My Dad’s Greatest Legacy: Raising sons to be good fathers

Dad__I_10My dad is 82 years old. So with Father’s Day approaching, I decided to take a trip back to my childhood and contemplate this man and his influence on me. What I discovered was not what I expected but an insight that I have come to regard as possibly his greatest legacy.

It is a legacy that I admire from the sidelines. And one that I am impressed by far beyond these words.

My dad, Don Zirkel, has had a memorable life. He worked for 30+ years as a columnist and editor of a Catholic paper, as an ordained Deacon, and as the information officer of the NY Division of Human Rights. He has been an advocate for, as he would say, "the least and the lonely" all his life.

He and my mom raised 9 children, have 26 grandchildren and 3 great grandkids. True to the era in which he raised us, he was more of a traditional dad. The one we were threatened with when we were giving my mother a hard time.

He was hands-on - but probably as a sign of the times, it was more with my 5 brothers than us girls. While he showed up to just about every game my brothers played (and they played many sports over the years), I have only a few vivid memories of being especially noticed by my dad growing up. For my 13th birthday, while in Israel on an assignment, he sent me a Bas Mitzvah card that I still have. For my 18th birthday, he met me in the city (that's New York City) and we saw the play Annie together.

And while some might harbor resentment for this amount of one-on-one time, I don't. Between the gender divide and having 8 siblings, I didn't really expect it.

In fact, conversely, there was a short time when I literally thought he was Superman. Of course along the way, I did come to realize that he was an imperfect dad. And actually, there were times when his support was downright clumsy. But though he didn't always get it right, I never doubted that he cared.

Perhaps he showed it best with his financially creative ways of providing us with awesome family experiences, like when he bought 5 sets of buy-one-get-one-free half gallons of ice cream and we each got one or when he finagled a week at an obscure mountain cabin that someone donated for our motley crew.

I feel extremely lucky to have had him at the helm of our family. He had, and still has, a rock solid moral compass. And I credit my upbringing for my own strong sense of right, wrong, personal responsibility, social justice, charity and gratitude.

Now, while my dad did his best for me and my 3 sisters, and we probably picked the good men we did because of him, I think his most enduring gift is the one that he passed on to his 5 sons. He taught them, through his own example, how to be good dads.As I look at my brothers today, watch how they tend to their own ever-growing children, I see some extremely excellent examples of fatherhood. They are imperfect, and sometimes clumsy, but they are all paying attention. And while they too can act like kids themselves, they also all hold their children accountable and try to be kind about it. They go to their kids' games (both sons and daughters). Several have children with special needs and they have stepped right up. And as I watch from the sidelines it is clear that they are passing on to their children the same moral compass that they received as a gift from their father.In my line of work I am fortunate to come across many similarly-caring fathers doing a good job. But I also see fathers who aren't quite sure of themselves, whose own childhoods did not offer the guidance they now need to show up and fulfill their roles with just that right balance of tough and love. Who don't know how to stick with it. And, sadly the ones I don't meet, the ones who don't show up at all.

So this Father's Day my tribute goes out to all of my brothers: Joe, Tom (RIP),
John, Paul and Tim; and to a man whom we should all be grateful for, my dad, Don Zirkel. Because we need good fathers. And we need these good fathers (who come by it through genetics or generosity) to show up and mentor the next generation of dads on how to do the same thing.

Thanks for all your caring Dad. And for passing on your legacy. I love you.


Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Parenting Consultant, Workshop Presenter, Author and grateful daughter based in Ann Arbor, Mi. Contact her at