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The Family Behind Father's Day

Cheryl Wilcox - 700 Club Producer

"The greatest gift I ever had came from God; I call him Dad!" -Anonymous

In those few words, the unknown author captured a truth poets, writers, philosophers, and preachers have been writing about for centuries: good fathers are indispensable in life and deeply missed when they're gone. In the words of Billy Graham: "A good father is one of the most unsung, unpraised, unnoticed and yet one of the most valuable assets in our society."

It's likely those very thoughts inspired Sonora Smart Dodd, the young woman who imagined a National Father's Day in honour of her father, William Jackson Smart. A Civil War Veteran and father of twelve, William suffered personal pain and loss, yet still managed to show Sonora and her siblings the meaning of unconditional, sacrificial love, expecting nothing in return.

An eighty-three-year-old Sonora said in a 1965 interview: "My own father never accepted Father's Day as personal to himself, but to all fathers, worthy Fathers."

Today, Betsy Roddy passes down their story. She's Sonora's Great Granddaughter and William Smart's Great-great Granddaughter and says much of what she knows she heard from Sonora herself.

Betsy shares: "I think she viewed him as a dedicated father. The very fact that he went against the norm, the norm would have been upon his wife's passing that the young children would have been farmed out to relatives to raise. He didn't do that; he never considered doing it. He was clearly dedicated to family. It simply wasn't a requirement in those days, in that era, for widowers to take on the role that he did, what he did.” 

William's story as a father began when he took up farming after serving in the Union army in the Civil War. At war's end in Arkansas, the now 22-year-old Union Artillery Sergeant married Elizabeth and had three children. Thirteen years later, his wife died, leaving him to raise his children alone. He went on to marry Ellen, a widow with three children of her own. Their first child together was Sonora, followed by five boys. Now, there were twelve.  

Betsy says: "They all got along, and they called themselves steps, halves, and sibs, so it was the joke in the family."

Later they all moved westward to a soldier's homestead in Eastern Washington. But in 1898, 18 years after they married, Ellen died in childbirth. With his six youngest children Sonora and her five brothers, still home, he again put his own pain aside to be there for them. 

Betsy shares: "She recalls a story on the night of her mother's funeral, that her youngest brother ran out into the night kind of crying and looking for his mom and her father followed him out there, brought him in, sat by the fire, and rocked him to sleep and sang to him. And as she recounts, in that moment, her father became father and mother to their entire, very large family."

That sense of strength, caring, and protection would carry Sonora's family through many good and bad times for years to come. Then, in 1909, Sonora, now a 27-year-old wife and mother living in Spokane, Washington, attended to a Mother's Day service that actually brought her father to mind.

She went and talked to her minister afterwards and said, "I love what she said about mothers and Mother's Day, but what about fathers? When do they get their time in the sun?"

After careful consideration and thought, Sonora called on churches to establish a National "Father's Day." Within a year, she had convinced church and government leaders, including the Washington State Governor, to set aside every third Sunday of June to celebrate Fathers.

On June 19, 1910, Presbyterian and Methodists churches throughout Washington observed the first Father's Day. Sonora, of course, went to church that morning and, afterwards, she spent her day delivering Father's Day gifts to elderly shut-ins.

By the following year, Father's Day was being observed around the world, and Sonora would have nine more years to celebrate with her father before his death in 1919. Still, it wasn't until 1966, when Sonora was 84, that President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order designating the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. Six years later, in 1972, it would be signed into law by Richard Nixon, calling  on U.S. citizens to "offer public and private expressions of such day to the abiding love and gratitude which they bear for their fathers."

Shortly after, on her 90th birthday, Sonora received a telegram from President Nixon thanking her for this great tradition, a day we remember the undeniable need for good fathers in our families, communities, and societies. 

Betsy reflects: "It was extremely gratifying to her. Imagine she's been working on this since 1910. So, 62 years later, it really, it becomes real in a very codified sense of the word. I think it signaled the level of importance that she always had for this legacy, and not just because of her own father, but for fathers everywhere. She was really dedicated to the idea that we need to celebrate them. They really do amazing things.”

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