demure for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that 51 years was enough to do an awful lot, including the insistent devotion to his wife, his children, and an extraordinarily large number of colleagues and friends who weren’t simply blowing smoke when they proclaimed what a great guy he was.

In that spirit, I console myself with the notion that grief is the price of love, and that dad’s legacy, in whatever media, isn’t simply committed to the ground along with him. December 18th is a reminder to me of the inherent fragility of human life; it also forces me to remember that the window of opportunity to do great things—to accomplish, to learn, to love—is arbitrary in its length. I could die tomorrow, for all that the molecules of my body care: remember our oldest of texts, Gilgamesh, in this, that immortality is achieved not in the living, but in what one leaves behind.

Happy birthday, dad. We miss you.

§3458 · December 18, 2008 · Tags: , ·

4 Comments to “Unhappy Birthday”

  1. howard says:

    I feel a little odd commenting on this post, but it seems so genuine that in doing so, I might actually be complimenting the memories and person behind it. There are people I’ve lost for years now for whom I still can’t seem to formulate such a clear commemoration. Your post struck me as an apt reminder of one such person, and so I almost feel, for a moment at least, like I understand.

  2. Brady says:

    Dad always got a little under-recognized because his birthday was so close to Christmas. Somehow I don’t see that happening this year.

    I wish we could have been with you guys on the 18th.

    Can you send me the Heinlein thesis sometime? I was going to take the bound copy, but Mom understandably wanted to hang on to it.

  3. Ben says:


    I’ve only got the rough components. I’ve been waiting to borrow the bound copy so I have something to work from in terms for formatting and section order.

    Hopefully after the new year.

  4. Conor says:

    Maybe sometimes we act most nobly when there is no possibility of impressing those whom we seek to. I would love to be half the son you obviously are.

    This was touching and delicate. It was a reverent, albeit (or in that it was?) small, window into his life and how it was inescapably bound to yours.

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