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Fathers are Heroes


By John W. Whitehead

The RutheRford Institute

In a world of dead-beat dads, workaholic parents and latchkey kids, fathers who set an example for their kids to grow by and who sacrifice so they can give their children a better life are heroes. But like many children, it took me a while to fully appreciate just how special my father is.

Along with thousands of other young men, Dad joined the Army in July 1943, less than a month after he and my mother married. After fighting on the battlefields of England and Europe, he returned home to Tennessee in October 1945. His homecoming was marked by the end of shoe rationing and my conception.

For reasons still unknown, John M. Whitehead didn’t have a middle name, just an initial. The oldest of three children, he grew up dismally poor outside Pulaski, Tenn. His parents moved a lot, trying to get work to feed their daughter and two sons. This meant, among other things, that the children’s education was sketchy at best. They were only able to spend portions of the year in school before pulling up stakes and starting over wherever work was available.

Although Dad never talks much about those days, he can’t seem to get past the memory of his last year in school. Like a lot of kids from poor families, John M.’s attendance at school depended largely on the vagaries of his family’s finances. However, because he was intelligent, his fifth grade teacher worked with and encouraged him, recognizing that he had a lot of potential. As usual, he was only able to spend part of the year in her class before the family had to pull up stakes again and take the kids out of school.

The following year, John M. found himself back in the fifth grade. When he walked into the room, his teacher expressed her surprise at seeing him back at school—and in her classroom. Although she didn’t intend to embarrass him, Dad was humiliated and never got past his feelings of shame at having to repeat the fifth grade. When family finances once again caused him to be pulled from school, he never went back.

Despite only having a fifth-grade education, my father has done well. He has lived his life one challenge at a time. For many like him, feeding and sheltering a family was heroic work. And with my mother’s help, he did it the best way he knew how.

In 1950, my family left Tennessee for Peoria, a central Illinois factory town known as “Little Chicago.” Like many other Southerners, we moved “because of the higher wages they were paying up north,” according to my dad.

My parents subscribed to the work ethic that you got a job, showed up every day and did it well, hoping either for a raise or more overtime. Corporate politics were unknown to people like my dad. He worked at Caterpillar Tractor Co., serving as a union steward and helping his fellow workers get a fair shake from the company, until he was offered early retirement 30 years later. This is the life philosophy he instilled in me.

Although my mom and dad both worked and had a steady income, it wasn’t much, even in those days. I remember that one Christmas I wanted a cowboy gun and holster from Santa Claus. I got the pistol, but I guess Santa couldn’t afford the holster. So my dad made one for me out of one of my mother’s old leather purses. Although it didn’t look like the ones on television, it worked pretty well. But when my friends asked, “What is that?” I felt a little bit ashamed. Even so, I remember feeling good that my dad cared enough to do what he could to make a little boy’s Christmas dream come true.

As a blue-collar kid, I had average grades and got into my share of trouble. Along with much-needed discipline, my father instilled in me a work ethic and impulse to care for the little guy that led me to attend college, where I studied social work. Following graduation and after a couple of years in the Army, I went on to law school. Several years later, Dad’s “help the underdog” philosophy was instrumental in my starting The Rutherford Institute, a legal group dedicated to helping people get a fair hearing in the courtroom. Over the past 25 years, through a network of lawyers across the country, we’ve defended thousands of people free of charge.

Certain studies suggest that parents have little impact on their children. However, while this may be true in certain instances, my father’s shadow lies before me like a clear path. It’s a path I’ll follow until the day I die, and there are many people, myself included, who are the better for it.

Now 84 years old, my father suffers from Alzheimer’s and grows weaker with each passing year. Although he doesn’t comprehend everything I say to him, he does understand “I love you, Dad.” And even though our roles are somewhat reversed at this stage of his life, there is still much to learn from him and, of course, memories to share.


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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