Days after he won Survivor late last year, Adam Klein suffered a family tragedy. His mother, who had lived her life as “the epitome of health” and never smoked, died from lung cancer.
Amid the devastation, “I needed to be strong for my family,” the 26-year-old says. “But there were times when I couldn’t help but feel weak.”
As Adam grieved, along with his father and brother, another man helped serve as a pillar of strength: Adam’s high school English teacher, with whom he’d remained close. “Glenn Morgan stepped up to allow me to be weak with him so that I could be strong for my family,” he says. Glenn had lost his wife to the same illness in 2011.
Adam considers Glenn a “father figure,” and is — with his dad’s blessing — including him in his celebration this Father’s Day. “In those tough times, he helped me in ways that I will always be thankful for,” Adam says.
All over the country, there are men who serve as terrific father figures. This Father’s Day, I’m happy to partner with Dove Men+Care to be sure they’re recognized.
The Navy chaplain who never met his dad
Some help fill a void. Although fatherlessness is much less common than news reports suggest, it is nevertheless a huge problem. “I have no idea who or where my dad is. He wasn’t in my life as a kid,” says Dennis Kelly. He recently retired from the military, having served as a Navy chaplain on multiple deployments.
When Dennis was growing up, he says, his mother had “a parade of men in her life.” She married several times. The family moved all over the country, from Texas to New York, to Michigan, to Florida and more. “I attended 26 schools between Kindergarten and the 9th grade.”
The men she married were interested only in her, not the kids, Dennis says. He and his two brothers — one older, one younger — “were just an unfortunate side effect of being with her.” Then, things got even worse.
“In high school, one of my stepdads died. My mom left the country. She would come home and put food in the refrigerator once a month. I found out eventually she was coming in to pick up her Social Security check. She was living in Jamaica.”
Eventually, “a friend’s parents took my younger brother in, and another friend’s parents took me in. That’s when I saw what a real dad looked like.”
Sam Linton became Dennis’ father figure. “He stood up for me as my dad at my wedding.”
Dennis now has five children of his own. “Fatherhood is my life,” he says. He’s one of many dads I profile in my book on modern fatherhood, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families and Businesses — And How We Can Fix It Together.
For some men, being a father figure is a first chance to experience aspects of parenthood. “All of my father-and-son firsts really happened because of my godfather Mike,” says Jay Wisniewski, who lives in Tampa. “My mom worked with him and asked him to be my godfather. He and his wife were unable to have kids.”
LC, a former colleague of mine at CNN, says her father figure Sam was the dad of a high school friend. “He was always extremely proud of me and would watch CNN in the off chance I would walk behind the set in the newsroom,” she says, laughing.
“Every time I came into town he insisted I come over for dinner… He delighted in the little things and taught me that the greatest gift a father can give their child is time.”
Role models showing positive masculinity
Having father figures also gives young people, particularly boys, multiple ways of understanding what it means to become a man.
When Josh Misner was a kid, “the only male role models I had in my life were the kind of men who believed children should be seen and not heard, only without the seen’ part,” he wrote on his blog. “Being a man meant being violent in so many ways: violence to solve problems, violence to prevent problems from happening in the first place, and words double-dipped in violence to show a guy meant business.”
But Jerry Ray, his sixth grade teacher, changed his life.
“Within the span of the first week, my definition of what it meant to be ‘manly’ was completely rewritten.” Jerry taught the kids sportsmanship, made learning fun, and turned the class “from a clique-ish bunch of ruffians to a cohesive, all-inclusive group.”
Josh is now a loving dad of four in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Father’s Day is a time to celebrate these men too — guys who served as father figures in various ways without officially having the title of “dad.” As then President Obama said in a proclamation last year:
“(W)e thank the wonderful fathers — and stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, and mentors — in our lives, and we recognize the sacrifices they make to be there for us, through good times and bad… From single fathers who struggle to make ends meet to surrogates who step up to be there for America’s daughters and sons, these men help shoulder the greatest obligation that exists — raising the next generation. Regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status; whether biological, foster, or adoptive; fathers teach their children the values that matter most and steer their moral compasses.”
To all the great fathers and father figures, Happy Father’s Day.