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.”