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For Pop, A Century Later

My dad, in a portrait by my late aunt Evelyn Zarchy Miller

Today is the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth in New York City—the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants—and just over ten years since he passed away. In his honor, I am publishing this eulogy I delivered at his memorial. I still think about him and miss him every day! There’s more about him in my story “Dog Years” in my book Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil.

My daddy was the strongest man in the world. My daddy was the smartest man in the world. My daddy could build or fix anything, and he was an expert on everything. That’s how I thought of him when I was growing up, and most of it turned out to be true.

My dad, Harry Zarchy, was a Renaissance man, a teacher in the New York City schools for 36 years, a skilled musician, a hobbyist and craftsman who excelled in fields as diverse as jewelry making, watch repair, clock making, furniture building, ham radio, photography, drawing, and countless others. And he was an author, the creator of over 30 books on crafts and hobbies and the outdoors for kids and teenagers, mostly with his own photographs and drawings. Between 1941 and 1973, in 32 years, he published 36 books.

Listen to some of the titles:

Let’s Make Something, Let’s Make More Things, Let’s Make a Lot of Things, Here’s Your Hobby, Creative Hobbies, Let’s Go Camping, Let’s Go Boating, Let’s Fish, Wheel of Time, What Does A Scientist Do?, Jewelry Making & Enameling, Model Railroading, Stamp Collector’s Guide, Ceramics, and the last one, the Betty Crocker Modern Woman’s Fix It Yourself Handbook of Home Repair, and many others. His books sold well in the education market, especially to schools and libraries, and they stayed in print for a long time.

He was a great teacher, both in and out of the classroom, and he could study and master any subject. Pop played violin, banjo, cello and guitar when he was growing up. When we moved to Long Island, he met Joe Muro, our neighbor over the back fence. Joe played string bass, the huge upright bass fiddle, in various jazz  combos. When he found out Pop had played cello decades before, he taught Pop the bass. In typical fashion, Pop mastered the instrument, then bought an old bass with a big hole in the side, repaired the hole, refinished it, and, with Joe’s help, started working as a freelance bass player. Eventually he was elected Vice President of the Long Island Musicians’ Society.

Similarly, he attended adult education courses in golf, taught by a friend of his, mastered the game, and soon was teaching the classes himself, despite being a relative rookie.

When an encyclopedia hired him to write an article about archery, he researched and learned all about it. Soon he was making bows out of multiple wood layers bonded together, and arrows from dowels, feathers, and points, and we were shooting at a target in the back yard. He got interested in amateur radio, so we had a two-way ham rig in our basement, and an antenna in the attic. He wrote a book on model railroading, so we had the coolest HO gauge train setup that anyone had ever seen, complete with mountains, tunnels, villages, switches, and signals.

He was a unique personality who didn’t follow the crowd and delighted in being an individual. He liked to wear brown shoes to weddings, which drove Mom crazy, and he had crepe soles years before they became popular. He bought one of the first Volkswagens imported into this country in the early 1950s, and loved it when neighbors came by to marvel over it and its daring design.

“Where’s the engine, Harry?”

“In the rear.”

“Where do you put water in?”

“You don’t, it’s air-cooled.”

This was the first of a series of foreign cars he had, at a time when everyone else was driving huge American boats. He was a horse trader. He also had a Hillman Minx, a Sunbeam Talbot, another Hillman, a Fiat, and others, and another Volkswagen in which he installed a Porsche engine. On more than one occasion, he left home in the morning with one car, and returned that night with another. But never more than one at a time.

Pop at school, probably at James Madison High School in Brooklyn in the 1950s

Years before the women’s movement, he taught me, by example, a deep-seated respect for women. He never disparaged women or made lewd remarks. He believed strongly that women could and should have access to the same jobs and opportunities as men, just as he showed us that men could and should share in housecleaning, cooking, and gardening.

After retirement, Pop got a computer so he could write a mystery novel. Well, not just one computer. In typical fashion, he constantly traded them in and traded up. He had a Macintosh, then an IBM, an Amiga, another Mac, another Amiga, another IBM, another Mac, and on and on. I lost count at twelve computers.

Pop also had a great sense of humor and he delighted in telling and retelling some of the silliest jokes you’ve ever heard. He always called me “Will-yam” even when he greeted me on my last visit to see him at the nursing home. When we got together, he loved to catch me up on the latest details of his new tools, computers, books, or projects. On more then one occasion, his enthusiasm boiled over, and he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, turned sideways, stuck a thumb in his belt, and said, “And… can you tell I’m about to lose some weight?”

He loved recounting an incident from his teaching years: One day he noticed that some students walking by his room seemed to be laughing at him. When he questioned them, one asked, “Mr. Zarchy, is it true what Mr. Coleman said about you changing your name?”

Jerry Coleman was Pop’s good buddy, and quite a jokester, so Pop asked them warily what Jerry had said.

“Well,” said the student, “Mr. Coleman said your name was originally Archibald Zarchibald, but you shortened it to Harry Zarchy.”

On my last visit with him, I told him I had just interviewed Bill Clinton and was about to go meet Gerald Ford. “They named a theatre after him,” he replied.

“You mean Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot?” I laughed. He grinned, happy that I’d gotten the joke.

It wasn’t always easy growing up as the son of a Renaissance man. Occasionally he was gruff with me, if I didn’t live up to his expectations or his standards or his amazing  energy level. Pop played semipro soccer for a short time in his youth, and I felt I could never be the athlete or outdoorsman he was. He was a musical snob, and sometimes we clashed about that. He loved only classical music and jazz written before 1945. Rock and roll was based on jungle rhythms, he told me, and therefore it wasn’t music at all. “All the experts agree,” he would say.

But I never doubted his love for me for a second, and our relationship smoothed out as I grew out of my adolescence. Also, I started dating in high school, and I became more diligent about cutting the grass and doing other chores on time, so that I could be sure about borrowing the car.

Pop never questioned my choice of career as a cameraman. In recent years, I have grown aware of how much of him is in me, as I have started writing and teaching too. But when I was younger, I had to find something to do with my life that was outside of his experience, because he did know so much about so many things. He always asked me about my work, and one time he told me he hoped I would get to shoot a big movie some day.

Well, that day has still not come, but I did get to shoot an episode of a big TV show recently. I told him a lot about it on my last visit here to see him a couple of weeks ago, but unfortunately, he didn’t get to see it. After the show aired Wednesday night, I got an email from a friend who was enthusiastic about the program and knew of Pop’s passing. He ended it this way:

“Bill, I know it must have been a bittersweet experience for you to watch the show tonight after having just lost your father, but I kept thinking about how he would have kvelled at your success. Who really knows? Maybe he did… at least I would like to think so.”

For you kids out there, who only knew Poppy as an old man, you should know that he was a sweet, gentle, vibrant, brilliant, man, a great man, respected and admired by everyone he knew. His passing makes us all very sad, but it is not a tragedy. We are lucky to have had him so long. He had a long and fulfilling life, a fascinating and multifaceted career, and a great family. He and Nanny were married 64 years, and they delighted in their children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, and in the wonderful spouses their progeny have brought into the family.

He used to tell me that, when he was a kid, his family would get together to play music, sing and dance together, and have fun. The best way to celebrate his life is for us to do the same thing. Music, singing, fun. That way his memory and his legacy will live on in all of us for the rest of our lives.

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