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I was sitting in the far right row in a classroom in Biltmore Hall on the campus of the most wonderful university in the land better known as North Carolina State.
Three weeks into my third semester, I had the revelation that I wanted to be a parks and recreation major.
After transferring my major from English (a shocker I know), I was sitting in my first recreation class, checking out the girls, and trying to keep a low profile. It seemed everyone in the class already knew each other and somehow, I did not know one soul in the whole class. The professor walked into the room, put down his stack of books and announced, “Today is a special day. It is not every day that one of your favorite all-time students and one of our finest alumni’s son transfers into your class. David, welcome to parks and recreation. We were wondering when you were going to show up.”
Everybody turned and looked at me. I smiled, nodded, and looked down at my desk. And then, he dropped the bomb: “We just hope you are half the man your father is.”
Gulp. I almost crawled under my desk.
I immediately questioned my decision. I was 19 and did not need or want that kind of pressure. Half the man my father is? Are you kidding me? What does that even mean? My father had done some great things in Greenville over his 40-year career as the parks and recreation director. He had built a top notch park system, provided many great recreation experiences and memories for countless families and won many awards that truthfully embarrassed him to accept. He was voted one of the 10 most influential people in Pitt County in athletics in the last century by the Daily Reflector newspaper. He helped put together the curriculum for the recreation majors at the college I was attending for crying out loud.
How was I going to live up to all that? The only thing I could focus on at that time was where my buddies and I were going out on Thursday night. Honestly, that was about as far down the road as I could see at that point.
Thirty years later, I don’t think that professor was just speaking about my father’s career. That isn’t the pressure I feel today. His career isn’t the example I’m trying to follow. Sure, work is important. I chose a career that’s No. 1 purpose is to serve the community. It gives folks opportunities to enjoy themselves and, if done right, to enjoy a better quality of life, but at the end of the day it is still just a career I have chosen. The pressure I feel today is to try to be the best possible man I can be. It is about my wife, my family, my friends, and most importantly, my two sons.
For as long as I can remember, no matter what time it was, no matter where I lived, and no matter what the situation was, my father had always been there at a drop of a hat. Big ball game — he would be standing at the corner of the field. Graduation — he would be sitting in the stands smiling. Breakup with a girlfriend — he was sitting on the couch with advice I did not want to hear. Getting married — he was right beside me with tears in his eyes. Birth of my sons — he was hanging in the waiting room at four o’clock in the morning. Just want to get lunch and talk — he would rearrange his schedule.
He has always been there.
I realized this one night years ago. I was coaching my son in a flag football game. I looked up midway thought the first half and there he stood in the corner of the end zone — same old spot. I saw my son’s face light up when he saw his grandfather and I knew exactly how he felt because I had felt the same way a thousand times. And it hit me. As a parent, showing up is over half the battle. A majority of the time, it isn’t about the advice or knowledge you may have for them, because at some point they are going to have to figure out some things on their own. Most of the time, a gesture as simple as just being there with support means much more, because we all need to know we have someone in our corner.
So yeah, I do have some big shoes to fill, but it has absolutely nothing to do with work. Half the man my father is? That is not pressure. That is an example. I just hope my two sons feel the same way about me 30 years from now and I will have done my job.
Every moment counts.
So, Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who keep showing up for all big things and small. Keep up the good work.
David Lee is the Wilson Parks and Recreation Department Director. He is also a part-time golfer, part-time writer and, along with his wife, Dana, full-time parents of two boys.