My father, Captain Al Cunningham, 1951
My father was a strange dude. A war hero, soldier of fortune, airline pilot, tough guy, strict dad, huge sense of humor and outrageous appetite for adventure. He made life interesting. Like the time he agreed to stay up all night with me to see what sleeping during the day felt like. My mother put an end to that idea.
In thinking about him on Father’s Day, I realized I wanted to say hello and share a few thoughts.
Dear Dad —
It’s been a long while, 1994 to be exact, since we spoke. Sorry for not writing sooner.
I realize I am at the age now that you were when I was just 28. I don’t think I ever thought about you consciously as fathering me, I just sort of took it for granted, you know? You never seemed to want credit either, which doesn’t surprise me now that I know you better.
Like the time I had my car accident. There I was lying in the hospital, and I looked up to find you staring at me. You reached over and held my face and said to me “oh my darling, darling, are you okay?” I was 21 years old and no one had called me darling in years. When you did, I said nothing at the time, I just smiled. As you can see, it’s something I can’t forget.
I now have four grown children of my own, two beautiful girls and two handsome boys (btw, they’re doing great and ask me to tell stories about you all the time). It has made me realize fatherhood is a state of mind that persists throughout life. What we do as fathers isn’t always easy to remember in detail, so it pays to find a way to be sure memories last. I do have one solution, and it’s not terribly original, take lots of photos of yourself and your children.
Last week I digitized all our family photos and put the originals into albums and sent each child their own. They are at the age where it might mean something to them, I thought. You were in a number of pictures like the one of you as an El Al pilot. They freaked out when they saw this. They loved hearing about the old days and the happenings and the games we used to play together. And they loved learning more about their Papa.
I guess the thing that amazed me most was hearing each one say they didn’t remember how happy their childhood was. I think it’s natural, for a variety of reasons, memory is a survival mechanism, not a funhouse of mirrors. So getting screamed at turns into a 10x experience, whereas the birthday party you throw for them and their friends gets lost in the downstream estuary. When a child looks back at his or her life, they might recall the traumas of childhood (deserved or not) as bigger deals and forget some of the good times.
I call it picto-therapy, the art of showing what really happened through random, spontaneous photos and videos of a child’s life. It taught me that our natural memories help us survive but may cause us to underestimate love because our survival manual tells us it’s a given. In my case, I definitely underestimated your love for me. In fact, I think you were gone by the time I realized you really did love me. I wanted you to know that and I wanted to ask for your forgiveness, too, in case that ever made you feel like I didn't care.
I know what you would tell me. That's crazy. Nothing to ask for, nothing to forgive, because that’s your way.
Dad, one more thing I’ll leave you with, I think you’d be pleased with how I have been a father to my children, your grandchildren. You never really got to know them, but I’m confident if you did, they would tell you that we are just alike.
I’ve learned fatherhood is a state of mind that does not end with age or in your case, even with death. I think of you so often it feels like I am always having this conversation. It’s commonplace to say nothing is ever perfect, but in retrospect, you were a perfect father for what I needed, and I was very lucky, indeed.
To borrow from Gwyneth Paltrow, “conscious fathering” is something we can start anytime but particularly as we get older and become more self-aware.
At my age, my kids don't need me as often as they used to, but when they do, their father is the only person who can give them what they want.
Happy Father’s Day, dad!
Jeff Cunningham is an advocate for enlightened global leadership, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world.
He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, startup founder, digital content CEO, and ran an internet venture capital fund.
He travels the globe in search of iconic leaders. As an interviewer/host, he created a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, now co-produced by @Thunderbird, featuring mega moguls from Warren Buffett to JeffImmelt. His articles on leadership have been featured in the Arizona Republic, LinkedIn and Medium via JeffCunningham.com.
His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), Myway.com, and CareerTrack.com; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Thunderbird School of Global Management or Arizona State University as a whole.