‘No redeeming qualities’: Jacksonville man writes brutally honest obituary for estranged father

Sister: ‘I call it honesty’

Beth Reese Cravey | Florida Times-Union
Published 7:41a.m. ET July 6, 2022

Larry Pfaff does not remember his father fondly.

So the obituary the Jacksonville man wrote about Lawrence H. Pfaff Sr., published Saturday on Jacksonville.com and in Monday’s E-Edition of The Florida Times-Union, speaks of an alcoholic, abusive parent who was “incapable of love” for anyone other than himself.

Cover Image: Larry Pfaff, shown at his home. by Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union

Mr. Pfaff, 81, left behind a “path of destruction … damaging his adult children and leaving them broken,” his son wrote. “His love was abundant when it came to himself, but for his children it was limited.

“It will be challenging to miss Lawrence Sr. because he was narcissistic,” he wrote. But his death “proves that evil does eventually die and it marks a time of healing, which will allow his children to get the closure they deserve.”

The obituary, which was unlike the typical complimentary recount of a person’s life, provided Pfaff emotional relief, he told The Times-Union. It also got readers’ attention.

Some were shocked at the harsh words and questioned if it was a fake. But those words clearly resonated with other people, some of whom said they wished they had told similar truths about their own parents.

They found healing in Pfaff’s words.

“Not everyone deserves accolades upon their departure,” wrote one Facebook commenter.

Gannett, which owns The Times-Union, confirmed Mr. Pfaff’s obituary was “legitimate.” But it should not have been published, a spokesperson said.

“We regrettably published an obituary that did not adhere to our guidelines and we are looking into the matter further. We regret any distress this may have caused,” the spokesperson said.

But the “how to submit” obituaries page on the newspaper’s website makes no mention of guidelines. Pfaff said he saw none.

According to the website, the company does “reserve the right to edit, refuse, reject any content before final approval.”

In the United States, “only a living person can initiate a defamation claim for damages to their reputation,” according to the Student Press Law Center.

Larry Pfaff holds up a photo of his parents on their wedding day. by Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union

Figure 2: Larry Pfaff holds up a photo of his parents on their wedding day. by Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union

Father left when son was 9

The senior Pfaff died June 27 in New York after “living a long life, much longer than he deserved,” according to the obituary.

He spent 20 years in the New York Police Department.

“Even his time in service was negligent at best,” his son wrote. “Because of his alcohol addiction, his commanding officer took away his gun and badge, replacing them with a broom until he could get his act together.”

The obituary does not list his children because, Pfaff wrote, no one knows for sure how many there are.

“He is survived by his three children, no four. Oops, five children. Well as of 2022 we believe there is one more that we know about, but there could be more,” Pfaff wrote. 

“Lawrence Sr.’s hobbies included abusing his first wife and children. He loved to start projects but never followed through on any of them. He enjoyed the life of a bar fly for many years and had a quaint little living space, studio, above his favorite hole in the wall, the club Nashville,” he wrote.

“He possesses no redeeming qualities for his children, including the ones he knew, and the ‘ones he knew about,’” according to the obituary.

Pfaff, now 58, told The Times-Union he was 9 when his father left the family. The elder Pfaff later had several more children with several different women and abandoned those children as well, he said. His son only found them through Ancestry and DNA research.

He last saw his father about 30 years ago. He wrote the obituary last year, as he worked to heal his childhood wounds that remained through adulthood.

“All the years of crap I went through with him when he was in my life and then not being in my life, hearing stories of what he would tell other people, finding out about my [half] brothers and sisters, I wanted to figure out a way to get past it,” Pfaff said.

He said he always wanted children. He promised himself he would not be the kind of father he had. But his “brokenness” got in the way, he said.

As part of his healing process, he apologized to his five children. “Looking back, I didn’t know how to be a parent,” he said.

No collaboration, but family warned

The obituary went through several iterations, with the initial ones much angrier than the final version. “It was an angry process,” he said, that ended with the anger lessening and him “just processing truth.”

He told no one what he had written and hid it away for several months. After his half-brother told him the elder Pfaff died, he submitted it to The Times-Union for publication at a cost of about $500. Writing those words — and seeing them in a newspaper — was cathartic, he said.

“The closure has brought me much happiness. I feel so free from the chains of that prison,” he said.

Pfaff warned his family about the obituary and braced for what he expected to be a negative reaction. He told his half-siblings that he wrote his story and did not presume they had a similar relationship — or lack of one — with their father.

“They didn’t know that person [his father]. I didn’t want to taint what they had,” he said.

There were no negative responses from his family. “I was quite surprised,” he said.

Pfaff was also prepared to be called a “horrible person” by the public. But most of the responses have been positive. Sunday a woman from St. Augustine tracked him down and called to thank him.

“She said, ‘It was so healing for me’,” Pfaff said. “I’m elated. I feel like a load has been lifted off my shoulders. …like I have started a new chapter.”

His sister Carolyn Compton, who grew up in the same household, confirmed Pfaff’s account of their father. The obituary was their truth, however hard to read it might be for people who expect such pieces to celebrate life, she said.

“We all experienced a real traumatic childhood … and no difference or change in adult life,” she said. “I can’t celebrate.”

Compton said she was not surprised to find out she had half-siblings. And she recognized that they and other people who knew the elder Pfaff later in life might have different opinions of him.

But that does not make her story false.

“I call it honesty,” she said. “Why write false information? Put out the truth.”

Half-brother Daniel Taylor met their father three years ago. At the time, the elder Pfaff claimed to have been sober 30 years. So Taylor had no perspective of him as a father or young man to compare to that reported by his half-siblings.

“I believe my brother told his truth, what he experienced,” he said. 

Certainly not the norm

On Facebook, there were debates about the authenticity of the obituary.

“Was that for real?” one commenter wrote.

“Y’all are assuming it’s accurate. Something written with that much bitterness and contempt leads me to believe it’s exaggerated somewhat,” wrote another.

Others disagreed.

“That bitterness and contempt is what makes it so real,” wrote one commenter.

“I wish I had done something like this instead of 10 years in therapy. Put him in the past! Love your courage!” one commenter wrote on Pfaff’s Facebook page.

The families of alcoholics can endure “pure torture,” according to another commenter, who said Pfaff’s “deep-seeded emotions and obvious pain was very, very clear and needed, more for their own sanity, to finally be expressed.”

“We don’t know all the facts,” she wrote. “This was a case of being honest about what occurred in their life. I don’t know if you have ever gone through abuse and alcoholism in a household, but I married an alcoholic … and it is pure torture. I divorced him thank God and it took a long time for me to heal.”

Another commenter wrote, “You will never know how many people you touched with this. This likely will help others heal also.”

There were two messages from friends on Mr. Pfaff’s brief death notice on a New York funeral home website as of Tuesday evening.

“You will be dearly missed,” one friend wrote. “You have been granted the final password. May you rest easy brother until the day we meet again. I will always hold you in my heart.”

Another wrote about having read the obituary written by Mr. Pfaff’s son. The friend offered him and his siblings “encouragement” and urged them to consult a psychologist.

“Please continue on the path to your healing,” the comment said. “You must help yourself out of this and realize your worth.”

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