a tribute to my dad, H.B.


I imagine he took a lot of convincing.
(And probably a good deal of nagging, too.)

rare pic of me with my dad, circa 1986-87

Rare pic of me with my dad, circa 1986-87. (I’m quite certain he’s goosing me in this picture.)

When it occurred to my then-grandmother to take me in and raise me as their own son, I’m quite certain it wasn’t the most popular idea he’d ever heard her come up with. In fact, I bet he hated the idea.

But anyone who knew her knew she was pretty persuasive and generally got what she wanted.

So, on June 19, 1973, I became the son of H.B. and Gloria Whitley.

Now anyone who knows me can imagine what a challenge I might have been to a couple who were in their late 40s who had already raised two sons. To hear it told, I’d had a pretty rough life up to that point; I suffered from night terrors and apparently was the poster child for ADHD. (I couldn’t be still if I had been tied up!) I was not blood-related and I was not your typical boy.

Born in 1925, Howard Whitley came from a generation of men not known for being particularly nurturing. And yet, he took me in. A blue-collar worker and a farmer, he taught me the ways of the farm and the love and care of baby calves and bottle feeding them at 5 in the morning. He taught me to fish and change oil in a pickup–although I wasn’t particularly interested. He tried to teach me to hunt. [That experiment finally ended when I was about 9 and might have accidentally-on-purpose scared off the deer he was about to shoot; he sent me back to the cabin with a stern warning to not come back, thus ending the “make Todd a hunter” experiment!] He taught me how to drive a stick, load up a pickup with a perfectly stacked, balanced 43 bales of hay (except that one time at age 10-ish I popped the clutch sending most of the load back to the ground getting me sent quite hurriedly to the house by my mother), and unload it into the barn. I guess it was he as much as anyone who showed me how to do things right the first time (not that I always got that lesson). He only ever spanked me once–for putting the dog into the cattle trough. I’m sure I deserved more but my mother picked up the slack. 😉

Even though I could have continued to ride the bus in junior high and high school (before I could drive), he would drop me off close to the school around 7:30 on his way to work and always had a little cash in his wallet to pass to me. His other sons had played sports but I didn’t do that. (I was always the manager, kept stats, and would write-up the post-game stories for the local paper.) But he would come to my science fairs and plays even though I know he didn’t really want to.

And like just about everyone else, he knew I was different—-yet I have no memory of him demeaning me for it. (OK–he would gently mock me–and my mother–when I would get caught crying during Little House on the Prairie.) He might have gotten frustrated because my head was always in a book or because I had no interest in mechanical things or working with my hands but he was never unkind to me for being this effeminate boy who was different from every other boy.

I didn’t have any idea he wasn’t nurturing or to complain because he didn’t play catch with me or hug me. I never paused to think about whether I was loved—-I just knew it. In fact, it wouldn’t be until my twenties that I realized what he and my mother sacrificed to spend another 20 years of their lives raising a child. He may not have hugged me a lot when I was younger (his physical expression of love was goosing me when I walked by though when I grew up, I would always hug him whether he ever wanted me to or not) but I know he loved me because of the sacrifices he made.

And it would be years later—-even today as I write this—-that I would marvel how this man who was by every definition a man’s man was able to raise a gay son and never once shirk from his responsibility to him or physically mistreat or mentally abuse him for it. Now, I never came out to him but I look back and I know he knew. And because of that, I realize how far too little credit I have given him for loving me and helping me become the man I am today.

So to you, H.B.—-the man who sacrificed for me, loved this little gay kid when it could not have been easy, gave me pocket money, adored my first-born son (and would have adored all the rest as well!), and loved my mother deeply—-Happy Father’s Day.

I am proud to bear your name.

PostScript: My father died in 1993 of a massive heart-attack, weeks before my second son would be born. He had enjoyed 3 or so years of retirement which included for a brief time helping my mother take care of my son after his mother went back to work. We always remarked how much he would have loved all four boys and their adventurous spirits and love of the outdoors. He’s probably gotten more than his share of chuckles at their many hijinx!

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