The Inspiration Behind Father’s Day

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From a very young age, Betsy Roddy was told that her great-grandmother had a unique role in history. Sonora Smart Dodd was instrumental in making her idea of Father’s Day a reality.

In the past, we’ve highlighted the incredible story of Sonora. Leading up to Father’s Day (June 18, in the U.S.), we talked with her great-granddaughter Betsy about the strong matriarch in her family, the stories passed down from generation to generation and preserving her great-grandmother’s legacy for the future.

I’m proud to be related to a woman who was such a pioneer – not only in her founding of Father’s Day but also in how she lived her life in general.

Sonora’s goal for Father’s Day was to honor her father and other fathers who played an important role in their children’s lives and make families more aware of the contribution a father can make to the family unit. She wanted to counteract negative images of fathers that were currently in vogue in the popular culture of her day. She wanted men to step up to the role – perhaps even suggesting a role model for fatherhood – leadership with love.

The first mention of Father’s Day, The River Press, August 17, 1910 (Click to zoom).

Sonora was successful with the initial stages of her campaign because of support she received from local Spokane (Washington state) clergy. They agreed to hold a Sunday service focused on the role fathers play in families. She also received support from the YMCA’s contribution to her plans for a civic celebration. The governor of Washington state also added official approval for the day. News coverage spread the idea to other communities, and Sonora received inquiries from across the country to encourage other celebrations.

My great-grandmother had excellent leadership skills and she was also quite persistent. It was these skills that pushed the concept forward until 62 years after the first civic celebration in Spokane, when President Nixon made Father’s Day an official national holiday.

As a young child, Betsy would visit her great-grandmother, then in her 80s, on their frequent trips to her grandparents in Montana. They continued to drive to Spokane to visit Betsy until she died in 1978.

She enriched my life with letters written in a very distinctive script. And she always sent me marvelous story books, all of which I still own today. To me, she was first and foremost my great-grandmother, who happened to have also founded Father’s Day.

Betsy always admired Sonora and felt inspired by her father, William.

She was a multi-faceted woman. She was a wife and mother. She was also a partner with her husband in the Ball and Dodd Funeral Home in Spokane, which was unusual for a woman in her day. She was an accomplished artist, attending the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a poet and active member of the Poets of the Pacific. She had a great respect for other cultures, which was reflected in her art and poetry.

We were aware of the choice her father made to raise his children by himself after his wife died in childbirth. Many men would have sent his children to relatives. My great-grandmother displayed a portrait drawing of him in her home that made him real to my mother. In fact, that same drawing is featured on the poster promoting the 100 Year Anniversary Celebration that took place in 2010.

1930 U.S. Census – mention of Sonora Dodd (Click to zoom).

Although it was William who acted as Sonora’s inspiration, Betsy believes that her great-grandfather, Sonora’s husband John Bruce Dodd, was also a remarkable role model of modern fatherhood.

He was an exemplary father and husband like her father. He supported both his son and his wife to pursue their dreams no matter how unconventional it was at the time.

In 2010, Betsy and her family had the privilege of attending the 100th celebration of Father’s Day in 2010 in Spokane, where the monument created in Sonora’s honor was unveiled. The family visited several important locations including the now-abandoned house on the farm where she lived with her family as a young girl and the house where she and her husband lived. Today, this house is beautifully maintained by its current owners, who have added the house to the national historic registry.

Sonora Smart Dodd (second from right) visits with Boy Scouts and a Civil War veteran in Spokane, Washington.

At the end of the day, Betsy believes that there is a deeper message to Father’ Day than meets the eye.

It isn’t easy to assume the role of parent, and it may take some sacrifice such as William Jackson Smart’s decision to raise his family by himself after his wife’s death. We need to express appreciation to those who have contributed to our development, and we need to emphasize to future fathers that they will make a valuable contribution to their families.

 What sacrifices have the fathers in your family made?

You can read more about this fascinating story, and an interview with Betsy, in The New York Times, Washington Post, ABC, and the Daily Mail.

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