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As a young girl, I was confused about my dad’s work. I knew he worked in the nation’s capital, right near the White House — but what, exactly, did he do?
Humility is an important part of my father’s character.
“I work on papers in an office,” he would say. (Parents didn’t exactly flood kids with information back in those days.)
My dad was, in fact, a government employee working for OMB at the time – the Office of Management and Budget. Governmental acronyms flowed around our dinner table like water — OMB, UNHCR, DOL, CIA — are all common letters heard by a government employee’s kid.
Dad was out of our house in Columbia, Maryland, early in the morning before we would even get out of bed — the soft click of the door latch was all we heard as we returned to our dreams. Commuting by car, then bus, then cab or foot, he would return after 7 p.m., shower, and spend a little time with my younger sister, my mother, and me. Then, he would go to bed. He had to be ready to start it all over again the next day.
(In an interview years later, someone asked my dad the biggest challenge of his career. “Commuting,” he answered.)
My dad learned his work ethic from his grandfather, who made sure each job, no matter how small, was completed. He learned concern for others from the works his parents — Baptist evangelists — did with migrants and the poor in Appalachia. My grandparents were poorer themselves — my father was working by age 14 to contribute to the family finances, and his family moved for his parents’ work every year or two. Through hard work and a natural aptitude, he was accepted to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, and then to Syracuse University in upstate New York to attend the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
My dad worked the longest and hardest I’ve ever seen anyone work. And yet, he was able to do some sort of “dad magic” — he was always totally present in my life.
The first time I liked a boy, in fourth grade, he was there.
“Ask him what he likes to do,” my dad suggested over a hamburger. “Tell him a little about yourself, too.”
I asked for a new purse for my 10th birthday, and Dad bought me a softball glove instead. Then, he taught me how to throw. I don’t know how many hours we spent in the yard — not talking, necessarily, just throwing a ball back and forth in the gathering dusk of spring and summer evenings. The farther apart we got on the yard as my arm got better, the closer he and I became.
By the time I started college in 1979, my dad was embarking on his own journey — to begin the U.S. State Department Refugee Program. The flood of Vietnam refugees post-war had necessitated the creation of some type of program to deal with the sheer numbers of people flooding from that country. But our phone calls centered on me, not him — I only learned years later about all the struggles and long hours he put in and the growing pains of the new program.
He became deputy assistant secretary of state under Secretary of State Edmund Muskie during the Jimmy Carter administration, and transitioned into the new Reagan administration, where Secretary of State George Schultz appointed him assistant secretary of state for refugees. But his calls to me at college focused on grades, and my new friends — and was I playing any softball?
In 1985, my dad walked me down the aisle at my wedding. I stopped before the closed doors of the sanctuary, suddenly nervous.
“I can’t do this,” I told him through my veil.
He was immediately my partner in crime, my protector — and a concerned dad. “Really?” he said, pulling back. If it wasn’t right, we weren’t moving forward — even with a full church, a reception at my parents’ home, and guests from far and wide turned expectantly to the doors that were about to swing open.
“No, I’m ready,” I said, feeling the warmth and strength of his arm. The doors opened, and together we sailed down the aisle.
When I was pregnant with my second child in 1988, my father became America’s nominee put forward by the Reagan administration for the position of director-general of IOM (International Organization for Migration), and was duly elected to two five-year terms. Here, his decisions would affect large swaths of humanity around the globe, and track human migration patterns into the foreseeable future, too.
In all, about four million refugees and migrants found safety under my dad’s tenure.
Suddenly, Mom and Dad’s lives got very big. They had a Geneva apartment, a fancy car and driver — and they traveled the world. They worshiped in the grandest cathedrals with dignitaries, but also in simple huts with only a few other worshipers. Their living, breathing Christianity informed all my dad’s work and my mother’s work, too — as my father’s wife and helpmate, she was by his side meeting the decision-makers of the world, representing America.
But it was those calls my dad made a half a world away in the wee hours — his voice sounding so far away and yet so preciously close as we talked, that live in my memory. He asked about his grandkids, his son-in-law, and always about me — and we were right back to throwing that ball together in the yard, connected by an invisible thread that bound father to daughter.
Whether a father works in Geneva, Switzerland, or in a West Virginia coal mine, it is the quality and depth of their parenting that makes them heroes, not their jobs.
Humility is an important part of my father’s character, and it’s an important part of why he has been so effective on behalf of American interests throughout his career. In the midst of politicians and political hangers-on who crave the spotlight, my father has always believed that to be effective, you must be job-focused — not self-focused. His many awards and gifts from other countries scattered about our family home are an indication of just how much respect he has garnered.
Today, he is a happy and contented husband, father, and grandfather to three, and is finishing a book about the creation of the State Department Refugee Program. He provides suggestions to current policy-makers focused on the Middle East and Syria about how strategies dealing with similar crisis in the 1980s “refugee decade” were brought to humane and successful conclusion with solid policies in place.
He was able to visit his old boss and mentor George Schultz in April 2015, and together they looked back at that tumultuous time in history.
My dad, like so many dads, is an American treasure. Whether a father works in Geneva, Switzerland, or in a West Virginia coal mine, it is the quality and depth of his parenting, not his job, that makes him a hero. And children have been given the best gift God can bestow if they have a father who sees his role as parent and husband as the defining roles of his life, as mine does.
Thanks for it all, Dad — the example of hard work, your unwavering confidence in me, and your inspirational walk of true faith.
And thanks for the hours of softball that weren’t really about softball at all — but instead about a father who could have been doing anything, but just wanted to spend time with his oldest daughter.
(Inline photos courtesy of the author)