There are many ways to tell your father you love him.
One is to choose a career you think will make him proud. My psychiatrist friend says this probably isn’t the best reason in the world, but it isn’t the worst, either.
Not long before he died, my father confided that he had always wanted to be a lawyer. This surprised me. He was a schoolteacher, as was my mother and my only brother. They loved what they did and considered it important work. For choosing the law, I was regarded as a bit of a family disappointment, like Cousin Benton who ran a fireworks stand off I-95.
But even as a young boy I could see how much he enjoyed our daily strolls down to the courthouse, where he’d hang out in the clerk’s office and chat with the attorneys coming in and out while I’d tiptoe into the deed vault with its enormous, gilded books, or sneak into the empty cathedral of a courtroom.
And years later I saw how his face lit up at my letter of admission to the University of South Carolina Law School.
Of course he would have been a good lawyer. He had grown up in harder times, served in WWII and came out with a gentle strength and positive spirit. He was not a perfect man, but he was honest and kind and fair-minded, which put him way ahead of the pack.
Citizens in my small hometown of Kingstree recognized this, which is why they asked him to chair their committees and run their organizations. He served on the County Election Commission, Volunteer Fire Department, Optimist Club, Lion’s Club, American Legion, March of Dimes, Methodist Church Convention, Red Cross, you name it.
He also chaired the town’s Recreation Commission. It was in that capacity that he did something on a blistering summer day in 1967 that I will never forget.
I was twelve and playing Little League baseball for Santee Electric. I don’t remember the team we were playing that day, but the umpire was an older kid, a senior in high school named Lewis Dabbs. My mother and father were in the stands with the other parents. There was this one dad, Mr. Bullock, a beefy, red-faced guy sitting right behind home plate, who wouldn’t stop hollering. Every time a call didn’t go his way he would heap verbal abuse on poor Lewis Dabbs.
“Strike,” Lewis Dabbs would call out.
“What? You’re blind!”
The game went on and Mr. Bullock kept yelling and being obnoxious. I felt sorry for Dee Bullock, his son and my team-mate, and for Lewis Dabbs.
“Safe,” said Lewis.
“What? He was out a mile!”
It was August and hot. Everyone was uncomfortable and just wanted the game to be over. The final straw was when Mr. Bullock shouted something about Lewis Dabbs’ mental capacity. My father stood up. I was in centerfield and had a direct view. I saw him step down from the bleachers and walk around the backstop and out onto the field.
Action had stopped. All eyes were on my father as he went up and whispered something to Lewis Dabbs, then took the umpire’s mask and chest protector and patted Lewis on the back and sent him trotting off field.
“About time,” hollered Mr. Bullock. “Get a real umpire back there.”
But my father was not taking over as umpire. Instead, he walked off the field and around the backstop and up to Mr. Bullock sitting there behind home plate.
“It seems your baseball expertise is being wasted up here with us,” my father said. “As Chairman of the Town of Kingstree Recreation Commission, I hereby appoint you replacement umpire.”
He offered the mask and chest protector to Mr. Bullock, who just sat there.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said my father, and called out to Lewis Dabbs, now over by the concession stand. “Lewis. What do you get paid?”
“Dollar-fifty per game,” said Lewis. “Plus a free Coke.”
My father pulled money from his pocket.
“Here’s two dollars,” he said, and handed the bills to Mr. Bullock. “Keep the change.”
Mr. Bullock did not take the two dollars, nor did he accept his appointment. He just sat there, with everybody looking on, and the gnats so bad you had to swat them away. After awhile he got up and went over and climbed in his truck.
The game resumed with Lewis Dabbs back behind the plate. Though I can’t recall the score, or who won, and don’t care. That day had nothing to do with winning or losing.
Years later I spent a summer back in Kingstree, clearing out my parent’s house and settling their estates. I ran into a number of people I’d known growing up. One was Lewis Dabbs, who reminded me of the above story.
“He was a good man,” said Lewis Dabbs of my father. “It meant a lot, how he stood up for me that day. I’m sorry I never got a chance to thank him.”
“You just did,” I said.
There are many ways to tell your father you love him. One is by remembering him – not just once a year, but every time you feel a strong hand on your shoulder and turn, expecting to see him but finding only the past instead.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.