I was asked a deep question this past week that was clearly supposed to be difficult to answer. The question was simple: If you could only have one thing in this life, what would it be? Don’t ask me what prompted this person to ask me this question. I have no earthly idea. But after a brief pause to let the premise of the question wash over me, I realized I already knew what my answer was. It’s something I’ve thought about many times before, even if it wasn’t necessarily in that exact context. All I really want…is to create a legacy.
The thing that was particularly apropos about the timing of when this question was posed to me is that it came within 24 hours of a significant anniversary of one of those days in my life that will stick with me forever. May 28, 2014 was the day my father died. And when we’re talking about the concept of a legacy, there is no question that my dad undeniably left one. It is as complicated and imperfect as a legacy could be, but it’s one that impacts me now and will continue to impact me for the rest of my life.
That may sound as though I carry it like a weight on my shoulders, and if I’m being honest, in some ways I do. Lord knows that the events surrounding the last year of his life have brought untold amounts of pain to me and my family. But the totality of the impact he made on the person I’ve become is impossible to ignore, and it’s something I will always be grateful for.
My dad was as close to a rock star as a person could be without being an actual rock star. He rose through the ranks of FM radio until he made it onto WNEW in New York City. In his heyday, he was the host of the Dave Herman Rock & Roll Morning Show, and he was so good at what he did. What I remain most impressed by is how he was able to be on the forefront of so many ideas that moved the industry forward. He created an on-air persona for himself that seemed larger than life. I’m talking about a guy who was rubbing elbows with everyone from The Beatles to Bruce Springsteen to Paul Simon. In fact, if you listen to the live album 11.17.70, the voice that introduces Elton freakin’ John to the audience is my father. That’s pretty damn cool if I do say so myself.
But I wasn’t even born yet during the prime of his career. Even towards the end of his run on the air, I was just a child. I didn’t comprehend at the time the magnitude of what he was doing for a living. I couldn’t. To me, he was always just Dad. All of the perks that came with being this radio star’s son just seemed normal to me. It was all I knew.
My dad was always there for me. When I made the varsity baseball team in high school, he was a fixture at all of my games. He’s the guy who made me a Yankee fan, which also served as my initial introduction into the world of sports, even if he wasn’t the kind of fanatic that I turned out to be. If you know my previous work at all, you know how important the impact that combining a love of sports with a passion for broadcasting has made on my life. Would I have ever entered into the world of sports radio if it weren’t for him? The answer to that question is an easy no.
But of course, it was much more than that. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received when it comes to life, love and everything else came out of his mouth. I’ll never forget how he would constantly remind me to do my best to only focus on the things that I have control over, and to worry less about the things that I can’t. That’s the kind of advice that may seem obvious, but to have it framed in those terms was so important to my development as a goal-oriented human being. It’s something that I remind myself of on a weekly basis.
What I’m getting at with all of this is that when it came to simply being a father, Dave knocked it out of the park. At least he did with me. What bothers me is that he didn’t do it for all of his kids. I don’t want to speak to the experience of my siblings, simply because I don’t want to pretend I know their stories better than they do. But I can say for sure that my younger brother did not get the same parent that I did. I was already seven years old by the time Sam was born, and there’s a sense that after raising three other kids over the range of most of his adult life, he just wasn’t ready or willing to do it again at that point.
But without question, if we’re narrowing down the conversation about my dad to only include the context of the job he did raising me, there’s not much negative I could possibly say. Man, if only it were that simple…
Now is the part where things get a lot more difficult for me to talk about. But I’m gonna try. My parents began the process of getting divorced when I was in my early teens. I say process, because it dragged on for years. That time was a dark period marred by legal proceedings, lawyers, custody hearings and therapy sessions that sent my family’s life into calamity. And with all of the good will my father had built with me over the course of my childhood, he would use that to play me like a pawn in the chess match he waged against my mom.
The gaslighting job he did on my mother was executed with such precision, it makes me nauseuous to think about knowing what I know now. He would create situations to make her seem as though she was crazy, and it was so effective, there was a time I actually believed she was. If he was the puppeteer, I was his unwitting marionette.
From my perspective at the time, it seemed like my mom was constantly manic for no reason. What I didn’t realize was that the things that were setting her off coincided with all of these audacious legal maneuvers my dad was attempting behind the scenes. But I didn’t have any grasp of what was going on in that arena. So when I would arrogantly defend my dad, she would understandably lash out at me. When it was happening, my thought process was, “There goes Mom, acting crazy again.” But now I get it. There’s no need for me to get into specifics, but some of the things he did through the courts were absolutely preposterous. And yet somehow, he managed to get everything he wanted.
The result of all of this was that my mom finally realized she needed to get as far away from this place as possible. It was in 2002 that she moved to Vancouver, and that left me and my brother in New Jersey with our dad maintaining full custody. My relationship with my mother was strained so badly that we didn’t even talk for long stretches of time. She and I would reconcile in the following years, and I couldn’t be happier to say that at this point in my life, my relationship with her has never been better. I love her with every piece of my soul, and I’m so blessed to have her influence back in my life. But the thing that devastates me is the realization that for a large chunk of my growth from teenager to young adult, she wasn’t there. There’s no telling how much of a difference her presence would have made in my life during those years, but there’s no doubt she would have made a huge one. Instead, I had to learn how to grow up without my mom. And she had to live with the sting of having her children ripped away from her. Frankly, the blame for that rests squarely on my father’s shoulders.
The family separation would only continue in the following years. In 2005, my dad had designs on living out the rest of his retirement in the Virgin Islands. So despite all of the talk about how crazy my mom was, he wasn’t going to let that ruse mess up his plans on building his dream home in the Caribbean. With me already out of the nest and off at college, and with him having no desire to be a single parent to my now 11-year-old brother, he shipped Sam off to live with my mom in Vancouver. That was a devastating blow to me. My brother and I have always been attached at the hip. In the moment, I kicked and screamed in opposition to the idea that he would be moving to the opposite end of the continent. Of course, that move would be instrumental in my brother blossoming into the brilliant young man he has become. So it’s hard for me to be upset about it now. Also, he and I now share an apartment and are as close as we’ve ever been before. That, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
I fondly remember the trips I made to St. Croix to visit my dad. With him living there, it was an easy excuse to take a Caribbean vacation every year, and his house was a beautiful place with an incredible view overlooking the water.
We had such great times enjoying the beaches and joining him at a local watering hole called Off The Wall for Bingo night, an event that he would host every month as only he could. Right until the end, my dad was an entertainer, even when his audience was 30 drunk people just trying to win a beer koozie. I can’t stress enough how funny this man was. Sometimes it was unintentional, and we would be laughing at his expense. But the guy always oozed personality.
But I can’t say that I ever felt like this was the right place for him to be. I mean, here was this 70-year-old dude from the Bronx trying to adjust to “island time” and spending his days mostly in isolation. There was always something off about it. It just didn’t really fit. And clearly, something changed in him during his time there.
It’s not like there was ever an interaction I had with him where I was like, “Whoa, what’s going on with dad?” It was more just this sense that he didn’t belong there. My dad was a people person, and he didn’t really have a lot of people around him while he was there. Sure, he got along great with his neighbors, and the Bingo nights gave him an opportunity to schmooze with the locals. It just didn’t seem like it was really his kind of scene.
Even in the time that I spent there, he would spend an inordinate amount of time every day on his computer. There was nothing particularly alarming about that at the time, but let me ask you: If you were living in a tropical paradise, would you be logging hours upon hours online with a plethora of incredible outdoor activities to choose from a short drive away? I don’t know. It just felt like it was defeating the purpose of why someone would choose to live in a place like St. Croix.
And then it happened. It was in October of 2013 that my life changed forever…
I had just taken my seat aboard a train headed back to New Jersey after a lovely visit with my friends in Philadelphia. My brother’s birthday was the following day, and since he was attending NYU at the time, I was excited to get back so I could spend some quality time with him. But as I sat down, I answered my ringing cell phone to find my sister, Jenny, on the other end. I immediately could tell based on her tone that something was horribly wrong. When I asked her what was up, she ominously responded, “Did you hear about Dad?”
Naturally, I thought for sure she was about to tell me that he had passed away somehow. After all, he was not a young man and he had undergone open-heart surgery less than a decade prior. Instead, I learned that my dad had been arrested that day. By Homeland Security. In a sting operation. For sex crimes.
I was numb. I rode that train for an hour and a half in dead silence. I can’t for the life of me remember what was going through my head. I don’t know if anything was. I completely disassociated from my surroundings. Could it possibly be true? Was this some kind of sick joke?
I finally got home and laid my head down on my pillow. And then every single repercussion of what this news meant hit me all at once. I would say I cried myself to sleep, but I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I was heartbroken for my family. I was heartbroken for me. But then came the aftershocks. I realized this was going to be in the newspapers. I knew I was supposed to go into work at my New York City radio job the next day. Obviously, my bosses excused me from work and told me to take as much time as I needed before coming back. But the headlines reached me nonetheless.
It may sound strange for me to say, but in my mind, my father died twice. The day he was arrested was the day the man who raised me somehow ceased to exist. I only spoke to him over the phone one more time. He called me from jail on my birthday the following April, and even though he poured his heart out to me, I wasn’t really interested in hearing what he had to say at the time. I was still too angry, even if I was holding out hope that he was innocent as he claimed to be. I couldn’t bring myself to visit him in prison, despite the fact that he had been extradited to Newark – which in a unique twist of fate just so happened to be the same city I was living in at the time.
The last and only time I saw him after his arrest was the night before he died. Jenny had called me that day to tell me that he was having medical complications and that this would likely be my last chance. Seeing him laying in that hospital bed was incredibly uncomfortable, but I’m so happy I was there. His face lit up when he saw me. For a man who was literally on death’s door, he squeezed me so tightly in an embrace that I was ready for him to jump out of the bed and pull the IV out of his arm.
Even though he was pretty heavily medicated, he couldn’t have been more coherent when he started telling me how proud he was of me. Just as I had always been his biggest fan, he made it clear that he too was mine. He told me how he was able to get a radio in his cell and that he would listen to me every night I was on the air. He joked that one day I should take over for John Sterling as the play-by-play voice of the Yankees.
It was in that moment that a lot of the bitterness I felt started to melt away. I didn’t want to be angry. I just wanted to love my dad and be there for him just as he had been there for me so many times before. So that’s what I did.
For a while, he couldn’t seem to grasp the gravity of what was happening, that he was nearing the end. My sisters and I tried our best to communicate with him what the situation was. Finally, I did my best to cut through the noise and give it to him straight. I told him that either the doctors could plug him into a machine, and they could keep him alive…or…
And he stopped me right there with an emphatic, “NO.” So all that was left for me to say through my tears was, “Then it’s time to say goodbye.”
For all of the things that tear me up inside about this story, the thing I’m most grateful for is that the last words I said to my father were, “I love you.” Because I do. I always have, and I always will.
My dad was my hero. And even though he did some unforgivable things that crossed into the realm of sociopathy, it would be foolish of me to ignore all of the good in my life that he is directly responsible for. He’s the reason I’m a broadcaster. He’s the reason I’m a sports fan. But most importantly, in so many ways, he’s the reason I’m me.
When I’m gone, I want to be remembered for my legacy, not just the mistakes I’ve made. And even though some mistakes are far worse than others, my dad’s legacy remains in tact. That’s because even if his reputation is in tatters, the legacy of broadcasting will live on through me. The legacy of music will live on through my brother. The legacy of being revolutionary in our field will live on through both of us. You might not know that yet, but you’re damn sure going to before long.
So as we approach Father’s Day, I’d like to raise a glass to Dave Herman. A ground-breaker. A brilliant mind. A star. And yes, a deeply flawed human being. There’s so much about the events of his life I’ll never understand. But the best job he ever did was as my father. He did so much right. I refuse to only remember him for his wrongs, even if I can’t ever forget them. I love you, Dad. Rest in peace. Shine on you crazy diamond.
5 thoughts on “Legacy and Lament: How I Remember My Dad”
I agree with you–the islands did something to him
The homeland security folks happily set him up as they were well aware he was a celeb.
He was not only a business partner but a friend and we shared many moments and I was fortunate enough to have him in my life! There are rarely weeks that go by that I don’t think about him and the impact he had on me professionally and personally
You AND Sam were blessed to have him as a father!
Brave. Introspective. Raw. Well done. I’m proud of you man. You will always have a cheerleader in me. You have always been one of the examples I use when I talk about who is successful from the station. Not just because you got on WFAN, but because you’ve always been true to yourself. Never lose sight of that. I’m excited to continue following this chapter of your life.
read this to my wife as i choked back tears. you are a sweet and great man, Max. Sam, too. I will say, as a broadcast partner and friend of mine for so many years he changed the course of my life, too. brilliant and deeply flawed, yes. But, oh, so brilliant.
Max, you handled a difficult situation amazingly well. Unfortunately, many divorces go very astray of what really matters. I loved talking with your dad when I was finishing up on the AM side. God Bless your mom for being a strong woman. Wishing you all the best.
Max, this was so touching to read. Your writing is something special. So unflinchingly honest and loving. I admire your bravery in laying it all out there. You’re right, your father did a great job being your father. Along with your Mom, you’ve revealed yourself to be outstanding, upstanding and empathetic. Your authenticity makes the world a better place, and it is my honor to tell people I’m lucky to know such good human being with a pure soul. Keep being the fantastic you, that is…the singular Max Herman!