Last week the nation was shocked by the sudden death of Tim Russert. He left an indelible mark on journalism and the American culture. So deep are the feelings of respect for this man that federal lawmakers from New York want to a name a western New York highway after him; the process will begin this week.
Many journalists have noted with interest that the occurrence of Russert’s death just before Father’s day seems strangely appropriate given his best selling books about his relationship with his father, Big Russ. After reading Russert’s account of how he decided to write his follow-up book to Big Russ and Me, I am convinced that he had a special understanding of the “builder” generation and their children. The Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons will no doubt become a classic work on fatherhood and family. It may very well be that Russert’s biggest legacy will not come from Meet the Press but from his writings on fatherhood.
Week after week, no one discussed the major political issues of our day with more authority and clarity than Russert. He was reputed to be a man that could ask the tough question and challenge the positions of the nation’s brightest newsmakers, with a spirit of civility and grace. Yet his perspective on family life and his personal values may be his greatest gift to our nation and our culture. America is at a crossroads - we face a crisis of identity. The answer to our crisis may be as simple as remembering the legacy of our fathers and walking in the principles that made them great people.
Russert’s death has reminded me of the importance of Father’s Day and the significant father figures who have transformed my life. I am not the only one. Each of Tim Russert’s two books has sold like hot cakes this weekend. They are ranked in the top two sales positions at Barnes and Noble. What a feat! People all over the country are taking a fresh interest in the most benign of the family holidays. I often joke with my church congregants that you can never find a seat at a restaurant on Mother’s Day but fathers are gypped. In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “We don’t get no respect!”
Against this backdrop of the lack of celebration of fatherhood in our culture, let’s take a little deeper look at the history of Father’s Day. I was only recently made aware of the fact that it was Lyndon Johnson that signed a presidential proclamation in 1966 that set the 3rd Sunday in June as Father’s Day.
The first Father’s Day celebration sprang up in 1908 in West Virginia. A deadly mine explosion occurred in Monongah, WV claiming 361 lives. Because many of the men who perished were fathers, a fatherhood celebration seemed very appropriate. But the most interesting story about this emerging tradition occurred two years later on June 19, 1910 in Spokane Washington.
Mrs. Sonora Dodd was inspired to develop a Father's Day observance because of her unusual upbringing. The thought actually came to her as she listened to a church sermon about the newly recognized Mother's Day celebration that had swept the country. Mrs. Dodd’s mother had died in childbirth with her sixth child when Sonora was only 16 years old. Her father, William Smart, endured the grief of widowhood while caring for his six kids. As the oldest child and the only girl, Sonora assisted her father in caring for her younger brothers. Her father was a Civil War veteran who made single parenting look easy. In fact, he conducted himself so deftly that it was not until Mrs. Dodd became an adult that she realized just how self-sacrificing and committed her father had been.
Sonora Dodd became the Tim Russert of her day, championing the cause of fatherhood and family in the nation. Both Russert and Dodd may have caught on to something very important – the value of promoting and celebrating healthy families. We often minimize the importance of simple truisms such as strong families build strong communities, or the fact that hard working fathers are the backbone of the nation. They are the unsung heroes; a kind of social glue that has cohesively bonded communities together. These “average” fathers often serve as the inspiration for a next generation that soars beyond them in stature and impact.
It is often easier for us to look for new fangled answers to enduring questions than to actually do the important foundational labor necessary to change our lives. As a preacher, I have frequently been guilty of giving others flippant answers or pat solutions to their problems. Sometimes I forget to tell my readers or listeners that solving their problem may take focus, follow through, and lots of hard work.
Similarly, Tim Russert’s life and legacy has reminded me of the importance of fatherhood and the hard work needed to be a world-class dad. Parenting is definitely not for cowards! Big Russ’s story confirms this. Son Tim understood the commitment needed for great fathering from the very beginning. In fact he wrote that the birth of his own son fundamentally changed his life. He intimated that although he remained a hard worker and the consummate professional, his highest attention was placed upon his son, Luke, from the day of his birth. I trust that we will honor Tim’s example by living his legacy instead of just repeating his words.