The word was, he once owned an elephant. It’s a plausible story, given his fine sense of the ridiculous. It would be the thing a bachelor living in Asia during its heyday would do. More interesting is how he got from the American heartland to the exotic Far East in the first place.
The year was 1930. Dave Roth, son of a Cincinnati bond broker, quit his studies of Greek Mythology at Kenyon College after his sophomore year, sold Chevrolet cars back home in Cincinnati for a time, then abandoned his familiar surroundings to explore life in New York City. Downtown at Broad and Wall, he flipped a coin to decide whether to go into City Bank or Chase. City Bank won out and he went in. He told me about it when I was six. “I said I want work,” he said to me, “I didn’t say I was looking for a job.” The story, meant as a teaching moment, let me understand that getting work requires that you act like you really want to work. I never forgot the lesson.
Several months after being hired, he was at work as a teller and he heard that the vice president in charge of the Far Eastern division was interviewing candidates to be his personal assistant during his upcoming tour of the bank’s Asian branches. Dave applied for and was scheduled for an interview, which he prepared for by asking earlier interviewees what the man wanted.
When it was his turn, the vice president said, “Can you take dictation?” Dave answered, “No sir, but I could learn.” Then he asked, “Can you type?” “No sir, but I could learn.” And, finally, “Do you know how to develop film?” Dad’s reply was, “My roommate is an amateur photographer. He can teach me.”
It was a slam dunk. None of the earlier candidates had shown that much initiative.
“You are to be my assistant,” he was told. “We sail in sixty days. Prepare yourself.” So, Dad worked at his cashiering job days, and went to Spencer Business College at night, learned speedwriting and typing, and got his roommate to bring him up to speed on film development. In the late fall of 1930, the vice president and his new assistant set sail for Bombay, India.
The tour lasted nine months. By ship and train, they visited the bank’s branches in India, Ceylon, Burma, Australia, New Zealand, The Phillippines, Macao, Honk Kong and, finally, Japan. When the vice president was ready to return to New York, Dad was granted his request to be posted to one of the Japanese branches.
Dad was to remain in Japan until 1940. On furlough back home in ’38, he met Lera, a beautiful young woman, and Sylvia, her beautiful little daughter. He made Lera his wife and brought her and Sylvia both back to Japan. I came along in ’39. We left that nation a year later, just ahead of the hostilities that followed.
Our steamer trunks were never unpacked for long while I was growing up. Between 1940 and 1966, Dad was posted to branches in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru-where my younger sister, Stephanie and brother Stephan were born; Montevideo, Uruguay; and, finally, Mexico City before returning to New York for his final years with the bank.
I am often told I was very fortunate to travel and live in so many places growing up. I won’t deny it. Despite the stress of having to make new friends every few years, I do appreciate these experiences. But, far and away the real blessing in my life was was the influence of my Dad during those years. I wasn’t really aware of it, because Dad never tooted his own horn. He had little in the way of ego, and was inclined to be self-deprecating. That may be why friends, family, and co-workers loved him so much.
Dave Roth was a straight shooter who didn’t wear his integrity on his sleeve. He did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. That was what made the biggest impression on me. He would be bemused by the self important people in our midst, but was too forebearing to bring ’em down. Not that he couldn’t. My brother, Steve, said the thing he like to do was to hang around the adults when they were talking. Dad had a very sharp wit, but he used it gently, and even the folks that were being skewered could chuckle at his on-the-mark barbs.
I miss my Dad. He was taken from us too soon. I wish I had been near him when I was grown. Like most American kids living abroad back then, I was sent back home for high school and college, and after that, time and distance kept us from being together much.
My Dad was a good man. Never much of a churchgoer, he would say, “My religion is people.” It puzzled me then, but it doesn’t now. Hafiz said, “Everyone is God speaking. Why not be polite and listen to Him.” My Dad was a good listener.