By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

NOTE: A version of this reflection was published here two years ago. Here Owen adds a few details and makes some minor changes in style, but the substance survives across the years.

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My mom was an incredible woman. After she gave me life, she nurtured me physically and emotionally for as long as she lived. As time passed she also gave life to nine more children, my siblings. As a tribute to her wisdom, patience, persistence and selfless model of love, all of us are close – as we are with the more than 100 descendants who have emerged from our own unions.

At one point Mom even became my employee.

At 27 years of age, my wife and I were hired as a team to take over a broken-down chain of five small town weekly newspapers near where our parents were living. Our mandate was to grow it out of its malaise to profitability.

With an outdated plant under a badly leaking roof and no money in the bank, the only resource we had was people – some already on the payroll and some we eventually added to it. Thank God for good people!

We solved a lot of the place’s problems. But try as we might, we couldn’t find a great salesperson who could help drive our growth in the nearby city market. Then I went to a newspaper convention and learned about a growing, profitable chain of suburban papers that had built their ad sales staff by giving part-time employment to women who had experience in home party sales.

Mom was just such a person. I couldn’t wait to get back home and share my lesson with her – dangling bait, God forgive me, she jumped all over it.

Long story short, she worked out fabulously and soon was a key factor in our growth and profitability. In nine years our ad sales increased five-fold. Then Mom made the transition with me when we added an urban weekly to our mix. Still later, when I jumped to a diocesan newspaper, she followed as a cure for flat sales there as well.

Perfect mom not enough

So why am I dwelling on my mother in a Father’s Day reflection?

It’s just to make the point that despite having a nearly perfect mother who contributed to my well-being from her womb to her tomb, if it hadn’t been for my father I’m pretty sure I would be in jail instead of teaching Jesus-like leadership today.

That’s how important my dad was in shaping my life. He set the boundaries – and enforced them. And for the first 18 years of my life, until I moved out, I confess that I didn’t like it very much at all.

I was, as they say, a “spirited youth.” I like to push limits, cross boundaries, stir the pot. I never liked bullies, especially if they held – and abused – positions of authority. Whenever I saw that abuse, I stood up to it and defied it.

Don’t be afraid

Dad taught me not to fear bullies – in fact, his purpose was to teach me not to fear anyone. But he also taught me that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” that it was possible to lose a battle and still win the war, and that cool-headed discipline is always the best option. One of his favorite sayings was, “He who angers me conquers me.”   

I was, as the Irish say, a “fun loving lad.” I was always ready to party and not bothered much by potential consequences. My father didn’t criticize that inclination too often or too harshly. But he never missed an opportunity to remind me that responsibility and hard work come first. Work hard and play hard – in that order, he insisted.

Dad was a faithful Catholic. If you put a gun to his head to keep him from Sunday Mass, you better know how to use it. So I didn’t miss Mass either, even when I wanted to, for as long as I lived at home. Later, when I was on my own and flirted with truancy, his example came back and helped shape my choices. I’m so grateful now that it did.

The limits of law

Dad taught me to respect the law. But he also taught me that not all laws are absolutely binding. As soon as I turned 14, the minimum age the state would let anyone have regular employment, I went looking for a job that paid better than my paper route. I found my low hanging fruit in a newly opened donut shop between school and our house.

But my future employer insisted on talking to my dad before putting me on the payroll. I resisted, wanting to handle things by myself, but he would not be swayed. No dad, no job.

When Dad accompanied me to meet my future boss, the reason quickly became clear. The law stipulated that a 14-year-old couldn’t go to work before 7 a.m. “Our day is half over by then,” the owner of the donut shop explained. “When he works I want him here by 5 a.m., and I don’t want any trouble with the law.” Dad asked if I could handle that. I said I could. So he agreed to let me – as long as I understood my school work came first.

Not perfect

My dad wasn’t perfect. He drank more beer more often than my mom thought was ideal. Fortunately, he wasn’t a drunk, but occasionally I did resent the time he spent in the tavern socializing with his friends on his way home from work.

But I didn’t object when several of those friends put in countless hours adding three rooms to our house – including my very own bedroom. Sometimes it is who you know ...

As a kid I didn’t like it that he didn’t buy me all the stuff some of my friends had – sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of principle. But that got me busy earning my own money, and maybe that was his motive all along.

He could get angry, which I never liked. Nothing made him angrier than when I hit my sisters. Three of them came along right after me in quick succession -- and sometimes they took delight in antagonizing me, knowing that I lived under the absolute taboo that “boys can never hit girls.” No reasons. No exceptions. Never. Ever. Any violation guaranteed quick and painful punishment.

It took a while to learn that lesson, especially with their taunting, but eventually I did learn it. It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten – and one I made sure to teach my own sons.

Everyone has worth

Dad taught me to respect other people. Everyone has worth, he said, and he took pains to drive that lesson home again and again, in a myriad of ways.

He was very bright and well educated, but I never once saw him act like he was better than anyone else. And he always made time for those in greatest need. He didn’t lie and he didn’t steal, and he worked hard to make sure we didn’t either.

When we found money on the ground and declared “finders keepers,” he made us try to find its owner. When we couldn’t, it went to charity.

It was never good, he declared, to benefit from another’s misfortune.

Days of war

During my teen years our relationship was pretty much a constant war. I was headstrong, as they say. And he was determined that I not waste the only life God had given me. Looking back now, I think his efforts mostly carried the day – and I’m unspeakably grateful for that.

Near the end of his life, after he had survived heart bypass surgery and retired, we got to spend more time together. The responsibility of trying to shape me was lifted from his shoulders. We enjoyed the presence of each other’s company, whether it was at his breakfast counter, in a boat or in a bar.

He had always been good for me. And from the perspective of middle age with five children of my own, I finally knew it and could appreciate it.

Our time together gave me a chance to tell him “thank you” for all he had done – even risking our relationship for the sake of helping me, kicking and screaming in resistance, to become the man God intended me to be.

Through it all, despite my resistance, he was a persistent servant, steward and shepherd. That’s Jesus-like Leadership.

Not about perfection

Could he have done better? No doubt. Of course, I could have done better – much better -- too. But life isn’t about perfection. It’s about trying, failing, getting over it and trying again, this time harder. It’s about forgiving, letting go and moving on. It’s about seeing the fundamental “we” of life when the culture highlights the sacred “I.”

Dad taught me that. And a whole lot more.

Come Sunday, even though he’s gone to his eternal reward, I’m going to thank him again for that.

And yes, for helping to keep me out of jail ... despite my best efforts.

Whether you are a daughter or a son, I hope you have a good and grateful conversation Sunday with your dad too ... living or dead.