My father died last Sunday at age 73, and we’re burying him tomorrow. As a good friend who had also suddenly and unexpectedly lost a parent said, I'm now a member of the shittyest club ever. This blog post is about my dad.
Michael J. Valentine was a pretty extraordinary man. Born in Syracuse, NY as the only son of second-generation Italian immigrants, he had the kind of childhood that caused him to always talk about his large and loving extended family very fondly. After graduating from Syracuse University, he attended graduate school at Cornell University. I was born in Ithaca, in fact, and baptized at Anabel Taylor Hall at Cornell. More on the weird Cornell connection later.
My father was an entrepreneur. He started a company to rebuild ticker tape machines for clients such as Dow Jones and Xerox, but after that entire industry was buggy-whipped, he turned his creative energies toward invention. I remember growing up seeing these little metal devices on our telephones. I must have been a pain in the ass because his invention was in response to a problem that parents with young children might have. You see, if a child were to pull a phone handset off the base, the line would be busy and it wouldn’t ring if someone called, or the child might dial a real number by moving the dial or pushing buttons randomly. So he invented, patented, and built a device that would hold those little hook switch buttons down on the base even if the handset was picked up or knocked off. With a flip of a switch, it would work normally, but you could “lock out” the use of the telephone for homes with children like me and my younger brother.
Possibly because of this experience with the US Patent and Trademark Office, he continued creating and inventing throughout his life, focusing in later years more on trademarks than utility or design patents. My brother and I enjoyed an early exposure to intellectual property law as a result. Back in the earlier days of the Internet, when services like BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems), CompuServe, and Telenet were the dominant players, and when the equivalent of a “browser” was a command line interface, I bought a 1200bps dial-up modem with paper route money and started hacking. It wasn’t long before I found I could run trademark searches (for dollars per minute) using CompuServe, which I did for my father and his friends from time to time.
In high school, we worked as a family to bring to market a lightly sweetened dough-based grocery product. My father registered the trademark, Flings, in 1990, and had them baked and packaged locally. We all enjoyed a period of shelf sales at Wegmans, our local supermarket.
When it came time for me to apply to college, I applied to more than 10 schools, and after all the applications were sent away, my father probably became more aware of the fact that I might end up living farther away than he expected - Massachusetts, Virginia, Texas - because few of the colleges to which I applied were nearby. Mid-January, after all of the application deadlines had passed, my dad talked me into driving down to Cornell for an unannounced, unplanned visit in the dead of winter. I hadn’t applied to Cornell because I didn’t know much about the school, just that it was in the Ivy League and probably a stretch, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go somewhere so close to home. Not that it mattered - the application deadline had passed - but if my dad wanted to go on a little road trip with me, it sounded like fun.
We spent a few hours walking around campus, seeing that old stone chapel where I was baptized, and listening to my dad tell me we should visit the admissions office while we were there. “Dad, even if I wanted to go, I’m not sure I could get in, and even if I could, it’s after the deadline. It’s a waste of time.” Well, not for my dad. I remember him walking in there and asking to speak with the head of undergraduate admissions. “I’d like you to meet my son, Jeffrey.” Fast forward a couple months - they ended up accepting my late application and admitting me for the Fall semester. It turned out that being closer to home was serendipitous. The soon-to-be love of my life, whom I wouldn’t meet for another 5 months, was going to start at SUNY Geneseo that same year, and we dated throughout college driving two hours each way every few weeks. I’m certain that if I hadn’t visited Cornell that cold, January day my senior year of high school, I wouldn’t have the same two beautiful daughters I have today.
My father never traveled by air - a lifelong fear of flying borne from a friend’s tragic accident years ago - but after college it seemed that was all I did. I moved to Boston to follow my future wife as she pursued a graduate degree, and started working as a product manager and demo monkey at a small educational software company. My work kept me on the road fairly often - a development office in India, a client in Mississippi, a prospect in California - but it didn’t bother me. I took that work ethic into a startup I co-founded during the peak of the dot-com days, and continued growing and running until it was acquired in 2011. He always worried about how busy I was, even after cutting down on travel and moving back from Boston to start a family in Rochester, but I never shared all of the the high-highs (“we landed a huge new customer!”) or the low-lows (“if we can’t fix this, I can’t make payroll next month.") He knew the toll it took on my hair color, at least, but I think he also knew that I was having the time of my life.
Despite some moderate financial success, my father always worried about whether or not I had enough money. He saw me spending a lot - buying a farm, a treehouse, a crazy Jeep, and other big-kid toys - and for a while I think he thought I was just financing it with debt. The talk eventually shifted from “Jeffrey, are you sure you have enough saved?” to “Jeffrey, you should invest in real estate.” Surprise - we invested in a rental property earlier this year.
I feel like I’m a fairly aware person, but it wasn’t until his passing and actually writing this very post that I realized that my father likely had a subconscious influence over my largest, and best, life decisions. It could be that I went to Cornell, became an entrepreneur, started a family, chose career paths that kept me near my children, or invested in real estate due to decisions he influenced. Combined with his empathy, creativity, and stubborn perseverance, he set me up with everything I needed. I always thought I was just lucky, but perhaps some of that luck was actually my father's actions and advice to help me along the way. I was lucky enough to be his son.