Lessons From Special 'Fathers' - Passed Along

Cover Story Lessons From Dad

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Andre Hollis grew up with more than one "father," and with a growing understanding that the touch of integrity, like a father's hand, can be both hard and soft.

As young Andre watched from the back seat, one of his fathers rushed from his car and, although off duty, helped fellow police officers subdue an armed robber.

Later, another father helped him put adolescent impulses in perspective by carrying a gentle courtship through to marriage and parenthood.

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Growing up without the steady hand of his biological father, Mr. Hollis had to lean on some special anomalies. The men who offered Hollis guidance were "big brothers," participants in Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.

Still, Hollis's resume suggests he grew up under the steadiest paternal hand: a prestigious Virginia prep school, Army ROTC at Princeton University, University of Virginia Law School, and trial lawyer. Now he is counsel for oversight and investigations in the House of Representatives Commerce Committee.

The yearning for a father figure gave Hollis deeply-felt insight into the meaning of paternity.

"Being a father or a parent is telling a child, 'I want to be a model in your life, I want to make a difference for you, I want to give and share,' " says Hollis.

It's a message he did not hear from his real father, a serviceman.

Hollis's mother separated from her husband and a difficult marriage in 1970 and moved Hollis, then age 6, and two other younger sons from their home at a US Army base in Germany back to her native town of Fredericksburg, Va.

Hollis's mother, a schoolteacher, immediately lined her son up with a "big brother," a city police officer. Hollis saw the officer and his wife work together to support, love, and discipline their two sons.

"Seeing a mother and father do that as a team was something I just didn't have," he says.

The police officer also, by example, taught Hollis a sense of duty, leaping while off-duty from his car to thwart a robbery. That respect for authority gave Hollis a lift through Army ROTC.

The second big brother appealed to Hollis's need for the softer sort of fatherly guidance. He nudged the overweight teenager out of a painful shyness. A trombone player like Hollis, the father figure persuaded the youth to play in the school band. "He certainly brought me out of my shell," Hollis said.

More important, the big brother showed Hollis how to gracefully express to a woman a need for intimacy, marriage, and family. During five years as a "little brother," Hollis watched his big brother court and marry a woman then help raise their two children. (Hollis himself plans to marry on July 4.)

Also, the big brother took Hollis "into an environment where it was predominantly white, predominantly middle class. That certainly opened up doors for me and was very helpful when I went away" to preparatory school, he says.

Hollis now serves as a big brother to a 12-year-old in Alexandria, Va. "I have been very blessed, and I feel that gives me the responsibility to give something back. Big Brothers is a great way to do it," he says.

Hollis has to do a lot of giving. The family of his "little brother" is very unstable. "He knew more about Glock pistols than I did as an Army officer - which scared me - mainly because of some of the influences around his house," he says.

After three years of spending four hours a week with the boy, Hollis has started to see progress.

He has steadily urged the boy to treat women with respect, giving up a seat for them on the subway for example. Then, recently, his little brother opened up a door at the mall for a woman.

"Right then it was one of those critical lessons in life that you have a permanent influence on someone else's life. To me, it's better than any honor or plaque," he says.

Despite the boundless giving by his "fathers," Hollis says the most thanks ultimately go to another person who, with a modest income, put three boys through prep school and college. "All the credit," he says, "goes to my mother."

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