Ruth lives a simple life; her father’s is even simpler.
Late every summer, she and her family drive to central Oregon for vacation. It’s a common ritual with an uncommon twist. She takes her dad. Every year. And she looks forward to it for months.
“At Black Butte, he’ll go on walks with us,” she told me. “He’ll watch the kids if we want to go somewhere. He’s just fun to have around. I like talking with him, relaxing with him. It wouldn’t be the same without him.”
From the women I interviewed for my book on fathers and daughters I heard stories of fathers who ranged from horrific to heroic. These extraordinary fathers offer incisive lessons to the rest of us struggling with shepherding our daughters from infancy to womanhood.
The stories Ruth and others shared made clear that being a remarkable father doesn’t require a remarkable career, education, or social standing. One of the great dads drove a bread truck; another drove a garbage truck; another was a farm worker from Mexico. One was a scientist; another a medical doctor. Clearly, it’s not social class that matters. It’s the man.
The third son of German immigrants, Ruth’s father married his best friend’s younger sister, and has been married for more than 50 years. He spent his career with the Oregon Highway Department and evenings with his family.
“I remember Dad would get home right around five o’clock every day,” she said. “He had a huge garden, half an acre of corn and beans and everything. In the summertime he would come in, change his clothes, and go out to the garden and pick whatever we were going to eat for dinner that night.
“We did a lot of bike riding as a family, around the neighborhoods. One of my fondest memories was playing catch with him in the side yard, just throwing the ball back and forth, just one on one. And that was cool, because I had his undivided attention.
“He helped us make forts, multi-story forts, like seven levels. They were pretty extravagant tree houses. We had chickens and goofy animals—turkeys, rabbits, and stuff around.
“He read at night to us. That was a big thing he did. I remember sitting on my dad’s lap. One time I climbed up and got settled in and cracked his rib. He was always a big passionate reader so I saw that modeled all the time. I’m a huge reader and so is my husband, and our kids are.
“And camping, that’s another big memory. Friday at five o’clock, my mom would have the Volkswagen van and a tent trailer all packed. We’d camp over the weekend.
“I loved my dad, and he loved me. I just always wanted to do things with him, I wanted his attention, just like I wanted my mom’s attention, but I never felt like I was in his way or he didn’t have time for me.”
When Ruth was in fifth grade, her father declined a promotion because it would have meant uprooting the family from its church, schools, and community. “As an adult, I realize this is a man who had his priorities in order. It was more important for him to have his family life and to make the sacrifice with his career and to keep his family in one place where we were comfortable and happy.”
Father’s like Ruth’s are silent heroes. Ruth, Blanca, Tami, Cheryl, and another dozen women I interviewed had fathers who anchored them. For many, it was grounding in a religious faith that gave them an uncommon sense of life balance and perspective, and resilience in the face of challenges.
Emphasizing education was also a common thread among the strong dads. “From the very youngest years that I can look back on, when it came to education, my dad was always there for us,” Ruth said. “He helped me write my first report, in fourth grade, on chickens. He said, ‘Ruth, I want you to learn how to do research, how to write a good research report. So I will help you through every step of this process.’
“I remember doing homework at night, sitting down at the kitchen table, and if I had questions I would go to him. He was there every evening if we needed him.
“I went out for gymnastics one year, and I played basketball. In high school, my focus was on my studies and he encouraged that. He always said, ‘Ruth, remember that no matter what else you do when you go to college, your studies come first.’ And I would repeat that mantra to myself over and over. And it helped me out with parties, my social life. I always attended to my studies.
“My dad taught me to be independent. I saw him do things; having your priorities straight, being true to yourself. My dad does not care what anybody else thinks of him. He’s a good man and people like him. He is the craziest dresser. He wears hand-me-downs from my brothers and my husband. He’s got polyester pants from the ’70s and ’80s that he still wears. He just doesn’t care. He’s very self-assured. Being comfortable in your skin and not needing to pretend that you’re anything that you aren’t, I got that from him. The security that he has given me made me who I am today.”
And who is Ruth today?
She’s a professional woman in her mid-40s living a rich life. She has a plot of land like the one she grew up on, with chickens and a garden. She’s a mom with an MBA who left a career at Chevron and Andersen Consulting so she could work part time as a writer and raise her kids. Like her father, her husband works for the state of Oregon.
Her life isn’t filled with money, titles, or status symbols. It’s instead filled with her family, love, self-acceptance, and happiness. It’s what many us spend our lifetimes searching for, in one fashion or another. And ordinary men who commit themselves to being extraordinary dads help set their daughters on that rich lifetime trajectory.