Our Past Presidents
by Lawrence Schall
Since I arrived in Atlanta almost three years ago, there are three hours I recall with unmitigated awe. One was sitting alone with President Carter in his office, one was spent with Ted Turner in his chambers, and, just last evening, I spent an hour or so at a dinner table with Pat Conroy. Quite simply, it doesn't get much better than that.
The one thing each of these conversations with each of these very singular men had in common was kids. That may seem odd, but the one thing all four of us have shared is the experience of being a father. I don't care if you are rich or poor, famous or infamous, fatherhood is humbling. The ultimate leveler.
President Carter spoke to me about the few moments in his very public presidential life when he was able to escape the attention of the media and just be a father, a husband, or a fly fisherman.
Mr. Turner shared with me his efforts to teach his children the value of giving away money. I know some of his children and I can tell you he was very successful in that endeavor. Pat Conroy is a storyteller and as we all know,many of his best stories are about his father, the Great Santini, and about his family of origin. He did, however, over a baked scallop appetizer, share with me a seemingly random fact. He had not seen the daughter from his second marriage for more than 30 days in the last 20 years. He thought he might know her if they passed on the street. Fatherhood is humbling. My 17 year old son has been living with a number of other troubled boys in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the past three and a half weeks. A few days ago, he wrote and thanked me for giving him this break from society. It could tear your heart out.
This afternoon, a father came to see me about his son who was being expelled from school for two instances of academic dishonesty. The conversation was not one between president and a student's parent. It was father to father. He told me that when he learned of this last week, he cried. He had not cried in five years. He wanted me to know how sad, embarrassed and remorseful his son was, and I know that to be the case. Mostly, though, I saw and felt the father's sadness, and felt his deep, deep sense of failure. Fatherhood is humbling.
Despite my talk with Carter, Turner and Conroy about gripping issues like Israel and the Palestinians, America's Cup and the Atlanta Braves, the Citadel and Barbra Streisand, what I remember from these conversations I was privileged to experience were the words we shared about fatherhood. Who among us feels as if we have been as good a father as we wanted to be? No one I know. Not really.