Father’s Day, 2008

"Happy Father’s Day to all of the fathers across the state of Iowa.  We appreciate the fact that we have so many heroes that continue to work on the frontlines across our state to fend off the racing water, including a lot of fathers out there who are pitching in and doing their fair share," Governor Chet Culver, father of two, said to open a news conference this afternoon in Johnston, Iowa.

Fathers and fatherhood have been an especially poignant topic for many on this Father’s Day with the death of NBC newsman Tim Russert who wrote a book about his relationship with his father.  For the past 14 years I have tried to avoid Father’s Day  My dad, Guy Porter Henderson, died just before Thanksgiving in 1994.  When June rolled around in 1995, I could hardly listen to commercials on television for weeks in advance, as for the first time I noticed how many "Father’s Day Sales" there were.  I also avoided the card aisles in the stores in which I shopped.

Today, though, I crawled up on a stepladder in a closet to retrieve a box that’s been sitting on top of my cowboy hat box for the past 14 years. It’s a box filled with the letters my dad wrote to me, starting in college.  The last letter he wrote to me, at the end of October, 1995, was there on top.

As a bit of background, my dad was 52 when I entered the world and I ended up spending a lot of time riding in farm trucks and on tractors when I was little.  My dad was the first person I ever interviewed when, at the age of seven, I was testing out my birthday gift — a tape recorder.

Later, when I went to college, handwritten letters started arriving at my dorm.  My dad shared the details of farm life, the highlights of activities in my hometown and stories about his own college experience.  For the first time I learned he had taken a journalism course — credits that went toward his degree in "animal husbandry" from what was then called Iowa State College  He shared his views about the politics of the day.  The letters were mostly written on white sheets of typing paper, but some came on pieces of brown paper ripped from a seed corn bag. Some arrived in envelopes covered with fly specks, as my dad would keep the letter in the cab of his farm truck or in the barn and add to it as he took breaks during his chores on the farm.

Once I left college, his letters continued to arrive at my homes in Des Moines.  In one written in the spring of 1992 when he was 79, he talked about "calving season" (if you don’t know what that is, I’m not going to explain it), then concluded with these paragraphs:

"Yes, I have been busy lately doing roof repair on the corn crib, replacing broken posts and just a few moments ago I did some welding on the back doors of my pickup stock rack. 

"I hear some flocks of Canadian geese flying north.  That is a sign spring will soon be here and I will be planting my usual field of 20 acres of oats soon.  With love, Dad."

Guy P. Henderson did plant 20 acres of oats that year and continued to farm into his 80th year.  On November 21, 1994, he went out in the barnyard and did a few chores, then come back in the house where he died of congestive heart failure.  As they say in my part of the world, he "died with his boots on," doing what he loved.

That was the sentiment one of my friends shared via email after news of Tim Russert’s passing, that Russert had "died with his boots on" and that reminded me of my own dad.   

So on this Father’s Day it is perhaps time to type these few words about the man who helped launch me into this world which I now inhabit, this world of politics and journalism.  Guy Porter Henderson sowed the seeds in those formative years by not only taking me along to Farm Bureau meetings and political events, but by stressing the importance of "being a good citizen."  That phrase — "a good citizen" — was among the highest praises my dad could bestow on someone. 

As my friend Dan Miller told me in 1994, the loss of a father won’t get better, it will just get different. At first I felt untethered, as if the ropes connecting me to my dad’s history had been cut because he was no longer here to write or tell me about it.  But I’ve got these letters and just trying to read his "chickenscratch" handwriting today has transported me to my early career.

Just like "Big Russ" was for Tim Russert, my dad was a one-person focus group for my work on the radio (which he heard via two local radio stations in southwest Iowa who are part of the Radio Iowa network) and for my work on Iowa Public Television. My dad rarely missed an episode of Iowa Press, as noted in this passage from a letter he wrote early one Sunday morning, before church:

"We surmised you were busy as a farmer at spring planting time Friday, completing all your obligations," he wrote, as Friday is the day the show is taped. "Our TV will be tuned to the proper channel tonight to witness and hear you interview our favorite governor."

As I’ve opened some of these folded letters from my dad I see that the ink is fading, but the advice was already imbedded in my brain:  go to church, be a reliable employee, make friends for life. Pretty standard stuff, but good to remember on Father’s Day — and every other day of the year.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.