So here’s how to become — drumroll, please — the father of the year:
Walk with your child to the school bus stop. Cook a favorite dish, even if it’s ramen noodles with an egg stirred in.
Sing together while she plays the ukulele. Ask what’s bothering him, and don’t take “nothing” for an answer.
When possible, be there for bedtime.
These were the vital points offered up by kids who wrote essays this year nominating their fathers as the Kansas City-area’s best.
“Pretty simple stuff,” said Steve Huff, who at night still tucks in his son, Braxton, 15.
Braxton was sitting next to a mildly stunned Huff last week in a waiting room beneath 25,000 fans at Kauffman Stadium. The Huffs and four other pairings of children and their father figures were soon to learn who among them would receive the Dan Quisenberry Championship Fathering Award.
The trophy is presented this time of year, around Father’s Day, by a nonprofit organization that takes seriously its quest to identify the Father of the Year from a field of everyday dudes.
The five nominees, whittled down from dozens of contenders, were surprised by a lot of things.
First, they did not know such an award had been given in Kansas City since 1996, courtesy of the Merriam-based National Center for Fathering, whatever that was.
And many had no clue until recently that their offspring had placed them in the running.
The 2014 contest began in January, when more than 1,000 area pupils of all ages wrote essays on “What My Father Means to Me.” It meant extra credit in ninth-grade English for Braxton, who hesitated but then thought, what the heck.
He began his essay with honest disclosure.
“My dad seems to be only an average father,” he wrote, “but under the mask of average … he’s always there for me.”
Braxton listed a number of attributes: “owner of a silver 1998 Honda CRV that’s in great shape, intelligent, loving, an e-bay seller with 100% positive feedback, a spiritual leader, my algebra tutor, the one I can talk to no matter what … (and) the man who won’t show up late for an academic event.”
As his father Huff said, pretty simple stuff.
Just spending time being Dad.
“Me, of all people,” said another finalist, Michael French, who has no biological children.
French, of Kansas City, Kan., and his wife, LeeAnn, are foster parents to Jeanetta Davis, 17. She calls French “Dad” without blinking. After difficult years bouncing around the foster system, she said the hardest part of her essay was keeping French’s importance in her life to 250 words.
“He’s shown me how to be a young lady,” Jeanetta said.
“I have?” French asked her in the Kauffman waiting room. “You’re saying I’m a young lady?”
When Tyrone Battles, a post office custodian in Kansas City, Kan., got the letter in April that his daughter Rhajae’s essay had won in the 12th-grade category, he was a little apprehensive.
“What did you write about me?” he asked Rhajae when she came home from Sumner Academy.
“I can’t remember,” she said.
Last week, Rhajae stood before 400 contest participants gathered under a tent at Kauffman before a Royals game to read her essay aloud. Her father stood nervously beside her, hearing it for the first time.
“He is the man who always fixed my bike,” Rhajae began, “adjusting the seat as I grew taller …
“He is the man that dutifully checked my closet every night for the boogeyman, soothingly patting my back when the coast was clear.”
Dad’s muscles began to relax. He nodded as his daughter read on.
“Every day,” she continued, “I watch him work hard to provide for me.”
Yeah, Battles thought to himself, that’s about right.
Battles didn’t make the final cut of Father of the Year candidates. But he agreed that his talents as a father were comparable to those of Huff, the eventual winner.
Pretty simple stuff.
Finding the one
The National Center for Fathering raises most of its money — about $2 million per year — from donations, grants and fees from training sessions for fathers in trouble. Its website, fathers.com, sells books and group-study kits.
The Father of the Year contest brings no revenue. But because hundreds of students, their families, essay judges, the Kansas City Royals and corporate sponsors get involved, the eight staffers in the center’s office keep it going.
The center partners with Major League Baseball clubs in Minneapolis and Chicago to sponsor contests there, too.
Many school districts choose not to take part, mindful that pupils without a father in the home might feel alienated.
The contest tries to work around that by encouraging youngsters to write about any fatherly figure, or a dad they wish they had, a coach, role model or pastor.
“For everybody, there’s got to be someone,” said second-grade teacher Angela Paul of the Kearney, Mo., public schools.
She said some of her students wrote about their “papa,” or grandfather. One wrote about Kearney Elementary’s principal, Mr. Sloan.
Second-grader Mykah Hammond took home her assignment, sat with Mom and brainstormed ideas for what to write about her father, David Hammond.
“He tucks me in at night …,” she later wrote in class. “For breakfast, he takes me to a breakfast place called VFW. We always get bacon there because it’s really good.”
It was Mykah’s essay that mentioned ramen noodles mixed with eggs. She also referenced going on fishing trips, watching movies at home and Dad hosting tea parties when she’s bored.
Her father, who lays floor covering, read the essay after it was deemed a winner and worthy of moving to the next level. Standing in the kitchen, he got choked up. He had to sit down after reading the first few lines.
“Sometimes,” he said last week, “you forget all the little things you do that matter.”
The judging of Mykah’s essay and 1,000 others began with 50 employees of CommunityAmerica Credit Union, a contest co-sponsor.
“There’s never a problem filling those 50 spots,” said Katie Douglass, a communications specialist for the credit union. “Our employees look forward to it.”
The volunteers read together in a conference room at CommunityAmerica’s corporate office in Lenexa. Boxes of tissues are placed around the table.
Many of the essays are sad, referring to fathers unknown or those with addiction issues, Douglass said. Others make the judges laugh.
“He burps,” a second-grade boy wrote in a past contest, “but he is a gentleman, so he says, ‘Excuse Me’ (most of the time).”
Once the credit union’s volunteers pare the top essays down to about 100, Douglass delivers them to the headquarters of the National Center for Fathering, which sits across from a Taco Bell in a tacky, 1970s-era office building.
There, the staff gathers under the coordination of Bea Peters to select, for each grade level, a winning essay and four runners-up.
The criteria: Does the father express his love? Does he “coach” in a way that shows his understanding of a child’s needs? Does he “model” what he wants to see in his children?
Once this year’s essay judging was complete, questionnaires were sent to the 60 winners and runners-up for Dad to complete.
Forty-three returned the questionnaires, answering not-so-easy queries such as “What would your children say is your biggest weakness as a dad?”
From that batch of 43, the center narrowed down 10 candidates for Father of the Year.
Criminal background checks were run.
Obviously, “we don’t want a Father of the Year with nine warrants out,” said Sherri Solis, assistant to the center’s chief executive officer, Carey Casey.
The final selection rested with chief operating officer Jeff Jenkins, father of two.
He scheduled telephone interviews, each lasting about 45 minutes, with the 10 finalists.
“This was my first rodeo” in picking the Father of the Year, said Jenkins, 46, a recent hire. He half-expected a bad apple or two — maybe someone who would slip up in the interview by voicing disrespect for a child’s mother.
Instead, all 10 impressed him.
The common thread was not so much the attempts they made to wow a child with, say, an exotic vacation, but in the time they spent on the day-to-day stuff, he said.
“You spend time, you just be present, and the memorable moments create themselves,” Jenkins said.
Joe Kelly, an Oakland, Calif., author of six books on fathering, agreed: “It’s that old cliche about what children need. Presence, not presents. I think dads in general don’t know that enough.”
The center’s staff huddled for prayer before the big announcement Tuesday at the Royals game.
Chief development officer Brian Blomberg scanned the crowd under the tent behind left field and noted, “This is an average man’s contest.”
Of the dozens being honored, one guy, Kevin Holman, wore a necktie. That’s only because the boy who nominated him, Lee’s Summit High School student Sighris Sharber, wears a tie to school.
Holman is a campus supervisor who talks with Sighris daily.
“He’s there for me in an emergency,” like when a fire alarm creates confusion, said Sighris, who is autistic. “Just by walking over to me, he makes me feel safe.”
After all the essays were read, CEO Casey gave a stemwinding speech imploring parents to tell their children, or someone else’s children, how much they’re loved this Father’s Day weekend.
“Telling them that will take them further than all the dollars you can pull from your pocket,” Casey said.
The five nominees for dad of 2014 were announced: Huff, French, Mark LaPoint, Darin Christman and Dan Phillips. They were spirited to the bowels of the stadium and met Janie Quisenberry Stone, widow of the pitching great for whom the award is named.
On the field, when Huff of Topeka was declared the champ, he and his son, Braxton, just threw back their heads and laughed, which they say they do a lot.
A manager of information technology at Capital Federal Savings Bank, Huff said later, “I am absolutely humbled.”
Still, he wondered. Does he deserve a trophy (and a year of free Krispy Kreme doughnuts) for loving his boy?
That’s the funniest part, Huff said: “It’s not hard.”