Father's Day: Families play on shore of Boise dad's legacy

Warren Tozer loved greenery and the Greenbelt, so a sandy sliver along the Boise River was dedicated to him

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANJune 16, 2013 

Last summer, Mom, my brother and I stopped our bikes by a small beach, outlined by a short rock wall on the 22-mile Boise River Greenbelt. I reached into my bag and took out cleaning supplies. Mark and I knelt on the walkway next to an unobtrusive plaque sunk into the wall imprinted with the words "Tozer Overlook; In memory of Warren Tozer; Boise River Greenbelt Committee member 1976–1983" and started scrubbing.

Most people who stop there to rest while walking or biking, or even those who bring their children there to play, probably don't even know that the quaint little spot has a name.

The spot was dedicated in 1983 to Warren Wilson Tozer, my father. Since then, the area has become lush with vegetation; and the Boise River has created a tiny tributary through the space, providing a perfect wading stream for kids.

The viewpoint was chosen because it covers a combination of maintained turf and natural wooded areas featuring black cottonwoods, a few evergreens, alders, a willow and serviceberry. The Greenbelt Committee, of which my father was vice chairman, felt this best reflected his widespread interest in plants.

Dad's hobby was gardening. And after building a house out by Micron - before there was a Micron - he set about landscaping the sagebrush desert. A line of cottonwoods out by the hayshed created a windbreak for the house. Out of the south-facing windows, a line of pine trees were planted close together so they could be thinned to provide Christmas trees. On the west side of the house, a small orchard was taking root that, when mature, would provide us with different varieties of apples, pears, cherries, apricots and plums. And every summer there was the garden - three acres worth of every type of vegetable imaginable, including okra, tomatillos, chard, fennel and kohlrabi. I didn't mind the planting; I hated the weeding and picking potato bugs. I loved the raspberries, cantaloupe and fresh tomatoes. One summer, the plethora of vegetables on the table prompted my brother's friend to ask if we were vegetarians.

My father made his living as a history professor at Boise State. He outlined his expectations for his students on their first day of class - if they weren't prepared to work hard then they shouldn't be in his class. His area of expertise was China, and he made numerous contributions to Boise State in the area of Far Eastern history and politics.

His incredible sense of humor and sardonic wit were frequently on display in letters to the editor of the Idaho Statesman about campaign contributions, the Constitution and to clarify the truth when it was bastardized by one public figure or another. But his most important title was that of Dad. His priorities were family, work and community, in that order.

I grew up with my parents and brother with a house being built around me and an entire desert to roam and play in. My father had grown up on a farm in Central Washington, and he wanted the same experience for his children; the freedom that comes with a more simple lifestyle out in the middle of nowhere.

At age 6 I got my first animal, a tiger-striped Manx cat that had a 1-inch nub where other cats sported a tail. I had gotten him as a kitten and spent three weeks changing his diapers, as Manx kittens suffer from severe diarrhea. After great deliberation, I puffed up my chest and announced to my family that my kitty's name was Tigger. Dad started calling him "poopy bottom," which eventually morphed into Poobah. It stuck.

Dad was 6'1", with baby fine hair that stood at attention, military style. His eyes, the color of robins' eggs, were framed by black Army-issue glasses. He could pick up a rattlesnake with his bare hands and have it immobilized before it knew what was happening. He also cooked, although sometimes the best thing you could say about his culinary concoctions was that they were interesting. He often ate bread with peanut butter and apples on it.

"Is that good?" I asked, wrinkling my nose.

"No, it's terrible," he said.

"Then why are you eating it?" I asked.

"Because it's terrible."

He served in Korea as an Army Ranger after the war; and, although he rarely spoke of his time in the service, he often recounted how he jumped out of an airplane seven times before he ever landed with one. When I became fascinated by animal ear movement, he encouraged me to learn how to wiggle my ears; and, although he restricted my TV to two hours a week, he never placed limitations on books or reading. To today's teenagers, TV restrictions may seem draconian, but it was one of his greatest gifts to me, as I read with incredible speed and comprehension.

Whenever I complained about the quarter-mile trek to the school bus, he told me that he used to have to walk more than a mile uphill both ways. During the first three months of the house project when we didn't have toilets, I accepted the shovel and toilet paper without complaint because otherwise I'd hear about his childhood treks to the four-seater outhouse in the middle of a frigid Washington winter.

One of our most frequent discussions was the "Life isn't fair" topic. I would get in trouble for not doing something that I felt wasn't my chore or my responsibility and when confronted by my father cry out, "It's not fair!"

Even though he always paused as if to think about his answer, I already knew what he was going to say: "Life isn't fair."

And he always knew how I would respond: "Well, someone should get to work to make it fairer."

Although life wasn't fair, he was. And even when life handed him its worst he never ranted or felt sorry for himself, but rather he continued to live, fight and contribute.

In August 1982, he was diagnosed with colon cancer that spread to his lymph nodes and liver. When medical options were exhausted, he pursued healing through the mind with the Simonton Clinic. He taught his students until the very end, some days almost crawling into class. But the humiliation of his body revealed the power of his character. He died on March 22, 1983, when the Greenbelt was approximately 15 miles long, exactly one month before my 15th birthday.

Fathers are important. My father's gift to you was the Greenbelt, which today stretches 22 miles, provides scenic views, wildlife habitat and pedestrian access to riverside parks. His gifts to me are not tangible or measurable.

After sprucing up Dad's plaque and checking for garbage, Mom, Mark and I hopped back on our bikes. As we pedaled toward a bucket of clams at the Crow's Inn, I felt comfort in knowing that the quiet spot named for my father would be waiting for me whenever I came home.

Boise native Tiana Tozer is a writer and public speaker who now lives in Portland.

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