Happy Fathers’ Day

For many, it seemed like a bit of trickery, a joke, a send-up for Will Rogers or Groucho Marx.

My daughter and me last summerSo says religious studies scholar Leigh Eric Schmidt of Father’s Day, adding that while such an event “seemed all but inevitable” when Mother’s Day quickly became a sensation, “many people found it laughable.” A 1914 letter to the New York Times mocked Father’s Day, suggesting satirically that Americans also hold “Maiden Aunty Day” and “Household Pet Day.” Twenty-four years later, the same paper continued to find that “supporters of Father’s Day invariably had to undertake their promotions ‘in the teeth of quipsters and a distinct lack of paternal enthusiasm.'”

(“What day is it?”, I asked my four-year old son this morning, doing the hard work of research. He thought for a moment, then asked back, “The 15th?”)

According to Schmidt, the earliest Father’s Day (actually, Fathers’ Day — which I prefer, as with its maternal precursor) celebrations in Spokane, Washington (ca. 1910) provoked not only ridicule, but controversy, at the intersection of gender and religion. The young woman often credited with launching all this, Sonora Dodd, had a “distinctly ‘feminized'” vision of the holiday, “with core concerns about Father’s role in the home and the protection of womanhood…. the images of fatherhood were often tender, gentle, sentimental, and companionate…. The church rituals that were developed for the event often mirrored the sentimental, flower-filled liturgies of Mother’s Day” (Consumer Rites, p. 277). In response, local “muscular Christianity” advocates like the Presbyterian preacher Conrad Bluhm framed Fathers’ Day as a “welcome reminder of the patriarchal potency of the faith,” describing the day as “rugged, husky, stalwart.”

But fascinating as I find all this on a scholarly level, let me take off my historian’s hat for a moment…

As a father myself, I totally understand the chief reason, according to Schmidt, that this day has long inspired jokes: “Father’s Day was comical in part because fathers seemed so out of place or uncomfortable in this holiday world of sentimental gifts and domestic flattery” (pp. 280-81). So it’s with a keen sense that many of us don’t (claim to) like to be the center of such attention in mid-June that I offer the following public tributes.

I’ll start by going lightly in embarrassing my father-in-law, Rev. Dennis Hanson — since he probably got a dose of that already this morning when his seminarian son guest-preached at his church. But quickly: Denny is the most pastoral pastor that I know, a tireless lover of neighbors (those he knows well — his family above all — and those he’s just met, whom he immediately makes welcome) and a humble lover of God. (I doubt that someone as Lutheran as Denny wants his name, “lover,” and “God” so close together in a sentence, but hey, it’s my blog!)

But I won’t spare my own father, Dr. Richard Gehrz. See, Dad is not only my main model for fatherhood, but my chief inspiration as a professional. Historians aren’t supposed to write hagiography, but what can I say: Dad is the most brilliant, hard-working man that I know, utterly committed to serving others with his gifts, time, energy, and ample vision.

Dad blazed through the University of Minnesota in something like two-and-a-half undergraduate years of intense study of math and chemistry (with a token humanities course along the way: a music appreciation class that instilled a lifelong love of opera), then went straight into medical school, where he found his calling as a pediatrician. While he helped to found the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul (personally saving the life of at least one child that I later went to school with), by the time of my adolescence he was chiefly channeling his many abilities and unbelievable work ethic into medical research, becoming one of the world’s foremost experts on human cytomegalovirus, a common cause of birth defects and a significant threat to people with depressed immune systems, like AIDS patients. Some of my favorite memories of childhood are set at Children’s annual Christmas party, where Dad often played Santa Claus for patients — taking my brother and I along as “elves” for a visit to the kids in the oncology ward.

Chris and Richard Gehrz, May 2014
My dad and me at a Minnesota Twins game last month

So as I was beginning to contemplate my educational and professional path, I had a father who conducted cutting-edge research, flying to conferences in Paris and serving on committees for the National Institutes of Health. But then, just as I was heading off to college, Dad decided on a remarkable change of direction.

Also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, Dad had opportunities to take on leadership roles in elite medical school, but instead he relocated to an impoverished, pediatrician-less county in rural southwestern Virginia and set up a new practice. Over twenty years later, he still treats thousands of patients a year; I hope those parents recognize that their children are being served by a man who has the diagnostic genius of Gregory House without any of that TV doctor’s misanthropy.

On the side, Dad has taught himself photography and revived an earlier interest in computer programming. And I’m not even getting into the calling that he might feel is most important: as a deacon in a local Baptist church, where Dad has almost single-handedly launched a thriving youth basketball league in the church gym that reaches out to the neighboring community.

For all of these accomplishments, I’m most struck by something Dad told me, long before I’d become a father myself: that the most important thing he’s ever done is have children, and that he’s very proud of all of them.

Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!

One thought on “Happy Fathers’ Day

  1. I happen to think Fathers’ Day is a good thing. It’s observance doesn’t have to be maudlin. But fatherhood is in crisis in America today. There are almost no really positive images of fathers in the media. We are bombarded with negative images of men. And yet even most sociologists agree that especially boys growing up without fathers or at least strong and good male role models is not good for them. A very large percentage of boys and girls are growing up without fathers living in their homes. For some time now our culture has devalued men including fathers. So Fathers’ Day could be an opportunity to turn that situation around.

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