My Dad, a Humble Profile in Leadership

(Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, 20 June 2010)

By Thomas J. Lee

A fellow blogger posed an interesting question online, in anticipation of Father's Day. He asked: What kind of leader was your father?

I had to think a moment. My dad, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 93, was a wonderful man. But probably most people did not regard him as a leader. He wasn't an elected official. Nor was he a high-powered executive. Nor was he active in politics or community affairs.

Yet leadership is not only for the powerful and the prominent. Millions of people offer profoundly inspirational leadership in their everyday lives. So it was with my father. He lived a life of humility, decency, authenticity, and commitment. Naturally outgoing and happy, he exercised quiet self-control even in the face of considerable adversity. He didn't lose his temper. He didn't curse or cheat or lie. He didn't gamble or drink to excess. He hated war, but he went, and his unit liberated Dachau. In 75 years of driving a car he never had an accident, not even a fender bender. He never even got a traffic ticket. In short, he was a rock, always there when it counted.

Most important, he knew how to love, and he did. The late Ann Landers, who could tell us a thing or two about families, often wrote that the greatest gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother completely, deeply, and unconditionally.

My parents, Joyce and Robert Lee, circa 1942

My parents, Joyce and Robert Lee, circa 1942

My four brothers and I were the beneficiaries of just such a gift. For more than six decades, probably from the moment he first noticed her at another soldier's wedding in Chicago, my dad loved my mom, and he let it show. He loved her completely. He loved her deeply, and he loved her unconditionally.

I have a particularly warm memory, framed like an old faded photograph in my mind's eye. When I was 10 or 12, I would wander into the kitchen before dinner, only to find my dad and my mom in a bear hug of an embrace while potatoes simmered on the stove.

Such a warm sense of security washed over me. Some of my friends had parents who yelled at each other. Others had parents who brooded in silence. Not I. Not my brothers. We had a security blanket up over our shoulders and snug under our chins. We had the luxury of never, ever worrying.

My dad always loved my mom, and my mom always loved my dad, and that's the way it was. It was just that simple and it was just that wonderful and it was always just that way.

Only a few weeks before my mother died in 2004, I visited the two of them in their apartment in Florida. What I witnessed on that visit was like a scene out of an old black-and-white movie starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson or Donna Reed.

My mother sat at the kitchen table, her days so very numbered, and yet with a smile of calm, divine peace across her face, as my dad, a gifted tenor who had once aspired to the operatic stage, sang love song after love song to her. He must have sung for an hour, maybe two, and he sang from his heart. He sang: "Everybody loves my baby, but my baby don't love nobody but me." My mother died a happy woman, for she was loved.

Most of all, I remember Dad as a man who worked hard, who made the most of what he had, who lived his life with passion for his art as well as for his wife, who humbled himself and honored others, who recognized duty, and who devoted himself to the things that matter, which is to say, to the people around him.

Will you abide one last anecdote? It is from the day I learned to swim. I tell it because it says so much about the man my father was.

There was to be a kind of commencement exercise at the old YMCA pool in my hometown. All the kids would swim the length of the pool, and then, one by one, we were to be called up by name and given a certificate.

Now it's odd what we remember from our childhood. Of that day, I remember a feeling of anxiety, knowing that my mother was home with my little brothers, and my dad was at work.

Back then, Dad always had to work on Saturday mornings. So the other kids would have families in the gallery cheering them on. But not I. I was on my own. That would be okay. I could handle it. I would be fine. I would just buck it up.

So one by one, in alphabetical order, the instructor called the names of all the swimmers. I remember hearing the instructor call out Ade, and Bobby, and Mike, and Steve. And one by one, each of them walked over to get his certificate as the gallery erupted in cheers.

The closer the instructor got to my name, the more alone I felt. I braced myself for a little polite applause from the other parents. The instructor called my name. I got up, walked over, and reached out for my certificate.

Sure enough, the applause was polite. But just then a voice rang out from the gallery, loud and clear and echoing around the pool: "Way to go, Tommy!"

I looked up. It was my dad. Somehow, he had got off work, and he had made it over to the YMCA to watch me get that certificate.

Ever since, whenever I have needed some encouragement, I have harked back to those few words, and I have picked up the pace and tried a little harder. My dad's voice is never far away. He is my cheerleader, even now, after he is gone.

By my measure, this is certainly the stuff of leadership. My dad was an ordinary, everyday hero. His achievement in life wasn't winning an election or getting a big promotion or living in a fancy house. Rather, it was leading a fine, long life and filling it with honor and love.

And so now, for another Father's Day without him, it's my turn, and I just hope he can hear me: "Way to go, Dad! Way to go!”