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To all the fathers who encouraged us

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My dad, my brother Mark, and me on vacation in Florida in 1960. (Courtesy Sally Stephens)

Here’s to all the dads out there on this Father’s Day, and all the little things they do that help make us who we are.

My father, Charles Stephens, was the youngest of three boys. When he was little, his parents thought he was too shy, so they made him take tap dancing lessons. When they had parties, he had to spread out a slatted wooden mat and perform for their guests. He hated it.

But he loved music and worked his way through college playing drums with local swing bands. He met my mom at a freshman mixer in college. She was seeing someone else, but promptly dumped him for Dad.

They married while both were still in school. He graduated with a degree in business only to be drafted into the Army in World War II. Mom wouldn’t see him for over three years.

In the Army, he was the company clerk for an artillery unit (like Radar in “M*A*S*H”). He island hopped with the Army throughout the Pacific Theater as the war moved closer and closer to Japan.

Because he was with the artillery, he was never in the first wave of soldiers landing on a beach, or even the second. The fighting had died down somewhat – although not ended – by the time he was sent in, but he had to wade through the bodies of those who had died in the first two waves to get to shore. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

After the war, my parents bought their first home, using money my mom had earned as a preschool teacher for the down payment. Money was tight, and they often returned home to find a bag of groceries at the back door, left by my worried grandmother.

After a few years working for my mom’s uncle, Dad decided to strike out on his own.

He became one of the first franchise owners ever for Manpower Inc., a then-fledgling national temporary help firm. It was a gutsy move, but one that worked out for him and our family.

When I think of my dad, I remember arguing politics, throwing a Frisbee back and forth at the lake, and listening to Big Band jazz. But I also think of the little encouragements he gave me.

I’m not sure either of my parents knew quite how to deal with me – a smart, independent girl in high school in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, more interested in space, science, and math than fashion or cooking. But, with little personal knowledge or interest in science, they still found ways to support me.

During the Apollo 11 Moon landing, for example, the TV network we were watching broadcast an interview with one of the few women who worked at Mission Control.

After it was over, Dad turned to me and told me that he could see me doing something like that.

Then, when Apollo 13 ran into trouble, Dad told me he didn’t understand what had happened. I promptly got a model of the Saturn V moon rocket I had made and showed him exactly where the explosion that crippled the spacecraft had occurred.

In hindsight, he probably knew what was going on, but wanted to give me the chance to show off what I knew.

His message was clear: It’s OK to like science and pursue it as a career. And I did.

Years later, after grad school and a PhD in astrophysics, I told him I had decided to leave a job editing an astronomy magazine to strike out as a freelance science writer. I wasn’t sure what he would think. A few weeks later, however, a package unexpectedly arrived in the mail with information on starting your own business, his way of showing support.

Dad died eight years ago. Mom followed four years later.

If your dad is still here, give him a hug on this Father’s Day and thank him for the little things he’s done and continues to do to help and encourage you.

And if he’s gone, raise a glass and thank him just the same.

Thanks Dad!

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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