David Mark Iseman died 11 days ago, far too early at age 63. He was the greatest Daddy to all 5 of us, but that’s far from the whole story. Dave was also a rebel, entertainer, coach, builder, and journalist.
Dave was never afraid to cry, so as we honor him through storytelling, feel free to cry as well. As his kids, we’ll certainly be doing so.
But, he would be disappointed if we only cry.
If you don’t laugh at any of these stories, you might find yourself like Joey P. from up the hill. 4 miles away and 50 years ago, the sissy bigmouth rat received Dave’s best throw, getting an egg to the face from over 50 yards away. Don’t laugh, and you might find out for yourself that the ghost of Dave has an even better arm.
So smile, laugh, and remember our Daddy fondly. You just might find your 40s of Pabst taste extra blue ribbon refreshing, your darts land double bullseye, and your sources are extra talkative.
I’m Luke, Dave’s oldest child. Or, as Daddy would call me, Dukies, Big Man, or Punyo.
It’s easy to remember Dave by his achievements, but let’s not forget what he refused to do: Dave did not conform. The nuns could rap on his knuckles until they were blue in the face, but David was not one for rules. Not just in his original hipster outfit of canvas photographer’s vest with chuck taylors and ratty army pants, Dave was a true rebel.
Want to avoid spending your life in Mount Oliver, one of the poorest neighborhoods in 1970s Pittsburgh? Your choices were basically to go to jail, join the army, or work in the steel mills. If you’re Dave, you instead get a Journalism degree, graduate to a stint doing construction in New York City, and then spend the next 30 years moving a growing family to whichever small town has a slightly better newspaper job available. When Adam was born, kid #5, our household income was about $30k per year, with Dave working at least 60 hours a week. By age 34, they had 5 kids. I need to go back in time 2 years and have quintuplets to catch up.
Dave encouraged us in our rebellion even when it was just because we wanted to be different. A nun kicked me out of fourth grade for having a mohawk, and Dave and Lynn helped me debate with the Mother Superior about how much of the rat tail had to be removed before it qualified as a properly pious cut. Then, when we finally had a definition from the nun who was wistfully recalling the glory days of capital punishment, Dave and Lynn left the choice of whether to comply or switch schools up to me at age 11.
When I was threatened with expulsion from high school for a computer hack (of which I’d told him ahead of time), the principal made the mistake of mentioning potential legal liability to my dad. Full fight mode kicked in: “You’re threatening my son with federal charges for exposing your broken security? Should we be recording this meeting? Do we need to schedule a formal meeting for next week with the school district’s lawyer?” The principal thought I was the one willing to challenge his authority…
Unconventional to the literal physical end: there’s no body today because Dave decided to donate his to science. This barely won out over his previous idea to have an Irish wake, with his actual corpse sitting in the corner.
Eminem, one of Dave’s favorite rappers, had some surprisingly salient words:
“I’mma be what I set out to be, without a doubt undoubtedly.”
That was Eminem, you said? Speaking of prolific controversial entertainers, I’m Scott. Dave’s second son, AKA Scottom, Scottombo, CottyTom.
Can you imagine an actual Irish wake? A Dave Iseman corpse sitting in the corner as we cheers Tea Cup shots of whiskey doing turkey gobble impersonations? Entertaining us until he couldn’t anymore.
Everyone stand up.
Think of a Dave memory.
Is he trying to make you giggle? Then sit down.
Is he doing something corny? Sit down.
Is he trying to get you to smile? Sit down.
If you’re still standing, that’s convenient. You can walk out the door behind you. I don’t believe you.
Daddy was entertaining.
We knew it growing up – while other kids were watching MTV, we gathered at night in the attic bedroom in Ohio, all cuddled together on the ground looking up at the ceiling that he had painted with hundreds of glow in the dark dots to look like stars. “Tell us a story, Daddy! Tell us a story!” He would create a little universe, put us in the stories, let his imagination run wild to make us laugh or sleep. He might have told more stories than there were stars in the attic.
Sometimes, he wrote poems, especially to express his love for Mommy. Don’t tell Gramma Sox that they were better than hers. He finished his novel while struggling through chemo. He didn’t let birthdays go by uncelebrated. He told us he loved to see us make our own fun.
He once said, “I’m always worried people aren’t having enough fun.”
That was true even when there was nothing fun about his health. Arthritis, spinal pain, different autoimmune issues; all had rendered him unable to move, eat, drink or speak for days. Ultimately finishing with the leukemia which stole him from us. They didn’t change his attitude or spirit.
“Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road?… I’ll tell you after I wake up” was Daddy’s routine for before anesthesia. Successful surgery and you get a corny joke. An unsuccessful surgery without waking up, how will we ever know the punchline?!
“Because they had no guts.”
The majority of the time the recovery nurse was a different person and never involved in the initial half of the joke and had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Didn’t stop him. That’s Daddy for ya.
In St. Louis, a few years ago, with a feeding tube in through his nose and unable to talk, he puts on a show pretending he doesn’t know where the nasal spray goes. Into his eye? The ear? Swirling it in circles around his goofy face and expressive eyes, finally getting some saline to the correct nostril, with a delightful sigh of relief. That’s Daddy. That’s showbiz baby.
We had strict orders from him of “more laughs than cries”. I’m trying, Daddy.
It’s been hard to smile over the last 366 days during his stretch at UPMC… but he still wouldn’t let us wallow in the worsening news week after week. He didn’t let us sit around staring at his deteriorating body crying more and more. The epitome of Daddy. A few days before he died. All his loved ones in the room, a few different conversations happening at once. As you can imagine the volume level increasing in the small hospital room. Emanating from Daddy we hear, “Everybody shut up. SHUT. UP.” SHHHH. We listen and obey. Maybe some advice? Words of wisdom? “No, I just want quiet for a moment.” I thought it was sad that this funny guy wanted everyone to sit in silence, brooding, it wasn’t like him.
Immediately he broke the silence with a very serious “Pppfffffttttpppptttttttt.”
There’s only one kind of party that Dave didn’t like, and that’s a pity party. So, everybody, we’re going to suck it up and have some fun tonight.
With that instruction from Daddy he changed hats from the entertainer to that of coach, giving us orders on how to go forward in this game of life that we’re now playing without him.
I’m Carla- Dave and Lynn’s youngest daughter and younger of the twins in the middle of this lineup. Daddy created some of the stranger nicknames for me growing up from the classic “Bubba” to Carlita, Bubbaling-a-la, Zubba, Zubba-ling-ga-la, and many more syllabic iterations of those. But, thankfully, he rarely used those names when he was my sports coach. And Daddy was my coach quite a bit. I remember Mia and me waiting anxiously for Daddy- our assistant basketball coach- to arrive to the final game on time from work. He got there- late. It wasn’t from working overtime, it was because a boulder rolled off the mountain side and slammed into his little Honda Civic named Tooters. He didn’t let that delay him too much though, he was there. With encouragement and a smile. Did we win? I don’t remember. Like the coaching cliche says, “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how you play the game.” Daddy- and Mommy of course- taught us how to play almost every game in the best ways.
For me, my main game was softball. I can remember some of the best things about those years coming from my dad as the assistant coach.
Maybe he took the assistant instead of head coach role because he knew he wouldn’t be met with the same level of scrutiny when he pulled things like soaking center field with dawn dish soap and water to teach 15 12-year-olds the proper way to slide without getting hurt; or when he made us laugh uncontrollably throughout the games with his batting and base running signs that ranged from the “flamingo stance” to turning clothing backwards with a rally cap; distracting facial expressions and hand gestures to confuse the other team; or when he would approach any spectator or opposing coach directly and aggressively when they used language inappropriate for the child athletes competing.
Machismo ideals never sat well with Daddy as he coached both girls and boys teams. It wasn’t too often that a girl in 2nd grade got to sub in on her twin’s all-boys baseball team. As the opposing coach encouraged his players to move in when I stepped up to bat- I looked at Daddy for encouragement and saw that special smile and wiggle of the hips that meant “rotate your hips when you step in to hit the pitch.” And I did. That line drive went right to the third baseman and broke his nose. Daddy smiled again.
Growing up with three brothers, one sister, no cable TV, no video games, and a mom who was working her butt off going back to school to get another degree was not always easy. Daddy would take us out of the house so mommy could study- more often than not to the park. We would play traditional games like touch football- complete with trick tap-plays and complicated running routes- but we also made up a few games.
He was- and still is- leading us by example- having fun with the “game” that you’re playing, being proud to be competitive, aggressive in trying to do your best – no matter the game. Even when the game was foreign he made you eager to do well. I remember showing up to Kirby Park as an awkward high schooler- with Daddy and Mia to play “ultimate frisbee” with strangers. Daddy quickly assigned nicknames to these strangers- disco Dan, spider Dan, old Dave, Gentle Ben, Purple Guy. And when “Paper Dave” subbed out of the game he still made touchdown dances and complicated plays. He had a way with coaching sports, that, similar to his other hats that he wore, made him the one that brought people together and made them want to achieve more by enjoying and excelling at what they were doing.
He helped coach us through the logistics of those games and sports- constantly encouraging us to build upon those fundamentals- like any good coach does.
Even though he’s left us too soon he’s laid the foundation for us all to continue to build on.
I’m Adam. The youngest of Dave and Lynn’s kids or as my daddio would call me: Ada, Ada-Bad, dirt dog or Biggie. My dirt dog daddio was also excellent at building things. Daddio throughout his life was constantly building, fixing or upcycling. Sometimes all three went into making one of his legendary Halloween costumes. One of his first jobs out of college was working as a handyman in New York City where he rehabilitated multiple bars and restaurants while sometimes practicing very questionable workplace safety habits. He remained wary of routers for the rest of his life after trying to use a drill bit in a router. He said he watched the metal drill bit flex and bend before flying off at high speed.
Later after he started having children with his beautiful wife, my amazing mother Lynn, he fixed up each of the eight houses we grew up in. He installed clothes chutes to make doing seven peoples’ laundry easier. He unclogged our blocked pipes when Scott put a whole dinner down the kitchen sink. He also built more fantastical projects. He built bunk beds with a fire pole entrance. He cut circular porthole windows in my attic bedroom. He ensured that every house we lived in had a jungle gym with slides, a fire pole and monkey bars that he built himself.
From what my mom tells me, as a toddler I was glued to my daddio’s hip through most of these building projects. I was probably more of a hinderance than a help but eventually I started to be able to do more than just grab him PBRs from the fridge. One of the first projects that I remember meaningfully helping with was when I was in 4th grade and we built a treehouse in the backyard of our Wilkes-barre house. Similar to the ones that he built us in Hazleton, this tree house was built almost entirely out of salvaged parts and not a single nail was driven into the trees. I only have vague memories of the three Hazelton treehouses. But, for the Wilkes-Barre treehouse I can still walk you through the entire design that we settled on. I’ll never forget my dad’s excitement and my skepticism about using the old garbage picked floor boards from a neighbor’s porch as the floor. Or how we ended up camouflaging the treehouse with different colors of Oops Paint from Home Depot for only a couple of dollars. I will always remember to “Be Careful” and not try to stretch and reach things too far away while balanced on a ladder. Otherwise, I’d risk hilariously tumbling off it while my son wonders what the heck just happened to his dirt dog daddio.
Years later I was visiting the childhood home of one of my college buddies. I marveled at the two story, fully sided and shingle roofed treehouse. It looked much more sophisticated than the scrappy single story treehouse me and my daddio had built. My detailed construction questions were cut short when my friend told me that a contractor just showed up one weekend and then they had a treehouse. This fancy-pants tree house was empty of the love and the memories that built ours.
I relayed this tale of two treehouses to my daddio in an email I sent to him for Father’s Day and in his reply he made me promise to take the time to build a treehouse with kids someday. It didn’t even have to be my kids, just any kids so that they could experience the joy of building something with their own hands and have a place that they created to fill up with love and memories. So let me know if any of you need a treehouse built with your little dirt dogs!
My daddio built a LOT of things, not all of them as successful as our still-standing Wilkes-Barre treehouse or the chicken palace for Lynn’s Ladies in Springfield. One year he made us cutting boards for Christmas, complete with edges that he had successfully rounded over with a router, no drill bits in sight! I’ll spare you the complicated woodworking details, but basically they broke after a few months. After diving into cutting board design and establishing a workshop in my spare bedroom, I presented a cutting board that I made as a birthday gift for my mom. Luke gently teased daddio: “Adam’s cutting board looks pretty good and like it might last a couple years longer, huh? Aren’t you jealous that Adam’s is like 10000 times better?” My daddio hugged me and quietly responded “That is what I want my kids to do.”
He was always so proud of anything that I built and now my main goal is to build a life that he is proud of, while of course being careful the whole time… especially of routers and tumbling off of ladders.
I’m Mia, and by now you’ve figured out the pattern: I’m also Dave and Lynn’s offspring, second oldest.
So, we know Dave was a rebel, an entertainer, a coach, and a builder. For a full life, just one of those titles would suffice, but we’re missing his actual profession! For 34 years, he was a journalist. He has left a legacy as an investigative reporter, an editor, a columnist. He worked at The Leader-Vindicator in New Bethlehem, PA, The Press Enterprise in Bloomsburg, The Vindicator in Warren, Ohio, The Times Leader in Hazleton, PA and Wilkes-Barre, and the News Leader in Springfield, Missouri. He had great instincts and worked hard, breaking major stories, some of them making national news or documentaries, like the Cash for Kids case.
In his work, he used all those strengths we’ve talked about.
He rebelled against lazy journalism and politics as usual. Maybe he stole some methods from the comics he loved as a kid, the noir private eyes with hair-brained schemes that lead to real stories: He fetched a carpet from a mayor’s dumpster to reveal the misuse of taxpayer money. Instead of treating the “courthouse ladies,” the secretaries in charge of valuable records, as unimportant women doing a robotic job, he treated them as, surprise, humans, and they often asked about his five cute kids before helping with a story. He implemented the controversial SaySo column, printing anonymous comments before social media was even a thing.
His entertainer side shone through his work too. In addition to pranks and legendary Halloween costumes for the office parties, he wrote columns about his family and life. We were almost tired of the school hallway shouts, “Hey, read your dad’s column. Can’t believe your bad luck in Costa Rica!”
When I was in fifth grade, he told me about a big story the night before it ran. I don’t remember the details, something about the mayor, who was also a pilot, being dishonest. I’ll never forget Daddy smiling, sparkle in his eye, as he proudly ended with: “The headline’s gonna say ‘Flyer Flyer, Pants on Fire.’” It was the cherry on top, his way of saying ‘I exposed those lies AND I had fun doing it.’
Entertainer Dave often joined his colleagues after work for a beer, had his friends over to our house for parties, and showed younger reporters where the best swimming holes were. I asked him once why he didn’t go to the happy hour he was invited to, and he said, “Eh, I’m their editor. I don’t want to hang with them too often. I have to give them the chance to vent without their boss around.” See, he was a good journalism coach.
As a journalist, he was a builder too – he built up his cubicles with photos of Lynn and his kids and our questionable artwork, and he built up his colleagues with specific praise and criticism to make them stronger reporters. The stories are countless, especially coming out in the last week, of how he built a network of journalists through passionate debate, high expectations, and action. I won’t repeat all the stories here. There’s not enough time, and you might as well go straight to the sources.
I would say that Daddy didn’t bring his work home with him, because he was such a family man, but he did. We drew pictures on the scratch paper from the courthouse ladies so as not to waste paper – On the front, a Crayola family portrait. On the back, court records of the homicidal cannibal he covered in court the week before.
But he also brought his work home in other ways. His journalistic tendencies seeped into our household and our family culture, always of course with the blessing or help from Mommy:
We “played” a fun “game” called Little Lawyers in which we chose a sibling and said one thing we really liked about them and one thing that we didn’t. Yeah, sometimes it got messy, but it was real and it’s important to speak your mind not just in the opinion section.
He let us edit his columns every week before they went out. Wow, even the newspaper editor can get better and learn from children.
As kids, Daddy and Mommy never told us who they voted for, because they wanted us to form our own political beliefs instead of copying them. When I got older, I told him I wished everyone could share my viewpoint, complaining about conservatives. I was angry, and instead of coddling me, he simply said, “The world would be so boring if everyone thought the same.”
Years later from his hospital bed, he preferred toggling between Fox News and CNN to compare their coverage before forming an opinion.
Now, without him, we might say we’re “JUST PEACHY”, but we’re left wondering: How can we make this rebel, entertainer, coach, builder, and journalist proud? In my search for guidance, I reread some emails from him.
I found his reply to a short essay I wrote in memory of a friend of mine who passed away from cancer in 2012. I hope he would say something similar to all of us today. He wrote:
“Petey, perhaps without knowing it, you did something I always coach writers and reporters to do. You showed how cool she was through concrete, specific examples without just telling us all about her. Show me, don’t just tell me. That’s one of the mantras often stressed to writers.”
As usual, Daddy put it best. We hope we SHOWED YOU what made our dad the best Popi Tosti.
Popi Tosti was a nickname we gave him.
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. He called me Minnie, and PeeWee, P-Dub or Petey for short, even though none of those are actually shorter than my name. We also had Rap names and Native American names that were several words long. But brevity wasn’t really the point of all the crazy nicknames, was it? Raise your hand if he had a nickname for you. Why did he give so many people nicknames?
Was it a journalist thing, something he jotted down to distinguish you more easily, on his reporter’s notepad with a felt-tipped flair pen?
Was the point to rebel against the name you were given?
Was it to build a special relationship with you, an inside joke and who cares if no one else understands its source or meaning?
Was it to entertain you, to make sure you weren’t taking yourself too seriously?
Was it to make you feel like this guy, this coach of yours, thinks you’re one of the best, someone so special that you deserved a whole other name?
I’m not sure. I’m at a loss.
We all are, now.