I met my dad when I was 4.
He’d come to recruit my mom to improve our neighborhood, a focus of the community development organization for which he worked. I’d never heard of the Independence Plan for Neighborhood Councils, nor had I any sense how profoundly its founder’s maxim would impact my life.
I was focused on the watermelon my buddies and I were devouring. Brian, Scott and I were dousing the 1974 June heat with cool, wide slices of the sweet fruit.
I was beating them hands down in the consumption category. But they were ahead in the seed-spitting column.
“Fill your cheeks with air before you spit,” my dad said as he strode through the backyard gate and onto the patio. He picked up a slice, took a bite and demonstrated.
“Watch,” he said through a mouthful of watermelon. “Ppphhh.”
As we spat watermelon seeds together in the late afternoon heat, he counseled me on the sport’s finer points: Blow from below your belt. Cup your lips in the shape of an O. Rear your head and throw your whole body into it.
“He’s cool,” I thought as my mom stepped onto the patio from the kitchen, extending a hand to greet him. My 4-year-old eyes didn’t notice the high water pants and pocket protector.
He and my mother married the next year. The memories have piled on ever since.
There was the Webelos overnight straight from a Norman Rockwell painting that he carried off with flair at the family farm in King City, Mo. The years he spent leading church youth groups and weekend retreats. I’ll always remember his patient editor’s hand as I struggled to compose the perfect high school commencement speech. And I still benefit from his open ear and objective counsel when I seek guidance on tough decisions.
After graduating from college, I decided I wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps and become a fundraiser. I asked him to point the way.
In characteristic fashion, he opened the door for me to schedule appointments with six nonprofit leaders in Kansas City. It was my job to make the phone calls, schedule the meetings and conduct the visits.
One of the people I spent an afternoon with was Dick Hettrick, a father-like mentor of my dad’s and founder of the Independence Plan for Neighborhood Councils. He could inspire the most skeptical curmudgeon.
“Give your life to something that will outlive you,” Dick said during our meeting. He told me he’d said the same thing to my dad years earlier. “Most people waste their lives pursuing things other people have convinced them are important but will die the minute they do.”
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Dick was a man well praised. My dad could have given his life to many things. He chose to give it to my mom and me.
These days, Dad and I spend much of our time together talking about our common profession. He’s known as Papa to his three grandchildren and their cousins, who enjoy much of his time and affection.
And each Fourth of July, our annual family celebration includes a watermelon seed spitting contest. Though the high water pants and pocket protector are long gone, dad is always there to cheer on the newcomers and remind the veterans of the of the sport’s finer points.
Like much of his imprint and influence, it’s a tradition I suspect will last a long time.
Thanks, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.
Matt Beem is president of Hartsook Companies, an international fundraising consulting firm. He lives in Independence.