June 21st, 2009
08:26 AM ET

Dear President Obama #153: Here's to absent fathers

Reporter's Note: President Barack Obama spoke last week on the importance of fathers in society, even though he was raised by his mother and grandparents.  He has also asked for input from Americans on how to operate his White House, so one father to another, I continue with my daily letters.

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Tom Foreman | Bio
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

This is the first Fathers Day in my life that I have had no need to buy a card or gift, which is to say, the first since my own dad passed away. I knew that I would be thinking about him a lot, but I have been unprepared for how much he has been on my mind. Sometimes I will see a picture of him on an end table, or have a conversation about him, or run across a keepsake like his old pocket knife, and memories will rise like a covey of quail. More often, however, I will see something, or read something, or hear something quite normal and think, “I should call and tell Pop about that. He’ll find it interesting.” Then I catch myself and remember that we’ve had our last call.

Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I use my letter today to tell you a little about him.

The basics are easy: Grew up poor in a big family on the south side of Chicago. Left for the Army when he was little more than a boy, and ended up with a career in the Air Force. Korea, Guam, Alaska, Morocco. Other places too. Married a southern girl, had a baby that died. Then had three more children. I was the last. Retired from the military to be many things: a state park ranger, a postman, a minister for a small country church founded by my grandfather on my mother’s side. Died of cancer last year.

Beyond the basics, however, as it is with more people, is where the real story lies.

My father was a very smart man; intuitive, curious, and interested in almost everything. When I was a kid I read the encyclopedia set over and over again (I was particularly fond of the A and the S volumes,) and while others thought it peculiar, he understood. While not indulgent, he was patient and helpful whenever a new interest arose. I joined 4H, and we built a sheep pen. I took up magic, and he drove me to monthly meetings of the Decatur Demons Club (Chapter 14 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians!) I grew interested in the circus, and he calmly helped me string a rusty old steel cable pulled out of a barn twelve feet in the air between two sugar pines to practice high wire walking from dawn ‘til dusk.

He was funny. Good at voices, telling jokes. After dinner, with the family still around the table, I would prod him to tell stories of growing up poor on the south side of Chicago, and he would launch into tales full of adventure, gangsters, history, and humor. One of my favorite memories is a bit he did about how cold he used to get on guard duty in Korea; he came up with it while he was in the final stages of dying, and made me laugh out loud, even as I marveled at his bravery, and decency, and tenacity in going for the laugh even while he was going forever.

He took our whole family to church every Sunday without fail. He played hockey, basketball, and football with us long after the other fathers had given up on such things. A snowfall was a guarantee of a good snowball fight.

He was rarity: An honest man and he admired honesty in others. He liked real leaders, but had no patience for politicians in either party. Although he voted routinely, he loved to say “Don’t vote. It only encourages them.”

He worked hard and taught all three of us kids to do the same.

I’m sure I’ve written too much about him already, and I could go on and on, so I should get to the point. I think what made my father great for me, and what makes any person great for that matter, is not whether they are remembered or honored or celebrated by name in the years after they pass; but instead, whether the principles they demonstrated in their own lives, the causes they fought for, were truly focused on making the world a better place; and whether those initiatives took root deeply enough among the family members and friends who remain, to see the good work go on even when the name is forgotten. The great father is the one whose positive influence remains long after he is gone.

I’m sure that you, as President, want to be remembered fondly and well for your accomplishments, whatever they may be. But if I can pass on any advice from my father it would be this: Forget yourself. Remember that you, for all the fame today, will be utterly forgotten soon enough. We all will. Even the Founding Fathers of our nation are, for most of us, little more than names in history books and pictures on our currency.

But their ideas live on; great ideas, great effort, great goodness live on in the family of man, the offspring of us all.

When I see something that reminds me of my father, it makes me feel sad that he is dead. When others see something of my father’s great goodness in me, even if they know not from where it came, I know he is living still.

Call if you can, but not today. Let’s be with our families.



Find more of the Foreman Letters, here.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Great

    That's a great letter! Over the weekend my brother lost his mother-in-law to cancer. Your letter resonated through me. While he's only been married a relatively short time, and I've only met his mother-in-law a few times, the one thing that I'll always remember is despite the horrible battle she fought....several times....not once did I see her without a smile on her face or a kind word. Up until the end, she was focused on letting others know they were more important than what she was going through. She never mentioned the pain, severity of her condition, and if you didn't know, you never would have guessed she was battling for her life. As you pointed out in your letter, the example she set will live on forever as long as we carry the lessons forward. As long as there are people like her and your father, there will always be hope.

    June 22, 2009 at 9:16 am |
  2. Tina

    This is a rather serious and sad letter, Mr. Foreman, but it's understandable since your father is gone. I'm sure people whose fathers are also gone get sad on Father's Day. My father, who's a sad 84 because of his many serious health problems, gets even sadder on this day, so I tried to make him at least smile by telling him that he should be happy today because it's a day for happy fathers only. I say the same to you and to all fathers out there, especiallly the sad ones. Happy Fathers' Day, dads!

    June 22, 2009 at 4:14 am |
  3. Jeff

    I've never read your letters before, but noticed the topic and had to read it. Very well done. It sounds like you really had an amazing dad who set a great life example for you and many, many others.
    I'm sure you'll get a lot of emails like this, but I had one of those amazing dads too, and your story really hit a chord with the similarities. It's been 12 years since my Dad passed away when I was a Soph. in college. It's so much easier now, but will still always be hard to handle and still extremely emotional at times. Overall though, I'm just so glad I had such a great example who taught me honesty, respect for all people, a great work ethic and a joy for living life. The best advice I got from him was also when he was very sick: "Be a great husband, be a great father, be a great teacher and be a great man." Better words were never spoken. Thanks Dad! I love you!

    June 22, 2009 at 2:26 am |
  4. lisa griffiths - Australia

    Tom my sympathy for your loss, but shared joy at your memories.
    You have put fathers in the best possible light.
    Someone that loved and cared for you, took interest in things that you were interested in and told you what he knew about the world.
    What more could children really ask for in a father or parent?

    June 21, 2009 at 10:55 pm |
  5. Janet West

    A very nice post. This is my second Father's Day without my Dad. I feel stabs of pain when I see the greeting cards and commercials for electric shavers (only played at Father's Day and Christmas). But then I feel better for having been so lucky to have the Dad I did. "A Good Man" is what everyone says of him. I read the President's piece today and hoped that his daughters made him a tacky present he would think beautiful and maybe some iced tea. My Dad passed before he could vote for our President, but he liked him.

    June 21, 2009 at 8:05 pm |
  6. J. Neff

    Awesome letter to the president...well, awesome tale about your dad actually (sorry I got more interested on that one). Sorry that he is gone but we'll all go too. You should write a book about your dad, I would get me a copy for sure and no kidding =) And if you wont, thanks for sharing about him. I lost my own father to cancer 9 years back but I feel as proud of him still, not just for being a father to us his children but for who he is to others, what he does for them. Again, thanks for sharing =) Happy Father's Day!

    June 21, 2009 at 5:07 pm |
  7. Karen from La Mirada

    This is my 6th Father's Day without my dad, but the faith he instilled in me lives on...

    June 21, 2009 at 4:57 pm |
  8. Tinzley Bradford

    Can someone tell me what it feels like to have a father???

    June 21, 2009 at 4:34 pm |
  9. Enough

    Absent fathers need to be responsible for their children, not the taxpayers!!

    June 21, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  10. Leroy Tapia

    Happy Fathers Day!

    Fathers lead families by example, Fathers lead by faith, and Fathers lead by Love. ─Fathers have led companies, Fathers have led wars, Fathers have even led countries, but there is no greater joy to a Father than lead his own children. A Fathers triumph and legacy are not measured by his wealth; it cannot be measured by his accomplishments, and it cannot even be measured by his conquests. ─Father, this ‘Fathers Day’ I wish you all the Love in the world from the bottom of my heart, there is no tie, no shoes or no present I could ever give that could come close to all that you have done for me. ─My present to you this day is ‘Me’, I will live up to the standards you have put in front of Me by example, I will be a good Father, I will be a good husband, and I will be a good neighbor. Father, this day your triumph and legacy can be measured in one word, -Me. Happy Fathers Day Dad!
    -Leroy Tapia

    June 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm |
  11. Kelly


    June 21, 2009 at 3:34 pm |
  12. Kathleen Sullivan-Hawthorne, NY

    Happy Father's day Tom. Your Dad sounds great, with honest advice. Looks like he did a good job.

    June 21, 2009 at 3:16 pm |
  13. 1eyedmonkee

    Stuck in murky melancholy today for the same reason...looking for people to follow on my twitter account...Anderson Cooper sent me here. I'm not alone – I was broadsided by this first Father's Day without my dad. I was prepared for all the other ones – his birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. but slipped on this puddle today.

    June 21, 2009 at 2:34 pm |
  14. Greg Riggs (Vancouver, Canada)

    Dear Tom,

    Thank you for the very moving accounts and story of your father. It is my fear that in today's society we have been suffering from increasingly fatherless families. While no-one really wants to wade into the political hotbed of whether or not mothers can raise a child, the realities of today's society seem to reflect the results of absent fathers. How many more heartwarming stories like this will have never taken place if we continue to marginalize the importance fathers have in our society. My son or my daughter can only have these memories if I am there to help create them.

    Thank you Tom for sharing this

    Vancouver, Canada

    June 21, 2009 at 1:41 pm |
  15. Chris Wilson

    I went home to help my mother do some deep cleaning recently.

    I pulled those encyclopedias you read off the shelf and dusted each one. You are right, the A and S volumes show more wear. I was fond of those as well, but not because I read them. I just liked the pictures of 'A'nimals and 'S'nakes.

    As the eldest, I remember watching you meander through your many interests. You are right, Dad was your companion through it all...Just as he was me and our brother, as well.

    Like you, it is the unexpected "something" during any given day that takes me back to our father.

    Thanks for putting into words what I share with you...a deep and abiding love for a genuinely decent man, that happened to be our dad.

    He's given you great act to follow.

    Happy Father's Day to a good dad and brother.

    June 21, 2009 at 1:08 pm |
  16. Mary

    Good Morning & Happy Father's Day to you, Tom.

    "Holy Mackeral" (as my father, "Tom", used to say regularly), that was a
    wonderful, thoughtful and honorable tribute to your Dad. As I read
    your letter I discovered similarities; my Dad also grew up on the south side of Chicago; in the late 1930's he worked @ Comiskey Park working the manual scorekeeping. After many years in WWII he arrived back in the states 5'11" 125 pounds. His girlfriend waited & they married in 1950 here in Chicago. I'm one of 6! (nice irish catholic family, the only form of birth control was abstinence!)

    The attributes that you so fondly refer to in your own father also reminded me of mine. The positive influences that he taught me
    live on every day. Life was different in the 60's, people waved at one another and stopped to offer a ride. Neighbors worked together to shovel one another's snow. My dad pulled our sled one winter over 6 miles to the nearest A&P; but the food he bought wasn't for his 6 kids, it was for the new babies born down the street who needed formula and baby cereal & milk; sure, the 6 of us were indeed given what we needed, but he exemplified generosity each and every day, even if
    the gestures were merely simple "honk and waves" at everyone he saw in our neighborhood. He taught me that it truly is in giving that we receive. Moreover, whenever he asked anyone, "how are you?"; he truly cared and listened for a response. He was a simple,generous
    kind, considerate, hardworking father of 6. He's been gone over 25 years but I can still hear him whisper, "hey, Mar, want any sliders?"
    Happy Father's Day to you!

    June 21, 2009 at 12:37 pm |
  17. Sarah, U.S.

    Hi Mr. Foreman,

    I think it's great that you keep the memory of your father alive.

    This is also my first father's day without my dad and I worry that I will one day forget about him. Like you, writing is my way of keeping his memory alive and sharing his humor, personality and rarity. Like you, I could go on an on writing about my father, but it's probably best that I don't do it here, ha.

    I tried not to think of today as Father's Day, but I'm glad that I stumbled across this letter.

    June 21, 2009 at 12:33 pm |
  18. Susan

    I so enjoy your letters to President Obama. They are well written, thoughtful, and a nice touch of humor.
    Happy Father's Day to you! Relax, sit back, and enjoy your family.



    June 21, 2009 at 11:10 am |
  19. johanna

    Great story! My father was in AF,Korea,took us to church in fact he was lecturn(Catholic),makes me laugh still at 89,always encouraged my music(bought my first,2nd....many guitars) and could sing like Frank.
    You piece sounded like u were describing my dad and Im so sorry yours is no longer here in body but his spirit is in you and it came out in ur article.

    God bless ur Dad and mine. Lets make a vow to pass on the knowledge they taught us.How to be kind, happy, straight up,and to feel others pain. I cant tell u how scared I am of "that day" when he leaves this world. He's been my world for sooo long.

    My daughter is w/ her father for the 1st time in 25yrs (better late than never, I guess.) and my sons dad is around but makes no contact w/ his only son. We have been lucky to have dads from the generation that knows their importance in their childrens lives. My children suffered. I did my best and they are now great ppl and Im proud. If their fathers couldve only seen the times they cried to me w/ questions I had to answer somehow.

    Happy Fathers Day and God bless you, Johanna Sweat

    June 21, 2009 at 9:55 am |
  20. Rachel Rountree / Texas

    God bless you Tom, Happy Father's Day, also to you Mr. President, God Bless

    June 21, 2009 at 9:44 am |
  21. Pat

    Lovely article about your dad. I wish I knew mine more. No, my father didn't pass away when I was young, he just didn't talk about his family, or himself, in that rather Protestant way. It was " I'll tell you later...and never did.

    He was a hard one to demostrate love, but we kids knew he did, by working hard and taking care of my mother and us. He was 51 when I was born, ( I am the oldest) so he wasn't one of those "pal" type dads. He ( at 63) did teach us things like learning how to skate ( who knew he was so good at it?), build a go-kart ( he crafted and welded the steering frame to fit a Ford steering wheel) and how to fix cars ( he was an auto mechanic by trade).

    Dad played "fiddle" and Tenor banjo at many parties in and around Kansas, or so he said. Played he did, solid Irish Celtic dance tunes that kept the family entertained many nights.

    The violins were lost in a move from Coney Island to Long Island. My brother has the banjo. I kept it for 30 years until I passed it along to him.

    Today I am a mechanic's nightmare, because I KNOW what is wrong and know enough to tell them so. ( Thanks, Dad!) Each kid, especially my brother, has some mechanical ability, but two of us went to college, something my father didn't believe in. "Book Learning" was the bunk to my dad, but yet he was the most voracious reader I knew.

    He was honest, smart and tolerated no BS. His customers, who followed him from garage to garage like a hairdresser's clientele, ranged from Rabbis to Mobsters ( Dad would bring home a box of fruit when he worked on their trucks) and people who couldn't afford a mechanic, because Dad would do their needed work for free. Never accepted money that was offered, either.

    My brother is the most like my father, my sister like my mother, I am a strange blend of both. My nephew, my brother's son, is much like my father, which is to say, a lot like HIS father. It must be a trend.

    No, not all dads work in offices, run big corporations or write books. Some need people like my father, because they need their car.

    ( Maybe I know more about my father than I thought...)

    Long may the blue collar dad wave.

    June 21, 2009 at 9:18 am |
  22. James, Dublin IRL

    Excellent, moving letter.

    June 21, 2009 at 9:18 am |
  23. Fiona Eadie

    What a truly wonderful and touching letter about your Father. I am so sorry that this will be your first Father's Day without him, but like you so poetically described, he lives through you. If only many Americans (and Canadians for that matter) had such positive experiences of a loving, caring and wonderful man to look up to such as yours, I think we would all be in a much better place. Have a wonderful day, and know that your letter has touched me.

    June 21, 2009 at 9:13 am |
  24. Diane Leive

    Wow! Reading this gave me chills and made me miss my father even more. We all need to take time to remember all the things are famlies do for us and have done for others. I was blessed by being adopted by a wonderful man. He served our country and was very hard working. Even after he married my mom he still sent home to his mother every month money to help her raise his sister's and brother's since his father passed away when his baby sister was just a baby. He gave to anyone and everyone.
    There are so many stories out there on father's. I am proud to say I had a wonderful one and a wonderful grandfather to my children.
    I have two wonderful son's that have turnned into great dad's as well. One of which works in the White House and serves our country. The other works for Fema. After Hurricanne Katrina he lost his home, job and did not how he would be able to provide for his son.
    So let us all honor all men who are father's and who take an active role in their childrens lives no matter what age they are.

    June 21, 2009 at 9:10 am |