Beliefnet
(RNS) At age 8, five years after he heard the fateful words, "Yourdaddy has died," Kevin Sweeney felt desperately incomplete.

He often spent the hazy minutes between bedtime and sleep lingering onthe thought that there was no one to teach him how to be a boy, a man-and eventually, a father. So he hatched a plan. He would carefully choose three men to be hisfather figures, would watch their every move, and learn.

Sweeney, now 44, is the author of a new book, "Father Figures: ThreeWise Men Who Changed a Life." He doesn't know why he was so aware, at such ayoung age, of his need for surrogate fathers-or so clever in his plan tokeep the three choices a secret, even from the men themselves. He does know that Father's Day will bring to mind more than his own dad.

It's the same for Terri Robbins, who turned to the father of her two bestfriends for affirmation when her own parents abused her. And for Dana Hunt,who found another man to hug after his father died. And for Patrick Buckley,a child of a broken home who turned his young life around under thementoring of a stranger he met in the park.

All in some way lost their fathers in childhood, leaving gaping holes intheir souls. And while there is scant research on the subject of the menchildren choose to fill that void, experts say there is undeniable power infinding a surrogate.

David Popenoe, professor of sociology at Rutgers University and theauthor of "Life Without Father," says grandfathers, stepfathers and othermen from the extended family can make wonderful father figures. But there'ssomething special when a child finds a male mentor outside the family. "That's because you know the guy is seriously interested in you,"Popenoe said, "and not just interested in you through your mother."

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Sweeney's father died of congestive heart failure at age 38, leaving anear-penniless wife and six young children. Young Kevin found his first two surrogates quickly among longtimefamily friends in his close-knit community of San Bruno, Calif. The third,Sherm Heaney, emerged years later.

The father of a high school basketball teammate, Heaney taught Sweeneythe first rule of being a dad: showing up. He was at every game. Every timeSweeney made a contribution, however small, he heard Heaney's voice ofaffirmation.

"Nice pass, Kev."

"Great screen."

After games, fathers gathered outside the locker room, greeting theirsons as they came out. Heaney "clearly realized that there wasn't a dadwaiting for me," Sweeney said. "My mom was there, but she didn't getbasketball. So he always asked me detailed questions, had encouragingcomments, and made me feel as if I wasn't alone."

Heaney, now 75, was stunned to learn he'd had such an impact. "Whenthere's a kid around who doesn't have a father," he said, "you don't do itwith a plan. You just do it. The most important thing is to care."

Terri Robbins, 51, can't forget the abuse. Somehow it felt deserved, she says. From early childhood, she believedshe was lazy and stupid and would never amount to anything, because that'swhat her mother told her. Her father punched her, once breaking her nose,another time knocking out a tooth, she says.

Robbins' parents died when she was an adult. But emotionally, they hadabandoned her when she was a young child. Growing up in Los Angeles-she now lives in the suburb of ManhattanBeach-Robbins turned to Richard Sallop, the father of her two bestgirlfriends. "Even when he answered the phone," Robbins said, "he'd alwaysask me what was going on. He'd tell me a joke to make me feel like I couldrant a little bit."

It was as if she was drowning in a pool, and no one noticed until thisman threw a life preserver. She was 11. If Mr. Sallop could care, maybe she did have some worth. Maybe theviolence at home was undeserved.

"It wasn't anything big or showy," Robbins said. "When I look at it now,being a parent myself, I think it's the little things that are mostimportant, the things you don't even think of, a hug, or a `How was yourday?"'

Sallop sometimes drove the girls at 6 a.m. to a greasy spoon where theyate cinnamon pancakes stacked on a white dinner plate. "He included her ineverything we did as a family," said his daughter, Laura Portney.

Now 82, Sallop downplays his role. "Terri was here a lot with my girls,"he said, "and I suppose maybe love spills over, that's all."

*****

Dana Hunt vividly recalls the last time he felt his father's touch: in ahospital, minutes before Roger Hunt's open heart surgery. Dad was in a wheelchair, wearing a yellow robe. Dana, then 6, sprintedto him until his mother cautioned him to stop. Roger Hunt, 46, smiled, motioning the boy to crawl gently into his lap.There, Dana felt the warmth of the terrycloth and the strength of two hairyarms wrapped tightly around him.

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