Dad graduated from high school and took correspondence and night classes in accounting. He never earned a college degree but gathered the skills he needed to get his first job in the accounting department of a large company. He married his high school sweetheart, and they had three kids: two girls and me, the only boy.
It took years before I recognized the spiritual tower my dad also was. (I use the word “spiritual” to refer to his character and actions.) We didn’t have long conversations about life and values because he was a doer, not a talker. But, as I got older, it became easier to see the lessons he taught me not by his words but by his actions.
Here are five of those priceless life lessons, which I urge all fathers who read this to teach their sons.
1. If you are capable of doing it yourself, then do it
I used to wonder why my dad never hired other people to work on the yard. By the time he was middle-aged, he certainly could afford it. He also changed the oil in everyone’s cars in the garage at night under a hanging work light. He painted and wallpapered; he repaired the dishwasher; he built a large breakfast room table.
The man, who by this time was the chief financial officer of a good-sized company, was in the basement, yard or garage during his weekends and in a suit and tie during the week.
I understand the lesson now.
In all of his doing, my dad was constantly learning. His parents lived through the Depression and instilled in him the need to learn and do what you can for yourself.
This kind of self-reliance he modeled for his children, and we learned it without a word being spoken. I know I can learn to do anything I have to — it’s a great feeling.
2. All work is valuable, no matter what it is
Before I was born, my dad lost a job because a company he worked for closed. It was summer. Another firm wanted to hire him, but the job would not be available until fall. He was in a bit of a panic, wondering what he would do for work for the next three months. He and my mom had some savings, but it was not enough. That summer he picked cherries and detasseled corn.
While I didn’t know that story growing up, I did witness my dad’s behaviors that taught me this lesson. He greeted the garbage man and mailman and anyone else who served my family in any way with respect. He asked about their families and always gave them a healthy Christmas bonus.
One summer, home from college, the only job I could find was cleaning office buildings at night. I complained regularly. My dad looked at me and said, “There are people who do this for their life’s work, and they take pride in what they do. When you can take the same amount of pride in the job you do, you’ll be a person of character, just as they are.” I shut up.
3. Kindness is painless and free
I remember the months between January and April 15 at our house. There were people I didn’t know who came to the house on evenings and weekends. They were factory workers in the plant where my father worked. He did their taxes for them so they would not have to pay a tax preparer. He also taught them so that they could do their own from then on.
Today, I volunteer at a community center, helping kids with their homework. Giving back is just one more thing my father taught me through his own actions.
4. Gratitude makes a man
When we were growing up, there was an important family ritual during Thanksgiving break. We had an assignment that was due before the end of that long weekend. Each of us had to make a list of all the things we were grateful for. And the minimum number of items on that list was 25. As we matured, the items on the list became less concrete and more abstract. Guess that’s how my dad knew the lesson was sinking in.
5. You can never justify immoral behavior
As the Flint, Michigan water crisis unfolded this past fall, I was stunned. In order to save $36,000 a year, an entire city population was poisoned by toxic water. And it was obvious that state officials knew the lead levels were toxic at least a year before it became public knowledge. My outrage was the same reaction my father would have had.
Morality is something very personal to me, just as it was to my dad. Cheating, lying and causing any harm to another person makes you a person without integrity.
After all, at the end of your life, all you really have is your integrity and your honor. That is your legacy. My dad lived a life of honor and integrity, and all three of his kids are trying to live up to that standard today.
The important lessons from my dad did not come from lectures and punishments. The lessons came from his actions. Little needed to be said. These five lessons I will pass on to my son in the same way, and I only hope I can live up to Dad’s legacy.