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A Tribute to Fathers

Wow—it’s been almost 25 years since my dad passed away. Like most of us, I had a little bit of a love/hate relationship with my dad. He was great in so many ways and a really tough dad in other ways.

But, as the saying goes, it turns out he was the perfect dad for me.

My dad Alfred H. Caplan was born in 1918 in Chicago. He grew up during the Great Depression. He never graduated from high school, and actually caught a freight train from Chicago at age 13 and made his way to Los Angeles. As a minor, he lied about his age so he could enlist in the Marines.

My dad was truly a self-made man, full of determination. After the Marines, he went to work for the Longshoremen’s union (today called the International Longshoremen’s Association) and became a shop steward. Along the way, he was a truck driver. Through all that, he developed compassion for people, which is why he spent part of his early career being a union negotiator representing workers. As my parents told the story, there wasn’t a lot of money to be made working for the union, so he “switched sides” and started his own business as a labor relations consultant, representing management. He ended up receiving much recognition for his thought leadership from the scrap iron and metal industries, which comprised most of his clients.

He also represented farmers. In fact, it was my father who negotiated on behalf of most of the California table grape growers when they signed their first agreement with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1970.

Mom and dad visiting me in college in 1975.

I share this background because most people know about my mom’s history, but few know about my dad. My dad’s roots were in the working class. He could relate to them; they could relate to him. He valued an education because he never got a formal secondary education (he got a GED in the Marines because he never finished high school).

Not surprisingly, he was a cigarette and cigar smoker. And an alcoholic. But the day his first granddaughter was born in August 1964, he quit smoking and drinking cold turkey. He wanted to be around to see his kids and grandkids grow up. He became a fanatic about exercise (envision watching Jack LaLanne calisthenics on TV every morning), and adopted an incredibly restrictive, healthy diet from that point forward. He lived a full life, and passed away at the age of 79, in 1998.

As I look back to my childhood and think about the person I became and the life lessons I learned from my dad, I find it prophetic:

  1.      My dad was incredibly supportive of women and girls. After all, he supported my mom when she started Frieda’s in 1962, and he understood the long hours involved in running a start-up.
  2.      He had the original home office. So, it was Dad who got my sister and me up each morning and off to school (with the help of a nanny).
  3.      He taught me the value of personal responsibility, and discipline, and paying your own way … in fact, he made me pay him rent for staying at their house during my college summers, because I was working and had an income! It wasn’t a lot of money ($50 a month), but he didn’t believe in a free ride.
  4.      Although he helped me select my first car at age 16, he made me pay for it after he provided a small down payment. And if I couldn’t make the payments, he let me know that he would sell the car.
  5.      He believed strongly in being an active, voting citizen. For a short period of time, I was considering running for public office, but he cautioned me that it was a “dirty” business and to not pursue that. But, on every election day, both mom and dad took me and Jackie to their polling location so we could witness voting. He was active in local community organizations and made contributions to progressive causes and candidates.

I learned a lot from my dad about things to do, and not to do, when raising my own two daughters.

We each develop our own style when raising kids. And I’ve noticed that many of us chose to be the opposite of our own parents. As we are coming up on this weekend of celebrating Father’s Day, I want to make a suggestion.

No one had the perfect father. We all had imperfect fathers. So, perhaps a little forgiveness is in order, or at least a little understanding.

After so many years, I’ve realized that my dad was the perfect dad for me. Because he was the way he was, I turned out to be the way I am.

And that’s what I will be telling myself this Sunday when I think about my dad and all the fathers I know.

Hope you all have a pleasant Father’s Day!


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