Work Hard & Do the Right Thing – A Tribute to an Old Sailor

“Work hard and do the right thing,” was Ted Varga’s mantra.  His son Stephen Varga shared this in his eulogy at the Hoyt Funeral Home. 

I had come to know Ted these past years through Meals on Wheels, when I delivered his Monday food. He was an old sailor with a brass anchor for a knocker on his door. He was endearing and authentic and I appreciated the stories his son shared. A master craftsman, he could do anything with wood. Stephen said an admiral heard of his skill and sent in a request for wooden skis and a boogie board, though they didn’t call it that back then. Ted made them.

When Ted left the service, his talents remained in demand as he traveled the world building special rooms for the CIA. He wasn’t a spy so they covered his eyes, took him several stories into the ground to work, building soundproof, complex specification type rooms. Once, in Paraguay, Ted noticed the pilot was sweating and grew a bit concerned, because he was kept in the dark on details. He asked the pilot if something was wrong and he confessed that he didn’t have much gas left in the plane. So, they did an emergency landing in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, someone came to refuel the plane and they were on the way.  Ted’s life was full of stories like that. 

Here was one I especially like. When President Truman desegregated the Navy, Ted was assigned as the mentor for a young black carpenter. They went on leave together, five sailors piling into an old car. When they got to Maryland, they stopped and Ted filled up the tank. Then he went to the bathroom and saw his trainee standing outside, the other three sailors were coming out of the bathroom. The trainee was shifting his weight on his feet and Ted asked why he was waiting. He pointed to the sign which allowed whites only.  Ted told him to go ahead and then had to insist he use the facility. Ted went to the station attendant and asked when they decided not to serve members of the armed forces, was there a reason the gas station didn’t welcome military members?  The attendant was dumbfounded. Ted told him to remove the sign or he wouldn’t pay for the gas. Then he reminded him that the tank was already filled and he would just leave. The attendant removed the sign. 

At the burial, the rifle detail fired off three shots and the bugler played taps.  I saluted the old sailor and the guards in dress uniform folded the flag, then presented it to Ted’s children. I wiped my eye. One of the little girls handed out a packet with three items: a laminated card with a prayer, the schedule, and a lottery ticket.  That’s right. A Lottery ticket and a schedule with the restaurant address. Ted wanted everyone who came to his funeral to have lunch on him and share in a bit of luck. He considered himself lucky in his long life, almost 90.  He was orphaned at 10 and made his way admirably in the world. He lived by his own advice: working hard and doing the right thing.

This week, I went for a short hike and decided to walk by Ted’s home. Twenty-five minutes it took to his driveway, his name on the mailbox. I saw the ladder outside, a length of old gutter, the ox yoke hanging above the garage doors. The flag was posted by the garage. A week before spring, the sun was setting behind the old brick home, a brilliant orb in the bare trees.

As I walked down the hill and around the corner to my home, I saw a movement above the treetops. I looked up and saw its black wings spread out, the white head on high, an eagle. 

Rest in Peace. Theodore Varga. October 27, 1930 – March 9, 2019

Theodore Varga


A Story Board Tribute – sent to the family in hopes they would share with Ted during his final days. They collected these for his funeral.

Hello Ted! All the way from New Canaan, on Adams Lane, just a walk down from Wilma’s on Ponus Ridge.

When I think of you, Ted, I see you seated as you always were, at the kitchen table, dressed in flannel shirt and boxers, walker at your side, the place piled high with clutter and smelling like pipe tobacco. “Hello Captain,” you said, promoting me on good days, “Major!” You mentioned your wife who died a long time ago. I could see your eyes glisten, and you directed me down the hallway to see her picture. “She was beautiful,” you said. And she was, smooth skin, pale eyes, untouched by the ravages of time, on the wall and in your memory.

I imagine your home looked different when she was alive.  

I know that you like a good fruitcake at the holiday, two words I always imagined were a paradox. GOOD FRUITCAKE.  I went on the prowl and got an education.  Palmer’s Market made its own recipes these many years, a half century maybe, so I imagine you have a few years on them. The price was like $17.99 a pound, likely more, a kind of gold standard when it comes to holiday cakes with fruit and nuts. That might have something to do with the tasteless five dollar version I had known.  So, here’s to a man of discerning tastes. Thank you for the lesson in FRUITCAKES – it came from the best. Let it be known, there’s always something to learn. Thank you for the lessons. Thank you for being you.   

With friendship and affection,

MyLinh

About mylinhshattan

I’m a writer who has worked in the private sector, taught at college, and served in the U.S. Army. I hold a B.S. in Mathematics from West Point, an M.B.A. from Florida Southern College, and an M.F.A. in Writing from Queens University.