By Jim Mathis
Over the years my father taught me many life lessons. Some seemed trivial and even silly at the time; while others felt like he was passing down great wisdom, as if he was transferring the weight of the world from his shoulders to mine. At times I think his lessons were carefully planned, and sometimes his teaching was delivered accidently in the course of our everyday lives. But each time he shared his ideas, insights and challenges, I grew as a man and he helped to shape the person I would become.
When I was young, my father would take me fishing. He taught me to be patient and wait for the excitement that would come when the fish began to bite. While those moments of exuberance were sometimes few and far between, the time we spent waiting became a chance to talk one on one with the guy I looked up to. Somehow through those times I learned the virtue of patience was far more valuable than bragging about what we caught.
The time I spent hunting ducks with Dad was much the same. We’d get up early, drive an hour or so, take the boat across a dark river. We’d set the decoys in the still water and climb into the duck blind, long before the sun began to rise. We’d sit and wait to hear the whistle of teal flying past. We would talk quietly while our eyes scanned the sky, waiting for our chance to bag a mallard or gadwall. Some days we’d shoot our limit of ducks and proudly bring our bounty home while the morning was still young. Other days we’d sit and talk, occasionally calling in vain to ducks on the horizon. Hours later we’d pack up and head home empty handed. It was on those days, without ever saying it, Dad taught me that hunting was more about time spent in the field, less about the contents of our bag.
When our outdoor excursions were successful, he taught me to carefully clean the fish and fowl, to respect the animals and use what we had harvested. While that lesson was important, I think he also wanted to delegate the dirty work, and I was happy to help. Then we’d go inside and clean our guns and neatly put away the decoys, calls and other equipment. A place for everything and everything in its place, a lesson learned.
When it came time to cook, he taught me to neatly stack charcoal briquettes into a dusty black pyramid in the old Weber kettle. He would douse the stack in lighter fluid then strike a match and toss it in. We’d watch in awe as the flames reached high into the air, the smell of petroleum was thick in the backyard and I was proud to be part of the ritual. I’ve since learned to fire up the grill without all of the chemicals and fuss, but I still think about him whenever I strike a match. The smell of sulfur and smoke take me back every time.
As I grew older, Dad taught me an appreciation for many of the finer things in life, from the pleasure of a good steak; to the sweet and briny goodness of an oyster you shucked yourself. He also showed me how to enjoy the simple pleasure of a good libation. Over the years we shared many fine Scotches, bourbons and ryes. And even though I’d moved hundreds of miles away, we’d talk on the phone and compare notes on a new (or perhaps 18 year old) Scotch one of us had discovered. He’d save me samples, and when we could get together we’d enjoy a glass. When he passed away last winter, many of my friends who had come to call him a friend as well lifted a glass of fine bourbon or Scotch in his honor.
Many years ago, mom and dad were called into to my kindergarten teacher for a conference. The teacher firmly encouraged my parents to be honest with their son about what dad did for a living. My folks were a little perplexed; I’d been to dad’s office and seen what he did, so what was the problem? Apparently, when the teacher had asked each child what their dad did for a living, I had said “he colors.” Mom and Dad said I was right. I went to his office and he was there drawing pictures and coloring them in with markers. That’s what art directors did back then.
I think that may have been the most important thing he did. My dad got me interested in advertising. He had worked in advertising as I was growing up. I thought it was so cool that he got to create ads and brochures. I wanted to do that when I grew up. By watching him as I grew up, I think I learned as much about advertising as I did in college. Without his wisdom and encouragement, I would not be where I am today.
Six years ago I started writing a column for Etc. For Her Magazine. Every month I’d send copies of the magazine to Des Moines for my Dad. He would often call with comments (or corrections). When his health began to fail, Mom would read the articles to him. Through that humble publication, Sioux Falls became his favorite place to visit. He would arrive with a list of new restaurants to visit and places to see, all based on what he learned from Etc. for her.
So this Father’s Day as I remember all my dad did for me, let’s all drink toast for the men who taught us to ride our bikes, to know right from wrong and what it meant to be loved. Here’s to you, Dear Old Dad, and all the other Dads out there.