Fathers and Sons

Prep’s former head of school, Dr. Steve Johnson, spoke to the Upper School boys about “fathers and sons” last week, and he made things personal and at times poignant by talking openly about himself and his relationship with his dad.

Steve’s father, a child of the depression, served in the military during World War 2. He worked hard, won scholarships to DePaul and Northwestern, and earned himself and his family a piece of what they used to call the “American dream.” Thanks to his successful legal career, he and his wife were able to raise 4 children in a prosperous Chicago suburb. Mr. Johnson would have been a proud member of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.”

But here’s where the edge of the story begins. The oldest child, Steve was a dutiful son, largely in sync with his parents’ values until he found himself on the campus of Iowa State University in the late 60’s. The Vietnam War was the issue of the day, and the more Steve thought about it, the less sense the war made to him. He read about “the domino theory” and other reasons offered for sending troops to Southeast Asia, but none of them were convincing.

At this point, Steve interrupted his story to remind the boys that there will come a time when they will have to show the courage of their convictions. “If you believe in something and act on it, you need to expect that you will have consequences to deal with.”

A case in point: When Steve called his father to tell him that he would not participate in a war he didn’t believe in, Steve vividly remembers his father slamming down the phone. They didn’t talk for years.

Steve headed off to Winnipeg, earned a PhD, married, and carved out a very successful career in independent schools. He eventually reached out to his family, but things were never quite the same between him and his father. Years later, at his dad’s funeral, he learned that his father had told his friends that Steve was actually a Russian history professor in California.

I had to gulp on that line. (The psychologist, Adam Cox, says that every boy needs to feel that he is a worthy son.) I can’t imagine how much it must have hurt for Steve to hear those words.

After the assembly, Steve came back to my office and continued. “The more I think about it all, I realize that I didn’t have that ‘tool box’ to be able to talk to my own dad. If there’s something you might want to teach the boys, that would be it.”


15 thoughts on “Fathers and Sons

  1. Jim!

    The father needed to talk to the son.

    The story is not about the
    Vietnam War or about the son.

    It is about the father and what he thinks
    of himself.

  2. p.s. I think, for my father, there was an unstated expectation if not understanding that in return for what America did for/gave to his Swedish immigrant family, he ‘owed’ military service in WWII as an obligation of citizenship to the “state” that provided him/his family with unparalleled opportunity. Hard to argue with this as an immigrant…
    p.s. So, what do we as Canadians or Americans “owe” our governments in terms of such obligations, especially given the choices of living in Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Mali, China or Iraq?

  3. Great points for reflection. My two cents as “Mom” observing her men, I see three fundamental communication tools that we use:
    1) ask powerful open ended questions such as: “What do you want or need?” ( key starting point for parents because perhaps we assume this part of the equation), “why is it important to you?” (to ascertain values and mindset), “what does the optimal solution look like” and “what can I do to support you?”; 2) Self awareness: Listen deeply to your own biases and expectations that arise when your son talks to you, sometimes we just jump in with our view prematurely; and 3) be quiet, stop talking and just listen because often it just will flow right out of your son- the last one is the toughest.

  4. I recently saw an old Robert DeNiro movie on the same topic but with a different twist. “A Bronx Tale” It’s a story about good and evil and the decisions a young lad makes growing up in the Bronx in the 60’s. It’s available on Netflix – you might enjoy it.

  5. Jim,

    Interesting piece – it seems to me that one of the most important, but perhaps less obvious jobs a father has is to find a way to admire his sons. I don’t think boys can grow up without that admiration. It’s like there is a gaping wound without it – and they compensate in all sorts of unfortunate ways. As fathers we ought to talk about our obligation to admire younger men. yet as we age better and live longer, it feels less natural, at least for some.

    Adam Cox

  6. Sons and fathers – that is why “Field of Dreams” is my all-time (no close second!) favorite movie. Can’t get by the last five minute without crying like a baby.

  7. I don’t know how much of a toolbox I had to talk with my dad, but there are other aspects of the story that I find interesting as well. My dad spent 11 months in concentration camps and similar during WWII. He never talked about it and I only discovered bits and pieces in roundabout ways. One thing I do remember him clearly telling me, …there isn’t a war in the world that is worth dying for. What a sharp contrast to those fathers that proudly send their sons off to war. Who had more courage in their convictions, Steve or his father? Good on Steve.

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