Sunday, June 18, 2017
Happy Father’s Day — to all my fathers
But if you’re lucky, as I was, good men step in to fill the void. This Father’s Day, the third without my dad — he passed away in 2014 after a long and brave bout with cancer —I’m thanking all the men who stepped up and did their best to fill my dad’s shoes (size 10) when he couldn’t be there.
First on my list is my grade-school principal, Robert Dutcher. When we moved to Mason City from California in 1977, Mr. Dutcher reached out and took me to Father-Son Night. I still remember the feel of his hand on my shoulder, his reassuring tone. He died before I had a chance to thank him.
Thank you, Mr. Dutcher.
Second on my list is all my coaches, the men who took the time to teach me how to win— and lose — with grace, whether it be on the baseball diamond (Thank you, Mr. Pete), the hockey rink (Thank you, Mr. Hanna), the wrestling mat (Thank you, Mr. Ray) or the football field (Thank you, Mr. Bye, Mr. Reasland and above all, Coach Lenius).
Third on my list are the teachers who guided me through some tough years in junior high and high school when my oldest brothers, Steve and John, were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Steve was a cadet at the Air Force Academy; John, a football star who played for Hayden Fry in his first season with the Hawkeyes.
I still remember Bob Johnson, my eighth-grade chemistry teacher, saying with a grin, “Brother Judge, the cream always rises to the top!”; my high-school psychology teacher, Tom Oswald, helping me with coping skills; and my journalism teacher, Paul Peterson, helping me find my way.
But one man, the father of a dear friend, stands out for stepping up and giving me the love and support I needed at a crucial time in my life. His name is David Nelsen, and I will never be able to thank him enough.
At the start of my sophomore year, my brother John took his own life at the age of 21 after a psychotic break and a diagnosis of chronic schizophrenia. The loss was tremendous and felt throughout the community.
The following year my mother, a brave and tireless advocate for those who suffer from mental illnesses, took a job as a teacher in Hampton, 29 miles south of Mason City. A stubborn 17-year-old who relied on his friends and football for everything, I started my junior year driving the half-hour to Mason City to attend high school and, more important, play football for the Mohawks.
But when the authorities found out we were living in a different school district, they gave us an ultimatum — move back to Mason City or attend the local high school in Hampton. My mother could not leave her job, and I would not leave my friends. We were, in a very real sense, in crisis.
That’s when Mr. Nelsen, his son Justin, and his entire family offered me the greatest gift of all — a home. Dave and his wife, Julie, took me in and treated me like one of their own. Justin and I shared a bedroom in their beautiful Prairie School home on South Carolina Avenue. Like brothers, we’d talk ourselves to sleep.
While no one could take the place of my father, who visited regularly and did all he could to love and guide his children from afar, Dave and his family gave me stability, structure and — most important — love at a time when I needed it most.
That winter, Dave took us all on a skiing trip to the Lutsen Mountains in Northern Minnesota, just off of Lake Superior. With wind chills well below zero, we had the slopes virtually to ourselves. Undaunted, Dave refused to wear a hat, spending hours gracefully carving his way down the mountain.
A former Navy man and successful attorney, Dave demanded that Justin and I raise our grades and start thinking seriously about college. A lover of food, drink and good conversation, he saw the dinner table as not only a place to enjoy Julie’s wonderful cooking but also as a place to share stories about the day’s events, whether we had done all we set out to do, and how we could do better.
Sadly, Julie is no longer with us. But to this day, Dave is present in my life, still offering advice, encouragement, a good joke. As President Obama said in 2011, “Fathers, along with our mothers, are our first teachers, coaches and advisers. They help us grow into adults, consoling us in times of need and celebrating with us in times of triumph.”
Dave consoled and celebrated; he loved and grieved. He demanded the best from his own children — and from me, a boy he helped become a man.
For this I will always be grateful. For this I say Happy Father’s Day — and, once again, thank you.
Michael Judge of Iowa City, a former deputy editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, is an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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Happy Father’s Day — to all my fathers