Commentary: A Wisconsin Dad

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I embarked upon a circle tour of much of the State of Wisconsin. My lovely wife Cari had to work that day thus she dispatched me to fetch our three children from college so they’d all be home for Thanksgiving. The day began early in the morning as I set out from Door County and drove south to UW-Milwaukee to pick up our sophomore there. Next I headed west for our freshman at UW-Madison. Then I ventured northwest to grab our senior at UW-La Crosse before finally turning east and traveling across the entire state to return home to Door County. My little tour took about 11 hours.

Of course, I had to repeat the entire trip just four days later as I returned our three children to their respective colleges. I didn’t mind it in the least.

My wife likes to refer to me as a walking enigma because I often do things that are difficult to understand. For instance, I love collecting hats, yet, I rarely wear them for very long. I love the way hats look but I don’t particularly like the feeling of them on my head. Hey, I’m a conundrum.

During those two recent circle tours of the State of Wisconsin I brought along my newest favorite hat, a baseball cap that I recently purchased at the UW-Madison bookstore. Purple is my preferred color, but I enthusiastically bought this bright badger red hat because it reads “Wisconsin Dad.” As I said before, I can’t tolerate the feel of a hat on my head for very long so the cap spent most of the drive sitting on the dashboard, staring me in the face.

Those two long days in the car gave me sore shoulders and an aching neck, but it also gave me the gift of time with my children. Whenever my kids return home, they have places to go and people to see. There are younger siblings, old high school friends, grandparents and countless others all competing for their attention. But for two days isolated in my car, I had my children – these delightful young adults – all to myself. I am so grateful for that time.

Of course, the kids probably didn’t see it quite that way. They know how long the drive will be and are always in a hurry to arrive at their destination. My children, like most people their age, are focused on themselves. That is only natural. College is the time in your life that you imagine your professional future and embark on the path to realizing the vision you have for yourself. At that age you’re supposed to be thinking about yourself because you’re working hard to build the self that you want to be.

I know our children are grateful, at least intellectually, for what my wife and I do for them. They are thankful that I drive them to and from college, that their mother and I write checks for their tuition, and we deposit money into their bank accounts so they can pay their rent. But when you’re young and focused on yourself, it’s hard to viscerally appreciate a sacrifice someone else makes for you. When you’ve experienced so little, and are still so concerned with starting your life, it’s difficult to truly understand gratitude.

Even early into adulthood, I don’t think that we humans understand gratitude very well. Getting that first real job, buying a house, paying your own bills – these things are about independence. Distilled down to its essence, the quest for independence is a desire to avoid being dependent on anyone other than yourself. Inherent in gratitude is the recognition that as much as you might try to avoid it, you’ll always need to depend on other people one way or another. That’s a hard to concept to grasp when you’re young.

Gratitude is a puzzling thing. It’s not an automated response to people who’ve done something kind for you. Instead, the seeds of deep and authentic gratitude are planted in your soul when you make a sacrifice for another. It’s when you experience the burden that comes from willingly accepting the mantle of responsibility for another that you can truly appreciate when someone does the same for you.

Goodness knows you don’t need to have children to understand gratitude, but for me it was only when I became a father – when I made the explicit promise to carry my children’s burdens along with my own – that I truly felt gratitude for those who’ve helped me. It was then that I finally understood what it meant to be responsible for another and it made me deeply grateful for those in my life who accepted some responsibility for me.

That’s why I love my “Wisconsin Dad” hat. I love being a Dad. I love living on Wisconsin’s thumb. But it’s more than that. It’s a reminder that like a father, I’ve accepted the mantle of responsibility for the things I love – for my children, for my little corner of Wisconsin that is Door County. Thankfully, I’m neither unique nor alone. For my children, I joyfully share that responsibility with my wife, our family, and many friends. For Door County, there are countless other people and organizations that work even harder than I do to care for this community we love.

I’m very pleased to display my Wisconsin Dad hat.

Of course, if I could find a “Door County Dad” cap, I might actually wear that one. Especially if it’s purple.


Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].  

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