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10 Lessons From Our Quirky, Irreplaceable Dads

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Dads. They're our first heroes. They keep us safe, tell us stories and give us our first piggyback rides. From our earliest moments, dads teach us to laugh, lighten up and toughen up. If we're fortunate, they also teach us about sacrifice and virtue -- a word that means "manly strength."

No matter how much their role in society is downplayed or misunderstood, every heart knows there is simply no substitute for a dad. As Father's Day draws near, here are 10 lessons we've learned from our dads -- lessons worth celebrating far more than once a year:

1. Find creative ways to say, "I love you."
Once when I did something my father was especially proud of, he laughed with gusto and said, "I'd kick a dragon's a** for you." He was about 75 at the time. If a mother's love is tender, a father's love is fierce.

2. Stand up when your name is called -- and when your child's name is called. In his unforgettable coming-of-age memoir Where Excuses Go to Die, author John Espinosa Nelson writes, "I wasn't prepared to see my dad getting to his feet each time I was told to stand before the court. Watching him assume responsibility for his son before a Federal judge showed me what a real man is made of; I'd never been so respectful of and embarrassed for him at the same time." A father's love can transform an entire life -- just ask my friend John Nelson.

3. Man up, grow up, and show up.
Roland Warren, author of Bad Dads of the Bible: 8 Mistakes Every Good Dad Can Avoid, has lived this principle from both sides -- as a loving husband to Yvette and dad to their two sons, Jamin and Justin, but also as a son who knew the pain of growing up without a father.

"Only someone who should love you deeply and unconditionally can hurt you deeply by rejecting you unconditionally," Warren says. "So, after years of dealing with my issues and helping others, I have a sense about these things. I 'feel the pain' of the fatherless."

Warren is the former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and currently the president and CEO of Care Net, the nation's largest network of pregnancy resource centers.

4. Take care of others, and let others take care of you.

The hardest plane trip of my life was not the all-night flight last summer from Tokyo to San Diego, but the flight that followed two days later, unexpectedly. The morning after getting home from Japan, I woke up to an email that my friend Carol had died in her sleep, just a few hours before. I made the hard decision to fly back for her funeral in Michigan, where we're both from.

Dazed, jet-lagged and now raw with grief, I at least took comfort knowing that at the other end of this all-night flight, I would see my dad and spend three nights with him -- just the two of us -- since my mother was out of town. The grilled chicken salad he made for my arrival was so beautiful, we took pictures. Talk about needing comfort food.

Throughout my stay, my father overfed me, and for once, I let him. He took care of me so that I could take care of why I came: to stand with my friend's family, share their sorrow, and affirm how much Carol mattered, and always, always would -- lessons in loyalty I saw modeled in both my parents, especially my dad.

5. Pour a beer into the side of the glass so it doesn't foam.
My cousin Kelly says her dad (my Uncle Marv) taught her this lesson when she was 6. I treasure this story because my Uncle Marv is no longer here, and because I know what a good man he was. This story also illustrates what dads do best; namely, mix the practical with the irreverent, and instill the values we need to keep the two in check.

6. Keep it simple.
Remember back in the early 1990s, when organizations of all sizes were creating mission statements? With great enthusiasm, my friend Steve shared the mission-statement concept with his dad -- himself, a business owner.

But no matter how eloquently Steve explained it, his dad could only shrug and sum up any organization's mission in a single word: survive. Ironically, mission statements have not survived -- but Steve's father has, into his nineties.

"In hindsight, my dad's statement is a reflection of his depression-era upbringing on a farm," Steve says. "Survival was the focus; to dream of a purpose above and beyond that was a luxury that they couldn't afford, and one that too many of us squander."

7. Become one with nature.
When my father first took up bird-feeding, his idea of a bird-feeder was to drive a stake into our back yard, nail one of those cheap white paper plates to the top and sprinkle on some birdseed. The first time a bird landed, the paper plate caved in, seed spilled everywhere and the poor little bird slipped and nearly had a coronary.

Please don't try this at home. Incidentally, my dad has long since upgraded his bird-feeders many times over, and I have been the lucky recipient of one of the replacement models.

Whether it's teaching us to appreciate birds, trees and constellations, or simply taking us for hikes in the woods, dads seem to feel right at home in the great outdoors. Through their eyes, we too discover the physical world, and our role in it.

8. Do things you love with people you love.
I owe this one to Seth Kahan of Visionary Leadership in Washington, DC. Seth and his teenage son, Gabe, have gone camping together -- just the two of them -- every summer since Gabe was 2.

"We have been known to subsist on potato chips, beef jerky and carrots for days at a time -- with an occasional piece of blueberry pie thrown in from a diner along the way," Seth says.
"After about three days, the conversations go deep," he adds. "We talk about what fathers and sons should talk about. I don't know any other way to get to those conversations. The depth carries us along and serves as a reference at other times of the year, reminding us we can go deep when we're inclined to or when it becomes necessary."

9. Give back and pay it forward.
As a young man, my father was going to be the first in his family to go to college -- but when he applied to Michigan State University, his school of choice, he was turned down.

Instead, he was encouraged to apply to Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), a two-year "junior" college in Traverse City. There was only one problem: He was turned down there, too. But an accounting professor named Ernie Gaunt saw potential in the kid from West Virginia -- so he took my dad to meet the college president and to ask the president to give this young man a chance.

Preston Tanis looked at my dad's high school transcript and then at my dad. Finally, with much skepticism, he said, "OK, kid. You've got one term to prove yourself."

My father did. Not only did he succeed academically and socially, he went on to earn a bachelor's degree in hotel/restaurant management -- from Michigan State.

Years later, when he became a thriving business owner, my dad went back to NMC to name a scholarship for Preston Tanis, the college president who had given him that all-important chance, when his whole future was on the line.

This story never fails to choke me up; first, because without it, our family wouldn't be here. Second, of all my father's accomplishments, this single act of generosity trumps them all, in my eyes. Finally, as a university career counselor and adjunct faculty member, I have shared this story with many a down-and-out student, to remind them of their untapped potential.

10. Defy all odds and have a blast doing it.
On my parents' wedding day, someone remarked, "It'll never last." It wasn't me. (Kidding. Obviously, I wasn't even there.)

During their first six years of marriage, my parents had four kids, and my father went through five jobs. Imagine your doctor telling you the midst of all this, "You are exactly the kind of person who will have a heart attack before age 40."

Let's just take these one at a time. First, it turns out the young man who couldn't keep a job was meant to create jobs. In following his dream to start a pizza business, he created hundreds of jobs in a small town that needed them. From an early age, all four of us kids learned firsthand what it meant to get up early and go to work.

The young couple whose marriage was never going to last celebrated the big five-o anniversary some years ago. And the young man destined for a heart attack before age 40? By the grace of God, he has never had a heart attack -- and this month he'll be 80. As you read this, I'll be back to Michigan for the family celebration.

These are just ten of the lessons fathers teach us, and why their influence will always matter. Dads protect, provide, and never give up. They humble us with their generosity, and make us laugh in ways that no one else can. We might not always understand them. We might not always agree with them. But a father's love and loyalty give purpose to our steps, and confidence that we, too, can triumph -- against all odds -- and have a blast doing it.