Have you ever noticed how quick we are as a culture to bestow titles on people? The leader of a nation or corporation is called a president. What the constitutional monarchies of Europe lack in power they make up for in titles such as king, queen, prince, or premier; the concept of titles even trickle down to our families. We say the words “Mom or “Dad” so often that its easy to forget that these aren’t just names, but notes of distinction. I’ve often heard it said that anyone can be a father, but it takes a special person to be a dad.
My life is a testament to the truth of that statement. Like most people, I was born with a father, but I didn’t meet my dad until I was 28. The father I was born with left when I was 10 in part because he couldn’t handle the challenges of having a child with a disability. Years later a teacher who shaped my life would show me exactly what it’s like to have a dad. For me, a Troy Junior High School social studies teacher was (and still is) a hero. I often say that as a young person being in his presence was akin to watching the sun rise for the very first time — one somehow is overcome with excitement and joy, but can’t pinpoint exactly why. Now as an adult, it feels as though I have come full circle. The one who showed the first guy I ever looked up to how to be the man he is, now is giving me one of life’s most precious gifts — a father’s love.
This was a new concept to me; my dealings with my biological father had been confined to morning and evening greetings as we passed each other in the hallway. Just as his son does, Big Gene holds a mirror to the image of the kind of man that I strive for on a daily basis. When I give talks to young people in school districts throughout the state, so many of them tell me of how their own fathers aren’t present in their lives. This makes my previous struggles worth it because I am able to identify with the challenges these young people face. I encourage them to seek that father figure out. To find someone that personifies the ideals that they want in themselves as men.
This is what Big Gene, as my dad, does for me every day. He is the quintessential good man. Always willing to give someone a hand up when they are down, or the piece of advice that allows us all to glimpse the depth of his unique wisdom. These are the type of people that make life worth living. The people that bring happiness wherever they go. In a time when so many men have taken an opposite path, Big Gene is a constant example of what a dad ought to be. Men everywhere have the potential to be father figures to young men that need them. It doesn’t require a great degree of intelligence, wealth, or influence. All that’s needed is a desire to be a positive presence in the life of another person. It may require effort, but the benefits far exceed the difficulties. I am blessed that a small group of men throughout my life have given of their time and heart to me, and through doing so, have given me a pretty accurate picture of fatherhood. I will always be especially grateful to Big Gene for continuing the work that a certain history teaching football coach began with me so long ago. But most of all for giving me the gift of his son’s life, which has brought incalculable good to my own.
Big Gene is the father that everyone should have, the kind who loves unconditionally, yet is always willing to pull you back when necessary. Being in the season of gratitude gives me an opportunity to reflect on the people who have influenced me in unique ways. I will forever be thankful for what Big Gene has brought to my life. He personifies the love that has no bearing on ability level, but rather a willingness to meet someone where they are and give them what they need the most. That is why I call Big Gene Steinke my dad. A title he has well deserved.
Michael Ham is a city of Troy employee and a member of the Troy City Schools Board of Education.