The holiday we took too long to embrace

June 19, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

ON THIS DAY in 1910 the city of Spokane and the state of Washington (whose name honors the father of our country) officially recognized fathers for the first time.

Thirteen months earlier, a woman named Sonora Louise Smart sat in a Spokane church listening to a sermon on behalf of a national Mother's Day celebration.

Ms. Smart's father, a Civil War veteran, was a widower who had raised six children.

Why, wondered his daughter, should there not be a similar day for fathers? Her father, William Jackson Smart, had been born in June. So she began crusading for a "father's day" on the third Sunday in June.

Within a year she had persuaded the city and state fathers to agree with her. Happily, "Papa" Smart lived to witness 10 of the celebrations he had inspired, which many other localities soon adopted.

As for the Mother's Day idea, President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 officially designated the second Sunday in May as the annual national occasion.

Curiously, the force behind that event was another daughter with church connections, this time on the East Coast. Anna Jarvis was born in West Virginia, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her mother died on May 9, 1905, after the family had moved to Philadelphia.

Since her mother had often spoken in favor of commemorating mothers, Anna started holding an annual memorial service. Soon she was crusading for a day to honor all mothers, and before the 10th anniversary of her mother's death President Wilson signed his proclamation. While Father's Day universalizes a birth, Mother's Day universalizes a death.

For whatever odd reasons, the patriarchal U.S. Senate and House of Representatives kept rejecting the idea of a national Father's Day until 1972, when President Richard Nixon finally signed a congressional proclamation. Though begun at roughly the same time as the push for a father's day, the Father's Day crusade took about nine times longer than the one for Mother's Day to succeed.

Sigmund Freud, who theorized that little boys want to eliminate their fathers, would have been intrigued by this contrast involving male legislators -- who were mostly fathers themselves.

Here's another interesting fact, Men are supposed to be the doers, the movers and shakers. Yet almost all the major forces behind both these national days were women. The two main crusaders were devout Protestant daughters.

Moreover, in the late 19th century Julia Ward Howe, who gave us "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," began to speak out on behalf of more public recognition of the dignity of motherhood. In the mid-20th century Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine vigorously chastised her colleagues for authorizing a Mother's Day but not a Father's Day. Still, these male co-legislators dallied for another 15 years.

I have my own memories of Father's Day. On the 45th anniversary of the first Father's Day, in 1955, I conferred my first baptism, "in the name of the Father." It was a first child, and the date, June 19, was the parents' first wedding anniversary and the 26th birthday of the baptizing "father," namely, me.

Of course, I was an unwed father at that time and living in a home for unwed fathers known as Baltimore's Old Cathedral Rectory. In giving these details, I am reminded of a Roman Catholic and an Episcopal boy who were sitting on the steps when the Episcopal rector walked by.

"Good evening, Father!" said the Episcopal boy.

The Catholic boy elbowed his friend and whispered sternly: "Don't call him Father! He has kids."

A retired priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese, Father Gallagher will read from his new book of poems, Statements at the Scene, tonight at 8 p.m. at Bibelot in Timonium.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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