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What fathers know best: Notable personalities on what they learned from their dads | Deseret News National
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What fathers know best: Notable personalities on what they learned from their dads

My dad, Frank Collins, was a blind piano tuner who had a photographic memory before glaucoma stole his sight when he was 13.

When doctors told him he would go blind, he read the the entire encyclopedia and dictionary, and decades later he could recite the chunks of the Encyclopedia Britannica that had not changed. He also watched a lot of sunsets because he didn't want to forget how spectacular they were.

I learned from his example, but other lessons were more direct: Don't be rude. Don't be lazy. Share the gifts with which you are blessed. He was playful and resourceful.

A father's influence lasts a lifetime. Social science is awash with research about what an involved, interactive dad brings into the lives of his children, from emotional stability to a sense of playfulness and more. It's also clear that dads contribute different things to each of their children based on very personal, life-altering interactions.

To celebrate the approach of Father's Day, the Deseret News asked a mix of noteworthy individuals to talk about their dads and share the lessons that stuck.

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman on her dad, Jackson Holtz: "What I learned from my dad was resilience. He ran for Congress and lost by 500 votes. The next morning, he got up, put on his tie and went back to work. That was an extraordinary message to me, and I've followed it. Without the tie!"

Mike Leavitt, former secretary of Health and Human Services, on his dad, Dixie Leavitt: "I rarely left the house that he didn’t say to me, 'Remember who you are and remember what you stand for.' He did it enough that it stuck. He taught me that 'if you look after the dimes, the dollars will look after themselves' — a good piece of economic advice. And over and over he said, 'I want you to learn how to work.' When I was a fourth- or fifth-grader, during the summer, he'd never leave the house without giving me some jobs. He'd also never come home that I didn’t have to account for that. I didn’t always do it and I complained often, but I learned that he felt work was a virtue. He wanted me to learn to work."

Brandon Mull, New York Times best-selling author of the Fablehaven, Beyonders and Five Kingdoms series: "As a kid, my dad taught me baseball — how to throw, catch, hit, field a fly and field a grounder. He also showed by example the importance of family. He drove long commutes for most of his career so we could live in nice suburbs, and he spent most of his free time with us in one way or another. Dad also taught me that religion could be more than a family tradition — it could be a practical part of life. Speaking broadly, the advice, guidance and support I got from my dad has helped me make some of the most important decisions in my life. I'm delighted to thank and salute Gary Mull on Father's Day!"

Lanny Davis, Washington attorney and former Special Counsel to President Clinton, on his dad, Dr. Mortimer Davis: "The most important lesson my father taught me is to always be kind to people and animals — kindness to others, especially those in need, was the most important quality he wished me to have when I grew up. He was a kind man. And my mother was the Pied Piper of all homeless creatures — humans and four-legged. So she and my father were married for 55 years for a good reason, because they agreed on the importance of kindness."

Robert Magleby Christensen taught his son, Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor, author and authority on disruptive innovation, that “whenever possible, never work without your children by your side. Never hammer a nail, never cut a board, never write a book without employing your children with you.”

Tara Bench, food editor at Ladies Home Journal, publishing its last issue in August: "At a young age, I came to understand my dad was passionate about what he did. He enjoyed the learning, challenges and people he worked with every day. There were companies near and far to be formed, purchased, merged and sold; and coupled with his sense of adventure, Bob Bench loved doing just that.

"Dad always encouraged me to do the things that I love, follow my interests and pursue a career I was passionate about. Seems like typical fatherly advice, until my interests led me to a culinary degree, which he thought was less practical than business or accounting! Yet his counsel to follow my passion was unwavering, and he spent years supporting my choices, devotedly eating my creations and giving me the confidence to leave the comforts of home for New York. I learned from his wise example of loving to work, not working to live. I am happy and fulfilled in my profession and love what I do. I would not be where I am today without his wisdom, insight, example and support."

Utah attorney general Sean Reyes on Norberto Antonio “Buddy” Reyes: "My dad was born in the Philippines into a political family, and his uncle, Ramon Magsaysay, became a beloved president during the golden years of the country. After Magsaysay’s death, my dad saw his homeland transform from a strong and flourishing republic to a corrupt dictatorship that resulted in tyranny and financial ruin for the nation. Despite being an internationally acclaimed artist and successful entertainer, my dad was outspoken against such corruption.

"Later, my father taught his children to tirelessly serve family, neighborhood, state and nation to help repay this country for accepting him when he fled political persecution and threats on his life in the Philippines. His proudest day, next to marrying Mom, was becoming an America citizen, and he has always warned my siblings and me to be vigilant or our liberties and freedoms in America could be taken from us as well. He is a perfectionist who constantly repeated a phrase from his grandfather: 'If you have a job to do, do it well or not at all.' Whether it was school, sports, service or even washing a window, we would do it again and again until it met his high standards. But he did it with so much love and encouragement that we had a lot of fun and felt like we could accomplish anything."

World War II "candy bomber" Gail Halvorsen's dad, Basil K. Halvorsen, worked the family's small farm, often finishing before his neighbors, who had more land. Then he'd help them. Says his son, now 93 years old, "The bottom line, most basic thing I learned from my dad is you don't get more pleasure and joy out of more money, a bigger car than the neighbor or having the biggest house. If you ever get thinking like that, then you're going to be in trouble on what you get out of life. You will not be happy. Service before self is the only real way to find happiness."

One day while harvesting beets and letting the horses rest, the elder Halvorsen showed his son the little bit in the horse's mouth. "Son, it's the little things in life that determine which way your body goes — little promptings. The little decisions you make that seem very small will put you on the path to where you end up."

Gail Miller, owner and chairman of the board of Larry H. Miller Group, including the Utah Jazz, says of her father, Joseph Herman Saxton: "My father taught me the value of learning — not just in school, but from all sources available in life — books, people, travel and from paying attention to what goes on around us."

Her son Bryan Miller, president of Miller Inspiration, remembers an important moment with his dad in Larry H. Miller's hospital room shortly before he died. They were alone talking, and the younger Miller was "looking to connect at a deep level but not knowing what to say." He told his father it had been a privilege to be his son and he knew he'd spend the rest of his life trying to live as he'd been taught and measure up to his dad's example. He'd always compare himself to his dad. Larry H. Miller lay quietly, eyes closed, but his son knew he was listening. Then his father said, "Don't compare yourself to me. I don't know if you're more than I am or less than I am. I really don't. But it's not important. Measure yourself against yourself. It is enough." Bryan Miller adds, "It was so amazing to hear someone who had accomplished so much say that. Of everything he ever did for me or gave me, those words were the greatest gift."

Newberry Award-winning author of "Princess Academy" Shannon Hale on her dad, Wally Bryner: "My father taught me how to work. And work hard. I have been able to write 20 books in a little over a decade, and much of that is from my dad. I inherited that thrill of completion, contentment from having created something and excitement of starting a new project. But he also taught me how to play. And play hard! We relished every second of our family vacations camping in the mountains or houseboating at Lake Powell."

Downhill racer Steven Nyman's mom taught him to ski when he was small, but his dad taught him to race. Of Scott Nyman, he says, "My dad's biggest thing is his patience. He never raises his voice, is always patient and always taught us to do what we love. 'Try whatever and do what you love. Don’t think you are forced into anything. Figure out what it is you want to do and what you love, and go for it.'"

Steven Sharp Nelson, one of the popular Piano Guys, on dad John C. Nelson: "I had always wondered how my father passed down his passion for music. Then one day my most revered music professor told our class something that enlightened me. He said, 'I can’t teach you to be passionate about music I can only be passionate about it in front of you and hope you pick up on it.' This is exactly what my father had done for me. His love and appreciation for music was so contagious I couldn’t help but pick up on it."

He continues, "Circa junior high days, when it seemed that self-esteem and selflessness were in universally short supply, I was sitting in the passenger seat of our baby blue Chrysler Plymouth as my dad drove easily down a familiar road. Our windows were down and we were enjoying the cool summer breeze. As we pulled up to a stoplight we alighted parallel to a red convertible, the driver of which had determined to test the decibel limits of his stereo by blasting rap music. My dad looked over at the sunglasses-clad driver and cordially smiled a sincere smile. He then did something I’ll never forget. My wise father, fueled by his characteristic passion for music, reached down and turned the classical music he was listening to louder than the lane-over’s rap music. He then looked over and smiled again at the man’s blank stare. I remember sinking into my seat, inflicted by an embarrassed despair, willing the red light with all my might to change green.

"Looking back, I now think that was very cool."

Years later, Nelson saw a Piano Guys video on the YouTube hits page next to a song by a famous rap artist and "an epiphany hit like a dominant seventh chord. Tears came to my eyes as I reflected on how many hours my father had given up to support me and encourage me to pursue a passion for music — how he had never let me give up because he had never given up on me. I took a screenshot of the page, circled my picture and the rap artist’s, and emailed it to my dad with the caption, 'Dad, after all these years, we’re still at the same stoplight.'”

Heather Moore, co-author with her dad, S. Kent Brown, of "Divinity of Women": "My father has taught me many things, and the two that stand out in my mind are consideration for others and integrity. Growing up, I knew my dad liked to tease, and he also liked his shirts pressed just so. He kept a rigorous schedule of exercise, eating healthy, devoting time to a career he was passionate about and spending time with his four daughters and one son (fishing, basketball games, etc.).

"But the first time I realized my father was more than just my dad was at a reception at BYU. I was probably about 12 years old, and the people I was introduced to kept on complimenting my father. I realized then how impressive his scholarly work was to others and how others viewed him as a kind and gentle man. ... I've heard from others many of the kindnesses he's done, both great and small. A person's race or religion doesn't matter to my dad — he treats everyone with equal deference. ... My father has taught me that integrity is much more important than wealth or worldly accolades. Quietly knowing who you are and what you stand for is more valuable than a plaque on the wall or a compliment spoken into a microphone."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco