By Elizabeth Wise
Father's Day is a great time to think about the remarkable gifts that fathers impart to their children. Some of their wisdom and love comes down to us through letters that have been written back and forth between fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters. Here are excerpts of famous letters that remind us of the beautiful and timeless bond between father and child.
A Father Knows His Child’s Worth
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), founder of the NAACP, professor, historian and first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, lived a long life of great achievements. In 1914, his daughter Yolande left home as a young teenager to begin her studies at a prestigious boarding school in England. Soon after she arrived, he wrote to her with some words of advice, penned on New York, October 29, 1914:
Of course, everything is new and unusual. You miss the newness and smartness of America. Gradually, however, you are going to sense the beauty of the old world: its calm and eternity and you will grow to love it.
Above all remember, dear, that you have a great opportunity. You are in one of the world’s best schools, in one of the world’s greatest modern empires. Millions of boys and girls all over this world would give almost anything they possess to be where you are. You are there by no desert of merit of yours, but only by lucky chance.
Deserve it, then. Study, do your work. Be honest, frank and fearless and get some grasp of the real values of life. You will meet, of course, curious little annoyances. Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual, whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You, however, must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white, or prettier … The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin—the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world. Don’t shrink from the new experiences and custom. Take the cold bath bravely … Enjoy what is and [do] not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul.
Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.
A Father Gives Marital Advice
In 1971, future president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was unable to attend his son Michael’s wedding ceremony in Hawaii. Prior to the ceremony, Michael did receive a gift from his father: a letter comprised of timely advice on love and marriage:
There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music … There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.
P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say "I love you" at least once a day.
A Father Alleviates his Daughter’s Worries
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, writer, and historian with an illustrious career. In 1921, his intelligent 10-year-old daughter Margaret was diagnosed with epilepsy. Unable to visit her at Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, Carl Sandburg wrote his daughter a short message from November 1921:
This is only a little letter from your daddy to say he thinks about you hours and hours and he knows that there was never a princess of a fairy worth so much love. We are starting on a long journey and hard fight—you and mother and daddy—and we are going to go on slowly, quietly, hand in hand, the three of us, never giving up. And so we are going to win. Slowly, quietly, never giving up, we are going to win.
A Father Offers Rules to Live By
In 1951, Eddie Rickenbacker, a decorated Air Force veteran of both World Wars, writes to his son Bill who has just joined the U.S. Air Force:
I hope that you will remember and follow a few of the simple rules of life which will be beneficial to you as time goes on:
Always remember that a million friends are worth more than a million dollars because if you have a million friends you will never need to worry about a million dollars.
Always be respectful to your superiors and elders as it is an acknowledgement of your capacity to appreciate the benefits acquired from experience.
Consideration of others at all times, be they right or wrong, is an acknowledgement of your own limitations.
Appreciation of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness will always make it possible for you to reciprocate in kind.
Never fail to live up to the rules of the game, always play it in accordance with your knowledge and appreciation of the difference between right and wrong.
Always be a good soldier and not just a man in uniform.
Study the design, mechanics, and operation of your plane thoroughly and in detail.
Learn to know and appreciate the mechanics who work on your plane and every unit of its operation because their appreciation of you at all times may mean the difference between a successful flight and one that is not.
For your peace of mind and emotional stability, play the piano when you feel the desire, when time permits, and when the opportunity is available.
You are certain as the years go on to have many heartaches, headaches, trials and tribulations, but when the hour looks the darkest never lose faith in the Power Above.
Condolences from the President of the United States
The death of a father is one of the most devastating losses that one must face in life, sometimes earlier and more suddenly than expected. For those whose fathers are deceased, this third Sunday in June undoubtedly sparks poignancy in the hearts of the children who miss him; this time hearkens memories, reflections of moments spent with their father or yearning for that shared time which did not seem long enough.
Fanny McCullough, age twenty-one, had recently lost her father on the front lines of the American Civil War. In the midst of her grief, she received a letter of condolence from none other than the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who had befriended her father Lieutenant Colonel William McCullough many years prior. On December 23, 1862, Lincoln’s compassionate letter encouraged Fanny to remain steadfast during this unexpected period of grief:
It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.
Letters are excerpts from:
Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of Wider Audience (Half Price Books Inc., 2015); and Letters of Note: Volume 2 (Chronicle Books, 2016), compiled by Shaun Usher.
Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (Anchor, 2008), by Dorie McCullough Lawson, 143-144, 274-276.