Ronald Reagan was living proof that you don’t have to have a great father to be one. He never disparaged his dad, but the challenges imposed on the family by Jack Reagan’s alcoholism were real and traumatic—and something Ronald rose above in his own quest to become a great father. That greatness resounds in autobiographical echoes throughout his eight presidential Father’s Day proclamations, guiding stars that shine ever brighter for fathers in America and beyond.
“Fathers are family founders,” President Reagan told the nation, and even as “families are the bedrock of our Nation’s strength,” so “fathers play an indispensable role in forming vital, whole families. They serve as models and guides for their sons and daughters and help to pass on to the next generation the heritage of our civilization.” He himself was a guide for his family, as attested by his sons. Reporting memories of Christmas, Michael said,
I would get in the car with my dad and he would drive to the Shell station in Brentwood and give the owner a check for Christmas saying, “thank you for the service.” For Christmas he’d always put a check out there for the man that delivered the milk. He would give a check to the postman who would deliver the mail. He always remembered people who helped him during the year and he would give them a check on Christmas. I’d ride around with him and he’d go to all these places with people that worked with him during the year and give them a little something for Christmas…. He was that magnanimous kind of a person.
President Reagan’s son Ron recalled,
He used to say, “A gentleman always does the kind thing.” And he was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. A gentle man. Big as he was, he never tried to make anyone feel small. Powerful as he became, he never took advantage of those who were weaker. Strength, he believed, was never more admirable than when it was applied with restraint. Shopkeeper, doorman, king or queen, it made no difference, Dad treated everyone with the same unfailing courtesy. Acknowledging the innate dignity in us all.
“Fathers must be many things, but most of all they must be selfless,” said President Reagan. “The love a father feels for his children can take many forms,” but the “constant is that he shares their lives in a special and irreplaceable way. He feels their hurts as well as their joys, their pains as well as their triumphs.” And “with God’s grace, fathers find the patience to teach” and “the compassion to comfort.” His daughter Patti remembered,
My father never feared death, he never saw it as an ending…. He was the one who generously offered funeral services for my goldfish on the morning of its demise. We went out into the garden and we dug a tiny grave with a teaspoon and he took two twigs and lashed them together with twine and formed a cross as a marker for the grave. And then he gave a beautiful eulogy…. When we went back inside… I looked at my remaining goldfish in their aquarium with their pink plastic castle and their colored rocks… He then took more time out of his morning—I’m sure he actually did have other things to do that day—and patiently explained to me that in God’s time, the other fish would [die] as well. In God’s time, we would all be taken home. And even though it sometimes seemed a mystery, we were just asked to trust that God’s time was right and wise.
President Reagan also reminded his fellow Americans that “fatherhood is all about the things that matter most—about love and new life, about trust and responsibility, about faithfulness to a family and to a calling.” He taught his own family the same truths, as Michael reports.
When I got married, my father wrote me a letter. Basically it was really about being a man. It was about being faithful and being true to the woman you love. My father also wrote: “Remember, when you come home at night from work, there’s a person on the other side of that door who’s waiting for the sound of your footsteps.”
President Reagan urged that the gratitude shown to fathers not be limited to the observance of Father’s Day, for “they deserve our thanks and recognition every day of the year.” Once again, he was an example of what he taught, as Michael explained.
My father also was someone who during Christmas holidays never left the White House. We would have Thanksgiving at the ranch in Santa Barbara for the family but he would always spend Christmas at the White House. Why? Because he wanted his Secret Service agents to be able to be with their families and their loved ones on Christmas Day. So he made sure he didn’t travel on Christmas.
The timeless truths about fatherhood imparted by President Reagan were urgent then and are even more so now when fatherlessness is at an all-time high. It has been called “the most disturbing and consequential social trend of our time” (Wade Horn) resulting in “our most intractable social ills affecting children” (Christopher Brown) in an age when “disappearing dads are destroying our future” (David Popenoe). The situation calls for all of us to reach out to the children of those disappearing dads and, as Ecclesiasticus says, “be as a father unto the fatherless.”
To all fathers everywhere, President Reagan’s words still stand as an invitation—and a promise of hidden treasure to be discovered by faithful fathers:
Through acts of courage, of selflessness, and of love, fathers have lifted, inspired, and blessed the lives of those around them. It is fathers who have such a major role in giving their children guidance, leadership and direction and teaching them integrity, truth, and humility.
Children will forever remember the father who is devoted to his family, anxious for their welfare, proud of their successes, and whose example is a beacon to them. He has left them with memories that have enriched and molded their lives.
The love fathers express involves friendship, compassion, partnership, and unity. It inspires affection, confidence, trust, and self-control. It can never be separated from character, from devotion, from good humor, and from every tender virtue.
Fathers also provide that discipline that begins with concern and commitment and example. Children have the right to learn that love is the foundation of a good family, and that love cannot exist apart from such qualities as respect, consideration, responsibility, and loyalty. Fathers provide for their loved ones in an atmosphere of warmth and kindness that accepts and preserves the uniqueness of each as an individual person while building the unity of the home.
Every father rises to his tallest stature as he selflessly cares for his family, his wife, and his children. Our finest fathers have come to know what Martin Buber meant when he wrote that our treasure is hidden beneath the hearth of our own home.