Au revoir to more than a father-in-law

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Over the years, I've asked a lot of men about their fathers-in-law: whether they get along with them, whether they play a significant role in their lives. These conversations took place over a beer, or on a fishing trip, maybe at an Orioles game. I usually had to bring the subject up; in most cases, the guys I've known wouldn't do it themselves, or there just wasn't much to say. They had married the man's daughter, and that was about it.

My friends and fishing companions were far more likely to talk about their own dads, not those of their wives. So maybe I've been luckier than most.

Until the other day, when we had to say goodbye to him, I believe I had the best father-in-law a man could ever imagine, a total bonus in life. Louie Donnard had joie de vivre to the nth power, an extravagantly generous spirit and a personality much bigger than his body. Everyone around him seemed to gain energy from him.

He wasn't just my father-in-law, or what the French call "beau-pere." He became my friend and mentor. We had the kind of buddy relationship I never had -- and probably never could have had -- with my own father.

Louie showed me how to work a chain saw and chop word, prune fruit trees and grow potatoes, dry and preserve onions, slice a turkey and poach a salmon, replace a fan belt, make a Manhattan, play bocce, win at Uno, fold linen napkins for formal dining, prepare a family picnic, install an electric outlet, panel a club basement, grow endive in the dark, can vinegar peppers, build shelves for a wine cellar, tie bulky objects to a car roof, charm visitors and make strangers feel welcome.

Louie Donnard was a farm boy from France, though he was always quick to specify Brittany as his place of birth. He and his wife, Felicie, grew up speaking Breton, a Celtic language. They survived occupation and war, then moved to the United States in the 1950s, arriving in New York, Louie liked to remind us, "with a wooden suitcase, a new wife and $100."

He went to work in hotel kitchens, putting in long hours to learn and refine his craft and save money for a house in Queens. In time, he became a highly regarded chef at country clubs in the suburbs of New York, then at the Harvard Club in Manhattan and finally the executive dining room at Morgan Stanley. There, he could order anything for his menus because, he said through his thick accent, "At Morgan Stanley, money is no objection."

The daily clientele included international financiers, bankers and heads of state. One day in the 1980s, Louie prepared lunch for Richard M. Nixon. After dessert, the former president autographed Louie's toque blanche.

He was proud of that. Louie admired John F. Kennedy, but he voted for Nixon twice and was a big fan of Ronald Reagan. That led to some challenging conversations, especially after a couple of glasses of wine.

Louie believed in hard work, saving your money and never buying something unless you had the cash for it. He also believed:

• The best way to avoid speeding tickets -- and just getting off with a warning -- was to cover one's Buick with the stickers of every fraternal order of police and chiefs of police association between New York and Florida.

• Keeping knives sharp at all times reduced frustration in kitchens by 80 percent.

• Taking time to sit and eat a homecooked meal, every day, no matter how busy you are, makes you healthier. I wish you all could have met him. He was the kind of person who, upon being introduced to a stranger, could make that person feel like the most important one in the room.

I knew Louie long enough to see his temperamental side, so I was glad to just be his son-in-law and not his sous chef. But, as passionate as he was about getting the consommé correct or the firewood stacked smartly, he maintained a joyous nature, and all of us hopefully learned something from that: Be passionate about what you do, and don't forget joy.

Live long. Live well. Salut!
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