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First to the finish line, but looking back with love

Posted on Friday, August 29, 2014 at 9:36 am

Dr. Herbert J. Cross, born in Ashland, died Aug. 8. His son Charles R. Cross, who is the Seattle author of nine books, wrote this memory of his father on Facebook, which we republish here. Charles named his son Ashland after his family’s longtime home — they started Cross Brother’s Store — and in honor of his father’s birthplace.



Special to the H-P

My dad died Aug. 8. I miss him. And for those who knew my dad, or know me, here goes, a FB post I never wanted to write.

He wasn’t quite as funny as Robin Williams, or as sultry as Lauren Bacall, but my father Herb Cross had his moments, and he died last week. Many of my friends and colleagues over the years knew my father well.

He was 80 when he died, which still seems too young, of course. My dad was a longtime professor of psychology, who trained many of the clinicians at Washington State University in Pullman over the years.

When I read obituaries, I always look for cause of death, and his seems a bit more tragic, as it would to any son, but also particularly tragic considering his profession: he basically died from toxic levels of lithium in his body, accidental, taking the wrong amount of medication over time. He did have other health issues that may have complicated that, still there is some weirdness in that for his son, a biographer, certainly knowing the Nirvana song “Lithium.” But whatever the cause, I know my dad’s passing means he is free of suffering, and that isn’t sad, at least some moments it isn’t sad.


Herbert Cross, a longtime Ashland resident, died Aug. 8 at the age of 80. (Contributed photo)

Herbert Cross, a longtime Ashland resident, died Aug. 8 at the age of 80. (Contributed photo)

My father worked at Cross Bros. store for most of his youth (and I even stamped a few cans during summers when I was a teen before my hair grew so long it began to scare old ladies). There, my dad was exposed to Ashland’s many patrons, matrons, characters, old Southern gentlemen, and occasional eccentrics. Cross Bros. store was in that day — and maybe now still  — the great melting pot of Ashland, where people from vastly different economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds shopped together and worked together. I think much of my father’s passion (and mine) for civil rights came from developing friendships with African American workers in a time in America where parts of Virginia still operated with distinct lines of race and class. My father’s deep friendship with Emmett Smith, in particular, stayed with him, and with me.

I began to see the world through the eyes of the store — where people were people regardless of their looks, their money or lack of it, or their age. Of all the things I am proud of in my family’s legacy with the store, none stands above the fact that Cross Bros. gave credit to people of all races at a time when many blacks could not get credit anywhere in Ashland because of their race. I know that for many years that truly stood for something in Ashland; I hope it still does. I know not everyone in my long family lineage (Sis often reminded me we had seven Confederate Crosses during the Civil War, but “one damn Yankee”) was so enlightened, but my father was.

My dad’s grandfather started Cross Bros. store, which eventually was run by my grandfather Dick Cross, his sisters Sis and Frances, and brother Walter Lee. Dick was the only one of the four who had children, and only had my father. Like the “Last of the Mohicans,” my dad was the end, before my sister and I.  I know there was a great expectation that my dad would one day take over the family business, but when he pursued higher education, and decided to go into psychology and teaching, it was a disappointment to some. But they accepted Herb’s desires, even if my grandfather Dick’s education had begun and ended on the pages of Popular Mechanics.

My dad left the employment of the store to join the Army first, but later left for college, and eventually we moved north. My Aunt Frances Cross Burgess, sometimes clashed with me and her favorite slur for me was to call me a “Yankee,” as if that “one-eighth Yankee blood” had directly gone to me. Maybe it did in that one aspect of my writing career has been to write about the injustice afforded African Americans in the music business over the years, but to also celebrate the rich and important part of our entire nation’s cultural legacy, specifically blues, R&B, and jazz.

Though my father lived in Washington State – a Yankee state for sure – for the last four decades of his life, he still talked about moving back to Ashland often, almost yearly. He left Ashland long ago, but it never left him. His desire to be buried in the churchyard of Independence Christian Church will bring him back once again. I also secretly plan to drop a smudge of his ashes in Cross Bros. store to mix in with remnants of the saw dust that once lined the floors, saw dust that has carried the DNA of all of my family over the years, and the great family friends who have continued to keep Cross Bros. at the heart of Ashland.


My father certainly shaped who I am – and who I am not – more than any other individual. He was a complicated man, with many contradictions, and contradictory phases over his eight decades. As a scholar in the study of the mind, he was well aware of those complications. He wrote a number of research papers that shifted policy on drug abuse, and veteran affairs, and his work as a clinician certainly helped the lives of his many patients.

His love of books played a major role in my profession, and I dedicated my Hendrix bio “Room Full of Mirrors” to him, though I am also pretty positive he never read that book. He took me to see live music when I was young, and his Beatles and Rolling Stones records were my first window into that world. I always remembered him taking me to a big band jazz concert when I was just a toddler at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, back when he was a graduate student, and a few years before my sister was born. I was secretly invited on stage as part of a running gag of the band, which probably happened in every city, and I pounded the drums with the group as the bandleader feigned surprise about the new drummer in the band. “What, we got a new drummer?” I recall the bandleader said.

It was only this year when I asked my dad exactly whose band that was, and I found out my first concert ever was playing drums with Louis Armstrong. My dad also took me to see Robert Kennedy speak, to touch his hand, and as a little kid I marched for Civil Rights, against the war, and for equal rights for women. The progressive politics of growing up in an academic psychology department world stayed with me, though over time they faded for him strangely, befuddling me.

My father was a man of many strengths, and some vices, all of which affected my family of origin, and shaped me in ways that could fuel 20 psychology PhD studies, or Russian novels, both which are essentially the same thing played out in different literary forms.

My parents divorced when I was 16, and it was just my dad and me for six months and we ate exclusively at Taco Time every night, before he remarried. And yet he also taught me to bake bread, to comb my hair, to tie a tie. He gave me a love of the outdoors, biking, hiking, and running. Together we ran what seemed like a million miles side by side, starting when I was a skinny 10-year-old. When we moved to Pullman, the only way to get running shoes then was to have them sent C.O.D. from Spokane on the bus. We ran many road races together. My dad was bigger and physically stronger than me, but during a race he’d always run back after finishing, and jog in the last portion of the race by my side. There eventually came a day when I finished before him, and his son, now a man, began going back for him. I didn’t feel sadness that transitional day, only triumph, but now I look back that moment and realize it was one stage of a loss of what I had been, and what I was to become.

My own son is only 14, but he can already kick my butt in any physical sport, something which gave my dad the greatest joy in his entire life. I’m not sure if my dad was happy from seeing me face that cycle myself, or from the idea that his grandson was a runner, or maybe both.

We are all in the race with death, some of us with proper running shoes bought by our dad with cash handed to a Greyhound Bus driver by the side of the road in Pullman, Washington, and some of us on our own. This week in my particular race, old roles were once more reversed, back to where they were when I was a kid. My dad, Herb Cross, beat me to the finish line again. I know he’s looking back for me, looking at me, watching me, loving me, always.