The day my dad really was No. 1

An 11-year-old nominates her dad as 'Father of the Year'

His dream was to own a Cadillac someday. My dream was to buy it for him.

But it wasn't a time for dreaming. In 1980, he was a 17-year-veteran of the Boston Fire Department who had seen his last days on the job after a second back surgery.

I was a little girl who watched as my dad struggled to support his wife and five kids while his back could no longer support him. Now, I thought, it was my turn to give him a lift.

Even as a child, I loved to read newspapers. The advice columns were my favorite. One day, a boy wrote in to The Boston Globe asking if there was such a thing as a Father of the Year contest. The answer was yes, and an address in New York City was given.

I needed only one draft, the words poured from my heart onto the paper:

Dear Persons,

I'm 11 years old, blonde hair, brown eyes and five-foot-two.

I know my Daddy should be Father of the Year. Don't tell him about this. I want it to be a surprise.

My Daddy is the best. He has never, ever hit me. He thinks his hand is too big to hit his own child.

Daddy is strong, wonderful, perfection, etc. He holds two jobs, chops wood, picks up our house to help our mother, and he still has time for us five kids.

Today he gave me his last dollar for a dance.

Whenever I hurt or am hurt, he holds me till I stop hurting. I love my Daddy and my mother and don't get the idea I don't like her. I love her. But I also love my Daddy.

He also makes good fish (but I don't like fish.) I wouldn't want anything ever, ever to happen to him.

Without telling anyone, I mailed the letter the same day.

What I didn't know was that the Father of the Year committee recognized celebrities and other luminaries who donated their time and money to charitable causes. It wasn't for real dads who set the alarm for before dawn, set out at first light, and were grateful to be home in time to tuck their kids in at night. It wouldn't have stopped me anyway; my dad deserved this.

I knew my father wasn't like other dads. Though my friends were wary of this enormous man who spoke in curt, thunderous phrases, I knew him to be a gentle giant. He was a man incapable of spending lazy Sunday afternoons in front of the television watching the Red Sox lose - again. Instead, he spent his weekends walking into burning buildings and pulling people out. On his days off, he would rise before dawn and watch the shore recede under a fading moon as he worked the decks on a friend's fishing boat. Anything to raise a few extra dollars for his family.

It was no wonder that at 42, he had broken his back. More frightening, his spirit was beginning to sway under the weight of his desperate world.

Some weeks after mailing my letter, I was sitting at our dining-room table when the phone rang. My dad moved to answer it, wincing with each step. Something in his voice caught my attention. His face wore an expression of confusion, skepticism, and something else I hadn't seen in weeks: hope.

After asking the person on the end a slew of questions, he hung up the phone and looked at my beaming face.

"What did you do?" he asked.

I showed him the letters I had hidden away from the Father of the Year committee notifying me that he was a semifinalist and then a finalist.

Now he was a winner. For the first time in his life, he was a winner.

His mother, my Nana, was as proud as only a mother could be. She knew he didn't own a suit, so she pulled $100 from a teapot she kept in her china cabinet and pressed it into his hands as tears slipped down her cheeks. She wanted her son to shine when he accepted his award before Hollywood's stars.

It was a time for firsts. Our first plane ride, our first time in a limousine. But when we arrived at New York City's Sheraton Center Hotel, nothing could have prepared us for our first press conference. My father wrapped a protective arm around my mother and me as a wall of bulbs flashed and cameras rolled. He smiled graciously throughout, though the straight-back hotel chair must have been torture against his already-pained back.

Then the doors to the room were thrown open, and we were led to a ballroom filled with more than 1,500 people, cheering as we made our way to the dais. We weren't expecting this. An award, a small ceremony, perhaps lunch, but this....

We were sitting alongside the likes of Bert Parks, Sam Levinson, and Robert Merrill - men who were receiving awards for their philanthropic efforts. My father was receiving an award simply because he was a dad.

When it was his turn to speak, my father limped to the microphone and talked about his family. A gruff man, he spoke eloquently of the commitment between a father and his children. About getting back more than he could ever give, though he gave his all. And for the first time in my young life, I heard his voice catch and then break when he said, "You have to know that each loves the other. You have to trust in that."

As we sat in that crowded ballroom with New York's glitterati applauding, my father wondered howhe, instead of one of a million other men who worked so hard and loved their families beyond all else, could be America's Father of the Year.

The answer was simple. It was because I believed my father wasn't like millions of other fathers; I knew him to be one in a million.

It wasn't a Cadillac, but it would do.

P. Amy MacKinnon, a former congressional aide, is working on her first book.

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