When I was a kid, I thought my father was an important man — and that made me feel really good.
I spent a lot of time in his various offices over the years — in Birmingham; Atlanta, Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tenn. and Meridian, Miss. — while he worked for Southern Railway. I liked to go to the office with him at night, on weekends, on holidays. And every time the railroad promoted him, we were transferred to a new city. In his last job before he left Southern, he was a division superintendent for the Safety Department.
He did a lot of training throughout his division. He had a lot of meetings. When there were derailments on his division, he had to go to the site to supervise the safety procedures of the clean-up, which meant he was sometimes away from home for weeks. I saw people at the office treat him with respect and take his instructions.
For a little boy, all of this seemed really important. I was proud of him. I used to like to look at his business card — back when most men in business still used initials — and think that I would one day have a business card of some sort that said “D.M. McElroy.” (As I grew older and learned to dislike initials, I rejected this idea. I’ve always just been David — and never “Dave” under any circumstances.)
About the time he and my mother divorced, everything changed about his work. I never again had the child-like belief that he was important, but I never got over wanting him to be someone I could be proud of.
He said he left Southern Railway so he wouldn’t have to travel any more — so he could stay home with the children after he and Mother divorced. I accepted that at the time, but I eventually came to wonder why he really made the change. Mother had been away from home — off and on — for years. We had a live-in housekeeper who took care of us, so I’m not sure why this had to change.
Straight out of college, he had been a school teacher, but he hadn’t stayed with it because it didn’t pay well enough. After he left Southern — where he had been very well-paid — he went back to teaching. He loved teaching high school — history and government — and I used to help him grade papers. (As a 10-year-old, I marveled at how little his students knew.) He lasted only a year at teaching, because he again decided we couldn’t made it on a teacher’s salary.
The next few years were dark and confusing for me (and I think my sisters felt the same way). There was no stability and he constantly changed jobs. I wasn’t proud of anything he did. I was mostly confused about how we had been so affluent and he had been so apparently important — and now we were reduced to financial trouble which humiliated me.
Eventually, we moved to the small city where my grandparents lived. (I thought we were moving to the end of the world.) They were getting older and he needed to be close to them to take care of them. He got a job as a secretary for the owner of a couple of coal companies. His title was eventually changed to something like “executive assistant,” but he was still a secretary. There was nothing wrong with his work, but I wanted to be proud of him — and he was at the bottom of the pecking order at work instead.
I’ve told you the story of how the man he worked for came to trust my father intimately — and how my father embezzled money from him — so I won’t repeat that story again here. I’ll just say that it felt like the ultimate betrayal to me. I had lost my pride in him over the years — and I eventually felt humiliated when all my friends and former co-workers in that city discovered he had stolen millions of dollars.
Now that he’s dead, it’s easier to look back and understand what I was missing and what I wanted from him for all those years in this regard.
When I was a little boy, I wanted him to be “important.” I wasn’t mature enough to understand what being important really was, but in my heart, I felt that he had let me down. Now I understand what I wanted and what I could never have from him.
I wanted a father who found success and did things that mattered.
Those are subjective terms, of course, but the truth is that he never even aspired to success or to mattering, at least as I understand it. All he wanted was to make enough money to support his family — and embezzle enough to pay his parents’ nursing home bills.
I never heard him express the least bit of ambition. I never saw any desire to break out of his lowly station and make something better of himself in business. I never saw him care enough about any idea or church or group to put the effort into becoming a leader at anything.
He was perfectly content taking orders and working in the rank and file. I was born wanting to give orders and build things and grow companies. I assumed everybody wanted that. Early in life — when I saw him as a success at Southern Railway — I assumed he wanted to move up and achieve things. I came to see that he had absolutely no ambition and no desire for what I consider to be success.
It took me a long time to realize there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the way most people are. Very few genuinely want to rise above and lead. I get that now. But I still find myself wanting to live a life that my own future children might look at and be proud of.
I have always known that I’m driven by a desire to give things to a woman (and by extension to my children). The early 20th century writer Napoleon Hill wrote of how useless money is to men without the proper motivation. In a chapter of his classic book, “Think and Grow Rich,” he wrote about how men are influenced by the women they love:
“The men who have accumulated great fortunes and achieved outstanding recognition in literature, art, industry, architecture, and the professions, were motivated by the influence of a woman,” Hill wrote. “Take women out of their lives, and great wealth would be useless to most men. It is this inherent desire of man to please woman, which gives woman the power to make or break a man.”
I want to make a wife proud of me. I want to be able to give her things. I want to be able to show her great things I’ve done. And I want my children to see me becoming a success and see me striving for greatness. I realize that greatness and success can come in many forms, but I want my wife and children to know I’m doing my best to give them things — both material things and pride in me. More than anything else, I want them to feel proud of me.
There is nothing about my father’s life in which I take pride at this point, even though I once idolized him as a little boy. (I used to dress in his office clothes and pretend I was conducting business.) There are very few things about him that I really want to emulate. I feel a great sense of loss about that. The little boy inside me wanted to be proud of him. I never quit wanting to be proud of him.
(And I never quit wanting him to be proud of me, but he never would give me what I wanted. He might tell others he was proud of me, but he never acted that way to me. But that’s a different story.)
This is why the right wife is so important to me. I need a woman who understands my desire to be successful — to somehow achieve some form of greatness, in some way, big or small — that she can be proud of. The right woman who understands that could fuel me to success if she were willing to be part of what I was building. (A smart woman could have whatever she wanted if she understood how to motivate and manipulate me, but I probably shouldn’t mention that, should I?)
I’m still hurt that I’m not proud of my father. That fuels a strong desire to be something my children will be proud of. It makes me want to achieve things they can emulate if they want.
Bringing in a lot of money is worthless if it’s not in the service of making a difference — of somehow building something worth creating. I used to make $150,000 or so a year (it varied from year to year) from politics. It was good money to me, but it meant nothing — because I wasn’t doing anything that mattered. I was merely a political prostitute manipulating an immoral system.
I still want to make money, of course, but I want to do things that can make me proud, that can make my future wife proud, that can make my children proud — that can let them grow up feeling that they are coming from a legacy of doing something in the world which matters.
I really want you — my future family — to be proud of what I do for all of us. Is that too much to want?