A father to schmooze about

Ellen Futterman, Editor

While most of us get to choose our partner in life, we don’t really know how skilled a parent that person will turn out to be. In a way I was lucky because I knew before I married my husband what a terrific father he is. 

Given that Father’s Day is Sunday, now seems an appropriate time to talk about him. So indulge me if you will.

When I met Jeff, he was divorced for less than a year and had two children: Jesse, age 4, and Megan, 6. At the time, Jeff was a fifth-grade teacher in a small school district in southern Illinois, making a modest income. He rented a tiny house in the town where he taught. The house was next door to Butzy Herzog’s, (the late brother of former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog), who had a pot-bellied pig as a pet.

Like a lot of divorced dads testing the dating waters, Jeff was reluctant to have me meet his children “too soon.” He wanted to make sure our relationship was moving forward and we were serious about each other before introducing me.

The fateful meeting came on New Year’s Eve. Jeff’s friends were having a few people and their kids over to ring in 1993. Jeff thought that introducing me to  Megan and Jesse with others around, including some kids his children already knew, would make it easier on all of us. He was right. 

Some of the adults, myself included, made party hats and homemade confetti with the kids to prepare for midnight. The tone of the evening was festive and the activities placed me in the best light possible because I knew my way around a glitter gun. To this day, few things impress my amazing, artistic stepdaughter more than well-placed glitter.

Relationships, as we know, are built over time. Jeff and mine endured some major growing pains during the five years we dated, but in the end we married because we love and respect each other, and want to share a life together. It also didn’t hurt that I fell in love with Jeff’s children, or that his ex-wife was one of my biggest champions. She seemed to understand that like her, I love her kids, and would do my best to protect and nurture them when they were in my care. 

Not long after we were married our son Jackson was born. Megan was 12 years old and Jesse was 10; both couldn’t have been happier to welcome their little brother into their world. Today, at ages 17, 27 and 29, I marvel at how bonded these siblings are, and what great friends they have become.

I mentioned that Jeff was a fifth-grade teacher. He also coached basketball for 22 years, 10 at the high-school varsity level. For the past 15 or so years, he has been a principal, the majority in middle school. Two years ago he was awarded Middle School Principal of the Year from the Illinois Principals Association Southwestern Region (IPASR) and last year he won the Herman Graves Award, the highest honor an Illinois principal can receive, also from the IPASR. 

While extremely proud, I tell you about these honors because they speak in part to how gifted he is when it comes to dealing with children. Not only does he understand how they think but he also knows how to talk to them so they feel good about themselves. Even when disciplining he does so from a vantage of genuine concern, as he guides them toward taking responsibility for their actions and owning their mistakes.

As a longtime educator and coach, my husband has helped thousands of school children grow into promising young adults, along with his own kids.

Perhaps that’s the greatest lesson I gleaned from watching Jeff as a father: What matters most is teaching our children, and all the children in our lives, to become kind, responsible citizens. Although he was not raised in the Jewish faith, Jeff actively embraces Jewish ideals, especially those of tikkun olam, leaving the world in a better place than we found it.

 “When you leave this house, you are representing our family,” he tells our kids. “Behave accordingly.” Another favorite Jeffism: “Don’t blow out someone’s candle to make yours shine brighter.”

It’s not only his words but also the way he says them that are so impactful. Jeff doesn’t raise his voice often but when he does, it booms, and everyone listens. And I do mean everyone. Maybe it’s a coach thing, but the guy can be heard loud and clear above the din of a full-on high school basketball game barking “constructive” suggestions like, “stop shuffling across the court, son” or “shoot the ball already!”

Jeff always says he was a “late bloomer.” He grew up in a small, working-class town in southeastern Illinois and worked his share of manual labor jobs before attending college in his late 20s. He didn’t get his master’s degree in administration until he was 45. Maybe the fact that it took him longer, and that he had to work harder for what he has achieved, has made him more empathetic. All I know is that Jeff doesn’t sweat the small stuff nearly as much as I do. His patience seems endless. Mine, not so much.

Unfortunately, my father is no longer alive to honor on Father’s Day. He passed away nearly 15 years ago. And while he will always be in my heart, I am so thankful that I have a partner who illuminates so much of what, to me, epitomizes fatherhood.

So to Jeff, and to all the fathers teaching our children to become kind, responsible citizens and practice tikkun olam, here’s wishing you a joyous Father’s Day.