It’s hard to find photographs of my dad by himself. That alone, speaks volumes about the man he was and the life he lived. This photograph, taken at a little restaurant in Ramona, California, near San Diego, captures his generous spirit: his smile, his joy at being with one of his granddaughters, his good humor after a good meal. A husband, father, grandfather, laborer, and union organizer, my father lived a remarkable and generous life. He died on May 28, 2012.
Sam Ross, Jr. was born November 19, 1918 in Otsego, Michigan, to Sam and Anna Ross, Sicilian immigrants who ran a small grocery store. He was the third of four children. He went to Otsego High School, graduating in 1937. From there he worked a variety of jobs, but mostly in the area’s steel mills. A young man in his 20s when World War 2 broke out, he joined the U.S. Army and spent from 1942-1945 in the Pacific. He experienced a great deal of combat and was present at the liberation of the Philippines, where he told us how moved he was by the suffering of those the Japanese had held in prison camps. He was one of the soldiers who freed those in the camps. He was also present on the SS Coolidge, a luxury liner-turned troop ship, which hit two mines and sank just off Espiritu Santo Island, now called Vanuatu. He and thousands of soldiers escaped the sinking ship and swam to the island where they experienced serious hunger and hardships.
After the war, he returned to Michigan but his parents wanted to move to Southern California. They felt wanted weather more similar to their native Sicily. His father, Sam Ross, Sr., wanted to raise olives and grapes, so my dad went with his parents, who bought a small chicken ranch in Ontario, California. He worked at various steel mills in Ontario and Fontana, and he organized workers for the Steelworkers’ Union. In 1952, he met Vivian Carey who would become his wife of more than 50 years. They married in 1954 and moved to a new house in Pomona, California, on Alexander Street, which later became Indian Hill. They had two children, Gina in 1956, and me in 1958. He lived in that home on Indian Hill for 64 years.
My father’s life can be seen through what he loved: nature, justice, food, and family.
My father and mother were both passionate lovers of nature. As kids, they took us camping all over California and the West. He especially loved the California Redwoods, often telling us “You know who you are as you stand under those trees.” He loved Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park. He also loved the stark beauty of California’s deserts, particularly, Joshua Tree National Park. He and my mom taught us the names of hundreds of plants and trees. They both passed on a reverent love of nature to my sister and me.
Another mark of my father’s life was his clear sense of justice and fairness. He was devoted to the labor movement and believed deeply in its ideals. He was not only involved in organizing steel workers, he also participated in some of the rougher parts of the labor movement. He told us of times he confronted those who crossed picket lines. He told us stories of flipping over their cars and setting them afire. He frequently said to me that anyone who crosses a picket line is taking food from your family’s table. That was how he saw it.
He told us this story of his first foray into labor organizing. When he was a young teen, he and others were picking onions in a field in Michigan. He and a buddy were just working for spending money– others were supporting families with their work. They decided that someone should approach the field owners and ask for a raise. Since my dad and his buddy were not supporting families, they went to the field owners. He and his friend were promptly fired but apparently the other workers were given the raise. My dad always concluded this story telling us that he and his buddy took all the lunches from their former co-workers’ cars!
He learned how essential labor organizing was when on the 15th anniversary of his work at Taylor Forge in California, he was locked out and fired so the company would not have to provide any retirement benefit that would have been his due had he worked for 15 years. So he worked there for one day less than 15 years. It was precisely this type of greed, on the part of large companies, that informed his politics for years to come.
Everyone who knew my father, knew his joyful love of food. He used to joke “You can call me anything but don’t call me late for dinner!” He loved Italian food above the rest, but he would be quick to say there was nothing he didn’t like to eat. Few occasions brought him more joy than when lots of us were gathered at his kitchen or dining room table. He luckily married my mom, a brilliant cook!
Clearly, the greatest love of my father’s life was his family. At the center of his love of family was his love for my mom, Vivian Carey Ross. She died in 2004 and the years following her death were among his most difficult. He often said to me that he never imagined living without her and really didn’t want to. They joked with one another, kidded one another, and shared a love of nature. They were among the founding families of St. Madeleine Catholic Church in Pomona. Together, they worked in lots of parish activities. They never really had a social life apart from our family. Like many people of their generation, they never went out by themselves. If they couldn’t bring their children to something, they didn’t go. They understood that their calling in life was as parents and they put everything they had into raising my sister and me. They enjoyed the simple joys of life: my dad especially loved to sit on his backyard patio on summer nights and listen to the Dodgers’ games on the radio.
They supported us in any endeavor we took on. They encouraged us in school though they had little formal education themselves. They were close to my sister’s family: her husband Rick, her daughter Melissa and her husband, Dave. They adored their younger granddaughters: Caitlin, Shannon, and Laura. My dad was always ready to help with a loan for a car, advice, requested or not, and good cheer. He loved us unconditionally. Though we didn’t give him too much trouble, he was always ready with practical and kind help. He always supported me, in the various turns my life took; he especially had a strong love for my partner, Robert.
My dad’s last two years were spent at Gateway Gardens, an assisted-living facility in Poway, California, not far from my sister’s home. The staff there loved him and treated him with great kindness. He loved them too. He used to sing and hum as he made his way to the dining room and to the various activities there.
His funeral was held at Riverside National Cemetery. Fr. Alex Aclan, the pastor at St. Madeleine’s Church in Pomona, led a simple service, just as he did when my mom died eight years before. Joining Fr. Alex was my dad’s great friend, Dr. Chanya, the leader of a small community of Buddhist monks who lived next door to my father in Pomona. My dad and Dr. Chanya developed a beautiful friendship over many years. To see Fr. Alex in his white robe beside Dr. Chanya, in his orange and brown robes– was a beautiful sight. Dr. Chanya remembered my dad as a kind and gentle man, his “first American friend.” Fr. Alex recalled my dad as one who always brought people together. My dad would have enjoyed that moment.
My father was truly part of what historians have called “The Greatest Generation.” He lived through the difficult years of the Depression as a young person, through the dangers of World War 2 as a young adult, and then through the remainder of the 20th century as a faithful husband, father, and friend. It’s a rare blessing to know your father for 53 years. He lived a magnificent life, dying at 93 years of age. I feel very lucky. These days, for me, gratitude and grief live side by side.