Dads can be our most important mentors.
I remember as a child standing in our yard in Seward as my father named the constellations in the sky.
“Those two bright ones there are the Twins of Gemini, Pollux and Castor,” he said. “And below that is Orion the Hunter, with its belt of three stars.”
“What’s that really bright one down lower and to the left?” I asked, shivering in the winter cold.
“That’s Sirius,” he replied. “It’s part of the constellation Canis Major. It’s the brightest star in the sky. But not brighter than the planet Venus, when it’s out.”
This was my first dad, my biological dad. His name was Kenneth D. Baker, and he was a thinker.
He was born and raised in Pennsylvania Dutch farming country, where he met my mom. They married very young and started a family during the Great Depression, with my sister Phyllis born in 1933.
My dad didn’t finish college, but had studied enough on his own to land a job in the early 1940s as a technician at Westinghouse, Inc. in Pittsburg. As World War II broke out, his “top secret” job kept him out of military service. He didn’t learn until after the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan that he had been working on the Manhattan Project.
Layoffs came to Westinghouse at the end of the war, so early in 1945 after I was born, he followed one of his lifelong dreams and set out for the Territory of Alaska. He sent for us a year later and we settled in Seward, where he had begun working as a longshoreman at what was then Alaska’s only ice-free port.
My dad was a poet and a romantic with the intellectual disposition of an engineer, or scientist. He passed his hunger for knowledge and inquisitiveness to my sister and I. But even more, he instilled within us a deep and abiding love for nature.
By the late 1940s he had found a partner and was prospecting for gold in the mountains to the west of Seward. It was a rugged nine-hour hike that even our pet Airdale dog “Mike” couldn’t complete. Their “King Midas” hard rock gold mine didn’t yield much of a bounty over a three-year period, but I think my dad had discovered something in those mountains that surpassed gold. For him, I believe, his mining venture offered a spiritual retreat, a sanctuary.
I remember asking him once how he managed to scale those steep mountains surrounding Seward and Resurrection Bay. He pointed to his legs: “Some of it comes from here,” he said. Then he pointed to his head, “But most of it comes from here.”
My mom and dad were divorced when I was nine, but for many years he remained a part of my life through letters. And to this day, whenever I climb a mountain, I think of him and often recall a line from one of his poems about beauty.
“It is a strange commodity, a thing that we might miss;
but wherever you see beauty, that’s exactly where it is.”
Second dad: My second father, Don Lowell, was an entrepreneur.
He was really my brother-in-law, but it felt like he was my dad. As a teenager I lived in Seward for a couple of years with him and my sister.
He was a person of action. He thought and moved quickly, decisively. It seemed as if I couldn’t do anything right. My sister often came to my defense as an arbiter and confidante. Among other ventures, Don developed a system in the 1950s that relayed two Anchorage television station signals into Seward. By scrounging equipment from around town and without pay, he organized Seward’s first Civil Defense program. He also managed the local radio station and was a member of the city council. In later years he would become head of the Alaska Disaster Office, based in Anchorage.
He had me driving a U.S. Army deuce and a half truck when I was 14 years old. When I was 15 working for him in Anchorage at the Civil Defense office, he made me a supervisor over a detail of 18 prisoners from the Anchorage jail. Thinking quickly, I immediately appointed a leader from among the group.
My second dad taught me how to be responsible and to be accountable for my actions. Because of his background in the U.S. Marines, he was hard. He administered tough love, but at that age I needed it.
Third dad: My third dad, my stepdad Bob Urch, was a doer.
He was a heavy equipment mechanic at the Alaska Railroad and skilled at working with his hands. He wasn’t as educated as my first two dads. But physically, he was a hard worker who put a shovel, pick, axe, draw knife and other tools into my hands. My third dad showed me how to do things and work hard.
In summer’s unending light we labored relentlessly on projects at our Nancy Lake cabin, where he and my mom lived for about five years. For most of those years my parents had no electricity or running water. And with no road access, they drove a snow machine from the Parks Highway into their home. They took in their food and other supplies that way, trailing a sled.
Fourth dad: My fourth and final dad was my sister’s second husband, Clyde “Skeet” Munn, who taught me about fishing and patience.
Retired from the U.S. Navy and civil service, Skeet was also handy with his hands—especially playing pool. One of my favorite pastimes was watching him at age 80 beat young challengers who thought they could take advantage of him because of his age. What I’ll remember about him the most, however, was his gentle nature and great sense of humor.
My four dads were all good men and they each left part of themselves with me, the best of which I have tried to pass on to my children.
Fathers come in many forms. If as children our eyes are windows to the world, our fathers can greatly enhance our vision. They can offer focus and resolution to what is often a blurry, confusing world.
In some families, mothers and others have to be fathers. From my experience in the Boy Scouts of America, I’ve learned that just one mentor can make a tremendous difference in a child’s life. That’s why I am a strong advocate of school teachers, Boy and Girl Scouts, Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, church youth programs and other youth organizations.
I feel very fortunate to have had four dads. Maybe the most important things dads can ever do is to teach their sons how to become good dads themselves.