A Double-Edged Secret

An Essay by Paul Otto

My father was a man of secrets. I have learned of several since his death, but his most surprising secret, kept even from his wife, was his lack of education. Surprising, I say, because he was a licensed pharmacist who was always lecturing his sons to “go to college and get an education.” To emphasize his point, Dad talked fondly of his classes at McKinley High School in St. Louis. Since Dad was a pharmacist, my Mom, brother and I assumed he had graduated from McKinley and then from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. He never corrected those assumptions.

My father died in January 1966. Afterwards, Mom told me that only a few months before, our next door neighbor brought to Mom’s attention a newspaper item. It announced that a graduating class from McKinley High School was holding its 50-year reunion. “Maybe that was your husband’s class,” she suggested. Mom asked Dad about it. Dad had to admit that he had dropped out before graduating. As for the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, he never enrolled.

Taken aback, Mom asked how he was able to get his pharmacist license. Dad told her that was why, in the 1920s before they met, he had worked in Arkansas. Arkansas issued pharmacist licenses to those who apprenticed in a pharmacy there—no further schooling needed. Dad knew that Missouri and Arkansas followed the law of reciprocity. Each state would issue a pharmacist license to someone who held a license from the other state, without any further qualifications. Accordingly, after Arkansas licensed Dad, he applied for and received his Missouri license.

As a kid, I saw Dad renewing his Arkansas license every year. I asked him why he bothered. He explained, with a wistful smile, that he kept his Arkansas license current for “sentimental reasons”–because he had enjoyed living in Arkansas. He hid the truth. He could renew his Missouri license only as long as he kept current the Arkansas license.

Eventually, I came into the possession of Dad’s licenses. Sure enough, the Missouri license had “RECIPROCITY” emblazoned across it in large red letters.

Why the big secret? Dad should have stood proudly before us for being resourceful enough to use the law of reciprocity to get himself a Missouri license. Dad apparently thought less of himself because of his lack of formal education. He must have assumed that others, even his wife and sons, would judge him just as harshly.

His secrecy successfully protected his pride, but at the price of forcing him to endure the stress that duplicity and the fear of being found out inflicts on those who deceive. Even worse, Dad never got to understand that we would never have limited our love and regard for him because of any lack of education. That understanding might have brought Dad to the point of forgiving himself.