10 Things I Learned from My Dad

By Guest Blogger, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain

As Father’s Day approaches, my thoughts naturally turn to my dad, who passed away in 2010. My brothers and I have spent time over the past two years sorting through his lifetime of memories, papers, and odds ‘n’ ends. It has reminded me of some of what he taught us by how he lived his life. Here are a few things I learned from Dad that I hope rubbed off on me.

1. Family meals are for more than eating. Family meals were special times for my dad. Yes, mom was a good cook, but more important were the wide-ranging conversations that happened at many meals, lingering long after the ice cream bowls were empty. This was some of the most important time for reinforcing lessons #2, 3, 4, and 9.

2. When you don’t know, bluff it. This one got us in trouble sometimes, particularly when we’d dive into debates about things way out of our league. But there’s also something to be said for being willing and able to jump into conversations and activities, knowing that you’ll learn a lot as you go. That kind of confidence and openness are critical in a changing world.

3. Everything can be interesting. Dad kept magazine and newspaper clippings of everything and everywhere, some of them 50 years old. He taught us that everything—astronomy to zoology (with methane-fueled stoves in between)—could be intriguing, if you just take the time to dig into it. This attitude has been a challenge for sorting his files, but that kind of insatiable curiosity means you’ll never get bored.

4. Learn with your kids. This lesson is a corollary to Lesson #3: Dad was also always ready to jump in and learn with us the things we wanted to know—you might call them our sparks. One of my favorite memories from when I was 16 was taking a community education class in photography and film processing (back when we shot and processed our own black-and-white film pictures). He never used what he learned, but I did: it helped pay my way through college and get my first full job. More important, I treasured that shared experience and that time we had together.

5. Believe in your kids. As a college professor, Dad would never “dumb down” what he was teaching—not because he was lazy, but because he believed his students had the capacity to learn if he taught effectively. The notes from former students in his files are evidence that many (certainly not all) were transformed by his high expectations. I like to extend his lesson to all young people, recognizing that each has so much to offer and will generally rise to the occasion when we ask—and expect—them to.

6. Everyone deserves your respect. Dad had a reputation on his college’s campus and in town for paying attention to everyone, no matter their rank or position, from the janitor to the college president. He’d check in on what they were doing, find out about their kids, and trade gardening tricks. It wasn’t surprising when so many of them showed up for his memorial service. A little interest in others can go a long way.

7. You learn more from people who are different from you. Dad knew it was much more fun talking with and learning from people who were different from him. Whether the differences were cultural, religious, or political, he enjoyed seeing the world through other people’s eyes and growing in the process. You learn a lot more by spending time with people and in places that are unfamiliar than if you always stick with people just like you.

8. Why be ordinary if the extraordinary is possible? Dad was a master gardener. A rule of thumb he passed on is to find out what kinds of trees, flowers, and vegetables grow well in your area, then hunt down the best, most striking varieties of those species that you can find. I learned two lessons from that. First, focus on doing things that can be successful in your circumstances. Second, don’t just do what’s obvious. By digging a bit deeper, you may be able to do something remarkable.

9. If you enjoy something, it doesn’t matter what people think. Dad was a religion professor who drove a pick-up, listened to country music (as well as opera), and featured an Obama bumper sticker on his car in a county that hadn’t voted Democrat in at least a generation. He insisted on being true to himself, even when it scorned convention. I hope I’ve taught my kids that—even if they never take a shinin’ to country music!

10. When you’re passionate about something, share it. Dad believed that community depends on everyone doing their part—and doing things they were passionate about. He did many, many things in his community, but nothing was more spectacular than the college rose garden that he resurrected after he retired. His zeal was clear in the spectacular varieties he planted (see lesson #8), the diligent care he gave them, his ongoing quest to learn the latest rose care techniques (lesson #3), and the joy on his face when he recounted the many graduation and wedding pictures taken with the rose garden as the prime setting in town. When you give to others out of your passions, the joy comes back to you.

Tell Us:--> On this Father’s Day, what lessons do you take from your dad? Or what lessons do you hope to pass on to your children?

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain is Acting President and CEO of Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization. Roehlkepartain is widely recognized as an expert in child, youth, and family development in community contexts. Particular areas of interest include family strengths, community supports for families and youth, spiritual development, service-learning, youth philanthropy, and linking youth development with financial literacy. He is a doctoral student in the Education, Curriculum, and Instruction department at the University of Minnesota, with a specialization in Family, Youth, and Community. He has a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He lives in St. Louis Park, MN with his wife and son, and continues to parent his eldest college student from afar.

I knew his dad tangentially; my line touching his family circle at the circumference of his oldest son, Will. Jack embodied a spirituality of praxis; a habit that let extraordinary character emerge in the explosive intersection of his zeal and the world’s demands, and that reshaped a sad disaster into new opportunity. Ndiyo yule ni Mwalimu mzee, hata mpaka siku hii.

Thank you Eugene, invaluable and what its all about!


Great ideas :)


Awesome lessons. Great reminders!

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