Great Dads of History

Shout out to all the dads out there!  Happy Father’s Day!

Great dads are everywhere.  You might be one yourself.  But they are often invisible.  No one notices the person who does the job right.  If you are a great dad, you children may grow into well-adjusted adults.  They won’t become notorious for anything.  They won’t write a bitter poem about you like Sylvia Plath wrote about her dad.  They will probably not make history, unless your family is unlucky enough to get thrust into the historical spotlight (which is not an experience to seek out: see the ten Boom family, below).  They will just go quietly about contributing to society by being great citizens, moms and dads themselves.

This is why we so seldom hear about the great dads.

Here are three dads who, through accidents of history, had their great dadliness recorded.  One was the father to a daughter who wrote about him.  Another was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And the third wrote novels with his son.

Charles Ingalls: Rifle, Ax, and Fiddle

Charles Ingalls playing “mad dog” with his children.
Taken from the illustrated version of Little House in the Big Woods.

Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a friendly, adventurous, adaptable man with incredible amounts of energy and what might be described as “itchy feet.”  He had the perfect personality to survive and thrive as a pioneer.  He moved his family many times throughout Laura and her sisters’ childhood, shepherding his family through disaster after disaster on the American frontier.  (For example: floods, fires, tornadoes, blizzards, locusts, and malaria.)

Charles was able to build his family a cabin in single summer using just his ax. He shot game to provide food for them.  And wherever they went, he took his fiddle.  He was a gifted musician who used music, along with his indomitably cheerful personality, to keep his family’s spirits up.

Casper ten Boom: the Grand Old Man of Haarlem

Casper ten Boom lived his entire life in a narrow, cramped house in Haarlem, Netherlands.  The front room housed the family business, a watch repair shop.  Casper, was the “absentminded professor” type.  He was gentle and affectionate, beloved by the neighborhood children, eccentric and forgetful, a gifted watch repairer but a terrible businessman.  It was typical of him to work for weeks on a rare watch and then forget to send its owner a bill.  He was delighted that the shop across the street was stealing his business, because “then they will make more money!”

He had long white whiskers and little spectacles. Picture him looking like the old banker played by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

When the Nazis took over Holland, Casper was still living in the Haarlem watch shop with two of his adult daughters, Betsie and Corrie.  Because the ten Boom family had so many connections in the city; were known as generous and helpful people; and had a great affection for the Jews (“God’s chosen people”), their house gradually became a hub for the resistance.  Its crazy floor plan made it the perfect place to build a bunker as an emergency hiding place for the handful of people that were always staying with them.

The ten Boom family were eventually betrayed and arrested.  A Nazi guard, seeing Casper’s age, tried to send him home on a promise of good behavior.  Casper responded, “If you send me home today, tomorrow I will open my door to the first person in need who knocks.”  He was arrested and died of a fever in prison. 

Casper’s daughter Corrie survived the concentration camps (Betsie did not) and later wrote a memoir about her family’s experiences, called The Hiding Place.  It’s an incredible story, but the most delightful parts of it to read are the early parts, where we watch Casper interact with his family and community.  He was truly a great dad.  Yet, if it hadn’t been for the Nazi takeover, few people today would know his name.

Dick Francis: Integrity in Life and Fiction

Dick Francis, a former jockey, wrote many terrific thrillers set in the world of horse racing.  Troubled father/son relationships often feature in his novels.  Francis was asked whether he had a troubled relationship with his own father, and he responded that to the contrary, the relationship was great.  “Perhaps that’s why I’m so interested in troubled father/son relationships.” 

Francis’s main characters tend to be single men in their early 30s.  Some have more baggage than others, but what they all have in common is a strong sense of integrity.  They can’t tolerate allowing anything like cheating to happen, even when it puts them in harm’s way, and they can’t bring themselves to back down, even sometimes when facing torture.

In his later years, Francis wrote several novels with his son Felix.  The novel Crossfire (2010), from which this picture is taken, includes the dedication “to the memory of Dick Francis, the greatest father and friend a man could ever have.”

Now, I’ll Bet You Know a Great Dad!

Leave a comment praising an unsung great dad that you know.

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