This editorial appeared in the June 14, 2019, edition of the (Freeport) Journal Standard:
The world needs more men like William Jackson Smart.
Smart, a Civil War veteran who died in 1919, was the inspiration for Father's Day. Smart raised his daughter, Sonora, and her five brothers after his wife died during child birth.
Sonora, who married John Bruce Dodd in 1909, is considered to be the mother of Father's Day. The idea to honor her father — and all fathers — came while she was listening to a sermon about Mother's Day. She thought both parents deserved a day.
Because of her activism, the first Father's Day was celebrated June 19, 1910, in Spokane, Washington, her hometown.
Congress resisted efforts to make it a national holiday in the early 20th century, fearing it would become too commercialized. President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 issued the first presidential proclamation designating the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. President Nixon signed it into law in 1972.
It's a nice story and there are many men like Smart: single fathers who take care of their children. However, there are far too many biological fathers who abandon their children shortly after conception. More than one in four children in the U.S. lives in a home without a father, according to the U.S. census.
About half the births in the country are to unwed mothers. Winnebago and Boone counties are similar in that about half of the births also are to unwed mothers. It's worse in Stephenson County, where 61 percent of births are to unwed mothers.
The Census Bureau also reports that among children of the "postwar generation," 87.7 percent grew up with two biological parents who were married to each other. Today only 68.1 percent will spend their entire childhood in an intact family. Where's dad?
It becomes a vicious cycle. The majority of teen mothers come from homes without fathers.
Young children growing up without a father's involvement are 10 times more likely to be extremely poor; 85 percent of all youths in prisons grew up in a fatherless home; 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes, as are 71 percent of high school dropouts. Individuals from father-absent homes are 279 percent more likely to carry guns and deal drugs than peers living with their fathers.
Winnebago County has a high percentage of people living in poverty — 14.2 percent — and Stephenson County is worse at 16.7 percent. The National Fatherhood Initiative contends there's a father factor in nearly all social ills facing America.
On the flip side, children whose fathers are involved in their education are more likely to get A's at all grade levels, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. They are twice as likely to go to college and find a job after high school. They also are less likely to have behavior problems in school and 80 percent less likely to spend time in jail.
Most people recognize the value of having a father, a positive male role model in the home. Fatherlessness is the most significant family or social problem facing America, say 72.2 percent of respondents in a poll by the National Center for Fathering.
So how do we get more men to become REAL fathers and not just sperm donors?
Locally, we have the Fatherhood Encouragement Project, which was established in 2015. The Fatherhood Encouragement Project is a peer mentoring-based organization in which men share their challenges and encourage one another to become better parents and individuals.
Nationally, there are advocates such as the National Center for Fathering; the National Fatherhood Initiative; WATCH D.O.G.S., a program that makes it easy for fathers (or father figures) to spend meaningful time with their children in a school setting; and Strong Fathers Strong Families.
One of our favorites is All Pro Dad, a program run by Family First, a nonprofit organization that promotes fatherhood and family.
Fatherlessness has been a growing problem, but the trend can be reversed with awareness, encouragement and activism.
"When we look at our country and see all of the gaps that need to be filled, we naturally look for help from places like government and schools. But if dads in our country would make a commitment to their children, not just financially, but also spiritually and physically — reading to them, hugging them and just loving them — if we could get fathers of America to commit to that, then I really believe that America could again reclaim its greatness," Mike Singletary, a former Chicago Bear and an NFL Hall of Famer, told All Pro Dad in 2005.
William Jackson Smart probably would agree.