Father’s Day was two Sundays ago, but due to procrastination, I am acknowledging my late father now rather than fifty more weeks from now.
My father passed away of bone cancer five years ago this August. He was sixty-six, but had been rapidly declining and suffering from a great amount of pain for nearly a year, so it is hard for me to write that he lived to sixty-six, when he could not even make it to the party room in the nursing home where he was dying for his sixty-sixth birthday party. He had recently been diagnosed at sixty-five, so it was hard to even enjoy that one.
For all intents and purposes, he lived almost sixty-five years before spending one excruciating year dying. But at least we got to visit and converse with him for most of those months, before the final horrible month of August 2012.
It is also one of the reasons that I want to retire as soon as I am eligible, in case I have a similar fate. I do not want to work until I am sixty-five if I am only going to make it a year or two or three afterwards.
Rather than dwell on his death, I now think back upon how lucky I was to have such a caring, loving and generous father who loved his wife, our mother, immensely, and loved his three children and his grandchildren just as much.
He was a wonderful role model and always stood for what he thought was right, no matter who it was or what organization that he stood up to. He did not just write or talk about doing the right thing; he did it. There are some people who would stand alone in a room of two hundred people to speak out against the group if he or she thought everyone else was wrong. I am not one of those people, but my father was.
My father taught me, my sister and my brother so many things, it would really merit its own book rather than just a post or multiple posts.
If you did not have a father growing up or had one but not a great one, like mine, I truly feel sorry for you. Of course, nobody gets to choose their parents so there would be nothing that you or I or anyone could do about it.
I am not going to claim to be successful (yet), but I certainly would not be where I am today, a married father of two, plus a dog, with a master’s degree and gainful employment for twenty-four years without leadership and guidance from my father. And some occasional kicks to my ass, but those were more from my mother. My father was more likely to slip me a twenty.
One of the many books that I purchased and read over the past few years is Great Dads: A Celebration of Fatherhood by Jonathan P. Decker. The book includes original stories from celebrities, or at least past celebrities at this point since it was published back in 2000. One of those celebrities happens to be the current President of the United States. Others have been disgraced like Jesse Jackson, Jr.
They are all stories about how their fathers inspired and guided them and helped them achieve the success that they ultimately attained.
Reading the stories made me realize how much my own father taught me, since even Steve Forbes’s and Kobe Bryant’s and Jim Cramer’s fathers shared many of the attributes that mine did.
Let me share some with you, and I hope that you, too, had a great father with some of these attributes growing up. If you did not, but you are now a father, I urge you to think about some of these like I did and strive to be a great father, yourself.
If you are not middle aged as well as middle class, you may not recognize some of these names. Never fear, you can always Google them in another window to find out who they are.
Didn’t Know We Were Poor. When Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote that they never realized that they didn’t have much money in the family because the things they did were so much fun, it resonated with me. Of course, I thought that trips to the library, outings to watch my father’s baseball games, visits to our grandparents’ homes and going to the Cubs games before it was such a production were great.
Dr. Brothers writes that they had no idea that all these adventures were calculated to be inexpensive and that they never knew until her father died that they had limited funds.
I think that our daughter realizes that we do not do quite as much as some of her friends’ families do due to limited funds. But when I was a young middle class boy growing up in the City, I did not really associate with anyone who did a whole lot more than we did.
As a matter of fact, ours was the only family that I knew that would spend an entire month every summer renting a house “on vacation.” It was not always like a vacation, but more like living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a month. But we did several fun family outings that month, but never enough of them for me. Considering that it is unlikely that I will be able to take four weeks of vacation this entire year, I marvel at being able to do that every summer growing up.
As the old saying goes, “Youth is Wasted on the Young.”
Work Ethic. In my hardest work week ever, I probably still do not work as hard and long hours as my father did. Deciding that he no longer wanted to be a public school teacher when I was quite young, he struck out on his own in a very difficult profession. Some day I will divulge all, including who he was and who I am, but today is not that day.
My father worked like a dog and kept a diary of his hours worked. He worked every day of every year. That included his birthday, Hanukkah and Christmas (we are Jewish), New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, and every other day of the year.
Like Jeff Bezos, I admired my father’s work ethic from a very early age. Although I have spent my entire professional career as a local government employee, thus contributing to IMRF, the local government pension fund that keeps my tied to local government jobs, the most important values that I learned from my dad were hard work, self-reliance, and doing the right thing – even if it seems very painful in the short term.
So the founder of Amazon and I share something in common.
A funny line from that entry back in 2000: “When I told my dad of my plans for Amazon…he thought the idea of selling books on the Internet was a great idea. But my dad really wasn’t betting on the idea as much as he was betting on me.”
Grades Before Sports. My brother and I grew up playing sports including baseball and basketball. In high school, I was not good enough to make the teams, but my brother was. He was a college baseball player, too.
In high school, I ran cross country and track and played in local recreational basketball leagues. I was the point guard and my father was the coach. My best friend, John, was always taller than most other guys and was always the center on our teams. He was 6’4″ in eighth grade.
Our sister ran cross country and participated in synchronized swimming, but getting great grades was never an issue for her.
Education was first and foremost in our home, like in Derek Jeter’s. We could not play sports and we could not hang out with our buddies unless we got good grades.
Derek Jeter called his dad his best friend, and still went to him for advice as of the writing of this book because he respected him and his judgement, just like I trusted my own dad’s judgement more than just about anybody else’s on God’s Green Earth.
Hard Work and Honesty. Sammy Sosa is my second favorite all-time Cubs player. He has been somewhat disgraced and maligned as an abuser of steroids although, of course, nothing has ever been proven. I believe that he took them, although it was prevalent during his years and nobody did anything to curb the use of steroids back then. We just enjoyed the prodigious amount of home runs blasted by Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmiero and other suspected steroid users.
My favorite all-time Cubs player is Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. He would have fit in beautifully on last year’s championship team but, alas, he never had the type of teammates that were able to match his high level of play. They came close a few times, every one of which broke my heart, but never made it to the World Series.
Sammy writes that he teaches his two boys and two girls right from wrong like his father did. He also teaches them honesty and hard work – the same values he learned from watching his father work every day.
It is the same thing that I hope to be showing my children by my own actions, getting up and going to a difficult job every day whether it is a blizzard outside or over a hundred degrees.
There are many days when one or more of my family members laments me having to go into work. I lament it many of those days, too, but always remind them that I am doing it for the family and to “keep our operation funded.” Our middle class suburban lifestyle is paltry compared to Sammy Sosa’s, but the ten grand or so per month that it costs to keep things humming for our family is enough for me to keep going in and working hard day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year.
Unconditional Love. George W. Bush writes that the greatest gift a parent can give is unconditional love. I was the recipient of unconditional love from my father, and am still the recipient from my mother.
Likewise, I love both of my children unconditionally. I love them no matter what they do. Of course I expect my children not to do bad things, but I think you need to instill in your children the idea that they will be loved their whole lives.
In 2000, W was listed as the Governor of Texas and a Presidential candidate. This was before he was elected and served two consecutive terms as POTUS.
He cites his own father’s attitude as “I’m going to teach you basic values. I’m going to unconditionally love you. And I’m going to expect you to chart your own way in life.”
He writes that his father is a very strong man and a very good man. Just like my father was and how I aspire to be. I am middling strong and middling good, but am striving to be “very” of both. I will never be the President, or even a Trustee in my suburban community, but I want to be every bit as good a father as the Bushes.
Do Not Wallow. Lani Guinier is hardly a household name. As a matter of fact, I had never heard of her before. But for an African American woman to become a professor at Harvard Law School, you know that she must have had a great upbringing and overcame many obstacles to gain that type of position.
Gainer writes that she learned from her father not to wallow in disappointment. He taught her to use those experiences to fight back – not only for herself, but also in a way that is constructive and beneficial to many others. He was a very generous person and despite his lifetime of disappointments, he was an incredible optimist.
Her father passed away before his daughter’s accomplishments could be fully appreciated, but he must have been a heck of a father and taught Professor Guinier to stand on principle and fight for what she believed in.
Us Affectionate Jews. My father would still hug and kiss me even when I was forty years old and he was sixty-four. Larry King writes that he knew that his parents loved one another because they were affectionate.
King writes that his parents were huggers and grabbers and kissers and that Jews tend to be. He adds that his father instilled the value of truthfulness in him and keeping in mind that he was a child many decades ago, writes about his father smacking him once when he caught young Larry in a lie (no hugs and kisses that time). His father told him never to lie.
King ended up angry at his father for dying when he was only nine and a half years old. His father was only forty-three. He grew up envious of those who had fathers and was always known as the “fatherless boy” in his neighborhood.
The good part is, when King became a father, himself, he describes himself as very hands-on, attentive and loving. He writes that “of all the great things that have happened to me, the best thing I did was to be a father.”
Open House. Growing up, our house was one of those where people tended to show up, hang out and congregate. We did not do anything in particular to encourage this, but me, my sister and especially our brother were kids with many friends and solid, supportive parents.
Our friends whose family lives were less stable than ours, in retrospect, spent an awful lot of time hanging out at our house. The one remaining guy that I still meet up with occasionally spent an entire summer sleeping over at our house nearly every night. My brother’s longest-standing friend, who was one of the first people that we ever heard of who was raised by two mothers, spent hundreds of nights eating dinner with us and sleeping over. Our sister’s friends, likewise, spent far more time at our house than she did at theirs.
Cokie Roberts writes that her house was always the place to be in Washington. Senators and congressmen were over at the house for dinner all the time. And one of the incredible things was that her parents completely included her and her brother in everything. They never considered it odd that her and her brother would join in a political argument with the Speaker of the House or secretary of defense. Her father, Hale Boggs, was involved with politics as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
We never had politicians over to our house growing up, but just about everybody who we knew ended up there for a party, a dinner or just a visit at some time or another. And our house was like a second home to my best friend for a few years following his parents’ divorce, and a second home to my brother’s friend as he navigated some family issues.
Cokie Roberts’ conclusion nearly made me shed a tear. She writes that she misses her father very much, just like I do. His intellectual rigor, his devotion to his family, and his fundamental goodness certainly had an enormous impact on her. “But for me, the hardest part has been that he never saw my children grow up.”
At least I can hope that my mother remains around long enough to see my two children and her other five grandchildren grow up over the coming years.
Ethics, Honesty and Accountability. Many in Decker’s book write about learning their work ethic from their fathers. It is worth repeating, since in many families like Yours Truly Middle Class Guy’s, the father is still the primary breadwinner and is expected to instill a strong work ethic in his children, like mine did and like I strive to.
Recently retired CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz grew up in a modest Jewish household in Brooklyn. His father was a high-school dropout and a war veteran who bounced from one blue-collar job to another throughout his life including as a factory worker, a truck driver and a cab driver. Schultz writes that his father never made more than $20,000 a year. Needless to say, Schultz makes more than that every day for years and years if you were to calculate how much money he made by building up Starbucks.
But where did Schultz learn his work ethic? From his father, of course. Schultz writes that his father’s work ethic was beyond reproach. His standards of ethics, honesty, accountability and responsibility were exemplary, and he instilled those values in him.
Schultz’s father suffered a debilitating injury when Howard was just seven and could no longer work manual labor that he had been doing. He noted that his father had no workmen’s compensation or health insurance and his family was thrown into severe financial problems.
The good news for thousands of Starbucks employees since then is that, because of what Schultz witnessed his father endure, he used that as a backdrop for the kind of company that he wanted to build. As he writes, “I wanted to have the kind of company that my father never got the chance to work for.”
In the late 80’s, Starbucks became the first company in America to provide comprehensive health are and equity in the form of stock options for even part-time workers.
Schultz writes that his father passed away before he was able to witness the tremendous success of Starbucks. Not a day goes by when Schultz doesn’t think of him and how joyful and proud he would be to see how the values that he taught him have been incorporated into the culture of his company.
Could you even imagine your child building such a company? Schultz’s father would have been immensely proud of him.
Putting Your Name On It. My father put his name on his projects, and that meant a lot to him. You know that if you saw his name on something, that it is accurate and done right. Not rushed through for a quick buck.
Robert Mondavi’s vineyard makes some of the best wine out there. My wife and I visited it in Napa Valley while traveling through California on our honeymoon twenty-one years ago.
Mondavi’s father struggled as a grape grower decades before his son became a giant in the industry. This goes back to the Great Depression, when Mondavi’s father’s grape and produce business hit the wall. The story of how the Mondavi family made it is inspiring, but this is not the post for that. Let’s just say that they were not born as scions in the wine industry; Robert built his way up to that point.
Mondavi’s father’s name was on their produce business and for his father, business was not about money and negotiations. It was about people and it was about trust. A handshake by Robert’s father, Cesare, was considered a bond and commitment as good as gold.
Mondavi writes that what the customers were buying was his father’s word. They were buying his expertise in California grapes and produce, and they were placing their confidence and money in his personal integrity.
Just like if my own father said that he would do something or pick something up for you or drive you somewhere, you could put it in the bank and never worry about it again. His word was good and he was always well know to others.
Playing baseball with eighteen highly competitive individuals, but no umpire, most Sundays, it was always my father who people turned to to make the call if someone was out or safe or if a ball landed fair or foul. We all knew that he would always make the honest call, whether it cost his own team the game or not. But nobody ever questioned that he was making the call as honestly as he could.
Da Coach. Mike Ditka remains revered in Chicago football circles for winning a Super Bowl with an unbeatable juggernaut of a team thirty years ago. My father and I always thought that he actually blew it and should have won at least two, perhaps three Super Bowls with that team. But that still does not take away that he actually led them to that win so many years ago.
Ditka is a tough man and had a tough father. His father’s rules were simple: Respect people and people’s property, be on time, and always be courteous. Ditka writes that he made a lot of mistakes growing up, but that his father always got him back in line.
Ditka writes that his Dad lived life in a simple way. He worked, he provided for his family, and he made a lot of sacrifices, making sure that his children had a better life.
Self-Responsibility and Patriotism. Michael Powell is an American former Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and current president of the trade association the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
In 2000, he was listed in this book as an FCC Commissioner, and shared things that his more famous father, General Colin Powell, imparted to him.
He writes that contrary to what many people may assume, he did not grow up in a strict military-disciplined household but rather a place of a lot of free form and fun. He writes that rather harping on his grades, his father tried to invest in him the spirit that he, himself, should care more than anybody about how he did in school or in life.
Michael Powell also writes that his father’s notoriety came later in his life, not becoming a one-star general until Michael was in high school. So growing up, the were an average army family.
Powell writes that his father’s values were those that he learned from his Jamaican father. He taught his children about self-responsibility and said that no matter what you think went wrong, before you even say a word or point a finger, you’d better go through your own performance and determine what you could have done better.
The future General and Secretary of State discouraged his son from playing the discrimination card. It was intolerable in their household. Michael Powell and his siblings were taught to look in the mirror. His father told him “Maybe it’s not fair that you have to be two or three notches better to get the same credit as someone three notches below, but that’s too bad. Get over it and get there.” He also told him to make discrimination somebody else’s problem, and not his.
While my own father might have been somewhat more sympathetic if he thought me or one of my siblings were mistreated or not recognized for something that we did, he still told us to keep working hard at it, and he always said that he recognized the hard work that we put in. It always felt good to hear my father and/or mother say that.
Colin Powell taught his son patriotism, but not in some corny military way that someone might assume. The future General told his children that they were blessed to be in a place of extraordinary opportunity. He taught them to really love where they are and to be strong supporters of the country – its purpose, its past and its destination.
Likewise, we children were taught that by both of our parents. My father was a true lover of this country, particularly its history and even more particularly its colonial history and struggles to become independent.
Our mother is the one who more often reminded us that although both of our parents and all four of our grandparents were born in Chicago, that all eight of our great-grandparents were immigrant Jews who escaped pogroms and came to this country around the turn of the century.
Whatever our middle class problems were at the time, such as a difficult time on a test or assignment, social problems with other kids at our school or stress related to our sports teams, those problems paled in comparison to those endured just a few generations back.
My mother reminded us that in the U.S., us Jews and any other race or religion were entitled to government-sponsored education at what she considered good schools, and that we were free to pursue whatever we wanted to and become whatever we wanted to be.
It is worth another several posts or perhaps even a book to describe class and social issues that end up determining who we are and what we become, but whenever my daughter laments the lack of great cars, great phones and great vacations for our family, I remind her of the great lifestyle that we live if we compared it to what my own grandparents went through growing up.
Like Michael Powell was taught by Colin Powell, I too was taught to love my country.
Despite all of its problems, I do love it.
Beyond a Book. I did not need this book or any book to remind me that I benefited by having a great Dad. Of course, while he was around, I took it for granted that he would be there for me for decades to come and that I could hang out with him, watch the Cubs win the World Series, and visit with him or call him whenever I needed advice.
As another old saying goes, The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Often Go Awry.
I miss my father at some point nearly every day. But the lessons that he taught stay with me. I still plan to become more successful, even as I near the ripe old age of forty-seven.
For a long list of reasons, I have ended up working in a place and in a profession where my passion is rapidly dwindling. It has become more like a chore, an assignment, a place where I have to go and do things that I have to do to continue my family’s middle class way of life. I do not think that there is any shame in that; it is just that I am not doing work that I love in a place that I love, like most people aren’t. What I am doing is what I need to do to support my family.
There are many things that I am proud of, first and foremost being a good father. I do not know if I would classify myself as a Great Dad, but that is something that I certainly aspire to be.
Someday maybe my own children will put me into that category. I cannot think of anything better than being a Great Dad.