My father has jealously guarded the title of “Papa” ever since my first days on this Earth. He disdains “Pop”, “Pa”, “Dad”, “Daddy”, and any of the other multitudes of variations on this common honorific. The only deviation he ever embraced was “Chief”, and this was reserved not for himself, but for his own father, a man who molded countless young boys into men as a basketball coach in Indiana.
Now that I’ve had the chance to be a papa myself now for a couple years, I have a much better appreciation of the challenges that my father overcame to take care of his two rambunctious boys. I’ve just got one bundle of joy, and he’s more than enough to keep my hands full, and make me want to tear what little hair I have left clean off of my head. I can’t imagine the patience he needed to put up with our antics. It humbles me to think that there are fathers out there who head large clans of children. The depth of character needed to set a positive path for their offspring is unimaginable. Certainly, there is something that happens when we transition from young man to young father. Mine said there was something that turned on inside of him when I was born. A “papa gene”, he called it. This effect does certainly help, but there is more to it than simple biology.
My father invested heavily into his two kids. We were never wealthy, so it was not money he invested, but time. He strove to give us experiences that enriched our lives, gave us perspective, and made us worldly. He was a professor so we had long summers together to explore the world. We spent long weeks driving around Canada and the US, visiting wondrous places, hiking through mountains, searching the wilderness and discovering the majesty of wild animals.
He created memories. I still yearn for our walks around Banff and Jasper, I smile at the thought of eating fresh caught fish on bannock near the Custer National Park, I wonder at having hiked in Yosimite, and fondly remember summers haying on our grandparent’s farm in Wisconsin. I still remember the sense of loss at leaving Papua New Guinea, knowing that I would never have known paradise had he not taken the time to haul my brother and I out as young kids to tag along on his research expeditions. His science allowed us visit Rome, Bankok, Hong Kong. We spent many a day wandering the hallowed halls of McGill University’s Redpath Museum and his tower office in the Strathcona building where we met brilliant minds, explored medical displays and scanning electron microscopes, and threw paper airplanes into vast open spaces. There are so many experiences I cannot begin to list them all here.
Then there is the sense of wonderment he instilled. He took the time to teach us how to use a microscope to examine pond water, built snow dinosaurs in the yard, waged snowball wars and let himself get caught in a deep snow pit my brother and I had dug to capture him. He allowed us to let our imaginations roam wild by sharing his own barely constrained mind. He had us believing for years that a painting by Frank Frazetta was a depiction of him as a pirate. In our defense, the barbarian’s appearance is strikingly similar to my father’s.
A little known fact is that Frazetta was actually painting my father at work.
He had the courage to let us find our wings, participating in sports and activities that developed our physical and moral fortitude despite the inevitable concern that must have nagged at him that we could be injured in the course of playing football or learning martial arts. He taught us to climb (and maybe even rappel down the inside of a certain dizzying tower in the Strathcona building on a weekend — don’t tell anyone!) and to shoot an ancient .22 rifle. He taught us the Saturday Night Special, a trick he had used growing up in the rough streets of Hammond and Chicago.
You’ve taught us to look forward, think outside of the box, and seek facts to think critically. You’ve lived adventures, being seated on a train full of soviet soldiers during the Cold War, almost gunned down at a checkpoint in Africa, made friends with the discovers of Lucy, searched archives in exotic locations, setting up in Russian, Ethiopian, and Kenyan museums. Made insightful discoveries about human genetics in Denmark, were decades ahead of your time in discoveries relating to Leprosy and the origin of humanity. You’ve inculcated us with a love for nature and a deep concern for the planet’s welfare. You put others before yourself, despite living an ascetic life in the wilderness, trying to pass on your passion and your concerns for the health of the planet by writing a book about it. You’ve made friends with wolves and even dabbled in politics. You’ve set such a rich, diverse, and adventuresome example for us to follow that when I try to describe you to others, I say that you’re sort of the Indiana Jones of Human genetics.
As I look at the life I have been able to live, I can only say: Thanks Papa. It wouldn’t have been possible without you. You’ve set the bar incredibly high. I hope I can do the same for my boy.
Happy Father’s Day!