Reflecting on Father’s Day, I think about the man for whom I am named and realize how much I lucked out. Man, did I luck out!
I never looked outside our home for a hero or a role model. I never looked to sports figures. My guy was living in the house with us.
Daddy turned 90 this past April. He has a pacemaker and he can be testy but other than that he’s in great shape. He drives his truck, walks in a nearby park, works in his yard and attends church regularly. Watching him as I grew up, I knew he was what I wanted to be as a man.
Daddy accepted responsibility. Born into a sharecropping family in Elmore County Alabama, he grew up poor. He was forced to drop out of school early and often to work in the fields. It’s one of his regrets. “I was a good student,” he tells me. “I was good in arithmetic.” To this day, he can add and subtract numbers in his head if needed. He got his GED after a stint in the army.
He met my mom and began the journey that produced my two sisters and me. He gave his all to us, his family. I was and am his only male child. He taught me. He taught me about work, doing what needs to be done. He taught me about integrity, a man’s word is his bond. He taught me about giving, being there for others whether they were related to you or not. He taught me not to dwell on the negatives of a situation, but to realize I was passing through on my way to somewhere else. He taught me how to love your wife, unconditionally.
When integration came to the South and directly touched our lives, in one fell swoop my life surpassed his in terms of opportunity, unchained boundaries, and new journeys. Although fearful for me at times, he let the reins go. When my new world took me in directions that he could not fathom or wanted to travel in, he let me fly, never wanting to limit or hold me back from the good things I might discover on the journey. He tells me now, “I was afraid for you being in a world I knew nothing about. I’d never had a white friend in my life.” His world was different. But he did not attempt to color mine.
He learned about football when he was a baseball man. He bought us a home, then a bigger one when our family grew. He came to my games when often times he was the only black face in the crowd. He put himself in awkward situations in my new world, where he often felt ashamed of his lack of formal education, but he knew he needed to be there for me. Tears fall from my eyes as I write this because he gave us so much of himself and kept so little for himself.
The story I tell about my dad that makes me most proud, and there are many, is “the snow tale.” We had a massive snowstorm in Birmingham, my hometown, and the city was paralyzed. As an adult I had moved into my own home but kept close ties with Mom and Dad. Knowing they lived on a hill and it would be virtually impossible for them to go anywhere, I called my mom and we chatted about the snow and family matters. I asked to speak with my dad. She said, “He’s gone to work.”
Daddy worked in a pipe shop, American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO). I asked, “how?” knowing he could not drive his car up the sloped driveway nor on the closed roads between his home and the pipe mill, which was a good thirty-minute drive from his house. Mom responded, “He left here walking.”
“You don’t work they don’t pay you,” he always told me.
That evening in the local newspaper, there was a shot of a lone figure walking along the railroad track in the snow heading toward the pipe shop, a solitary man doing what he had to do. It was my dad. “You don’t work, they don’t pay you,” should have been the caption.
Daddy worked. He worked at the pipe shop for thirty-five years. He worked a second job at a janitorial service for many years, and he had a “side hustle” as a plumber to pick up the extra money it took to send us to private schools for twelve years.
Because he worked so much, there was little to no time for us to play catch or do the Father-Son things that I might have wanted. But I wanted to be like him. And it wasn’t long before I started down that road of, “doing what it took.”
Daddy left home about five every morning for his 6:00 to 2:30 shift at ACIPCO. He returned around 3:00 in the afternoon before leaving again around 4:30 for the janitorial job. He returned home at 10:30 that night. Before long I was like him, leaving home at 6:15 am to catch the two city buses for the private Catholic High school across town, where I had integrated the football team, and returning at nearly 9:00 every evening after football practice and catching the two buses to get back home. Sometimes we would chat for thirty minutes or so before getting to bed and doing our thing again the next morning.
We talk now and he often tells me of the things he didn’t know when I began my journey into integration, sports integration, big-time college sports, professional sports and the world of white-collar work. He says how he wished he could have done more. “I never had any money to send you when you were in college,” he regrets. “I wish I had known more, so I could have helped you when you were struggling with your coaches and things that were not fair. I didn’t know,” he laments.
I tell him, “Daddy you taught me how to be a good man. It’s the best thing you could have ever done for me.”
The first time I told him I loved him I was well into adulthood. It caught him off guard. Expressed sentiment was not a part of our lives. It was and still is uncomfortable for him. Daddy showed his love for my sisters and me in ways that words could never express and for that I am forever grateful.
For my dad, Tom Gossom, I Love You, Happy Father’s Day.