A Thank You to All My Surrogate Dads

A reposting of my Father’s Day posting from 2014.  As of 2015, now updated with a picture of my own father, Kenneth W. Saunders (thanks Mom for finding this and sending it in time!!).  As separate post on him is still a work in progress . . .

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A Thank You to All My Surrogate Dads (6/15/14)

Fathers matter. This may seem like such a basic, common sense statement to most people that the initial reaction on reading that is, “No shit. Thanks for the enlightenment!” But, in fact, for me this was something that took many years into adulthood to realize.

Somewhere, in a previous post or two, maybe here and here, I briefly mentioned that my parents divorced when I was very young. After that, I very rarely saw my own father up through the time of his death in 1989. For me, Father’s Day was always, at best, a meaningless day and at worst, a painful reminder of the void in my own life.

But, at the sake of redundancy, I’ll say it again. Fathers matter. I was reminded of this basic fact recently, when a good friend of my son Jack ran into some trouble. As with me, this young man had grown up through most of his life without his own father in the picture. When I became aware of the situation, I stepped in to try, as best I could, to counsel him on the problems he was facing.

And that got me to thinking of how truly fortunate I have been to have many “surrogate” fathers who have stepped into the void, whether knowingly or not, to help and influence me over the course of my lifetime. I read a piece recently by Rick Riley where he wrote on a similar theme – and since he is a professional writer, he says it all much better than I could ever hope to.

Nonetheless, it’s Father’s Day once again, and this year I’d like to say “Thank You” to all the surrogate fathers who have played a part along the way to my becoming the man I am today.

My Uncle Tim, only 15 years my senior, who on more than one occasion stepped in to serve as my “father” in “Father-Son” events. I can vividly remember one overnight camp out with the Cub Scouts where he kicked butt in the Father-Son volleyball game.

Rick Savage, at the time married to my mother’s best friend Margaret, who also got stuck with stand-in dad duties for some Father-Son events. Rick also had the misfortune of being the one to have the “Father-Son talk” with me when I reached high school age. At least he had the benefit of getting a chance to practice once before having that conversation with his own son!

As with Rick Riley, sports played a big role in my youth and early adulthood. And naturally, my coaches had a big, maybe even disproportionate given the void elsewhere, impact.

Doug Lucas, who as head coach of the Pony Thunderbirds was my first “real” coach. I can still hear his thunderous voice booming out across the practice fields as clear as a bell.

Juan Rodriguez, my good friend Dave’s dad, who was my last little league coach. In many ways, Juan was probably the most constant father figure in my life from elementary school through high school. In addition to coaching football, he also would organize and play pick up, touch football games with us. He worked the night shift at General Motors and often slept for a good part of the day. More than once, as we were goofing off in Dave’s house, I remember hearing a shout of “Shut the HELL up, I’m trying to sleep!”

I was living in London in the late 1990’s when Dave called to tell me that Juan had died of cancer. I wept, almost uncontrollably, on hearing the news – unlike my emotionless response when hearing of my own father’s death when I was living in Japan in the late 1980’s.

As you reach young adulthood, the relationship between coach and player changes. Even so, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a mention to my high school football and track coach Jack Bridges; my college football head coaches Don Dobes (freshman), Jerry Berndt, and Ed Zubrow; and my college football position coaches Dan Staferi (as in Lake Erie), Tim Keating, and John Audino. Lake in particular was such a great, great man – I remember many of his sayings to this day and find myself repeating them without even thinking about it.

After I graduated from college, there were many men who helped guide me along the way. Through their words and actions, they taught me a thing, or two or three, about what it meant to be a man. Some were bosses. Some were the fathers of my friends. There are too many to identify them all by name, but a few in particular are worth mentioning.

Jay Chai, father of my good friend Nelson, who went out of his way to help me get started in Japan when I had the crazy idea of going to live there after I graduated from college. Without his help, there is no telling what would have happened to me on that adventure.

Gene Leonard, President of General Motors of Japan, whom I met through the benefit of Mr. Chai’s introduction, shortly after arriving in Tokyo. I could write an entire post just about the ways Gene helped and influenced me. Suffice it to say, in the 6 months I knew him before his untimely death in October 1988, I learned many lessons about being a husband, a father, and a man that I still carry with me to this day.

As my career progressed, there was Neil Austrian and Tom Spock at the NFL (Tom we’d probably have to classify as a much older brother, rather than father figure). Both are great fathers in their own right, and showed me as much about what it means to be a father as they did about how to be an executive.

Another person from whom I’ve learned much, both professionally and personally, is Gregg Troian in Pittsburgh.  If you look up “salt of the earth” in the dictionary, you will find a picture of Gregg.

A few final shout outs.

Burt Lefkowitz was my good friend Bruce’s dad. In his case, actions always spoke louder than words and from him I learned much about what it meant to be a devoted father and grandfather.

On what it means to have a good relationship with your adult children – something I will soon be trying to migrate to myself given that I have so far failed to stop the sands of time – I’ll look to my close friend Scott Morcott’s father Woody for guidance and inspiration.

And I’ll just say a quick thank you to all the rest of the fathers of all my other male friends. As fathers, they all did something right along the way- because all of my friends, from high school to college and beyond have all turned into great men and great fathers in their own right. Far better, both as men and as fathers, than I could ever hope to be. Each day, they give me something to aspire to.

Finally, I’ll come full circle on this and acknowledge a simple fact. Awhile back, I wrote a post about how much of what we are is genetic and how much is beyond genetics. All those that I’ve mentioned above are those beyond genetics (well, other than Uncle Tim of course). But I can’t ignore genetics, because I know that at least something of what I am today, both good and bad, is the result of the DNA my father passed along to me.

In the past couple years, I’ve taken to the habit, which seems to have become more common, of changing my profile picture on Facebook to a picture of my mother on Mother’s Day. It’s a simple gesture to say, “I am you. And you are me.” Today, if I had one, I would do the same with a picture of my genetic father, even though it may be equally appropriate to have a digital amalgam of all those I’ve mentioned above. But believe it or not, I do not have a single picture of my father. I have several images in my head, but none that can be rendered as a .jpg file in the digital world. I’m working on it and maybe by this time next year, I’ll have solved that problem.

In the meantime, I’ll just say Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, both in the here and now and those who have gone on the the great beyond. And to my own father, a simple thanks for the greatest gift of all – the gift of life! Peace!!

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