Kevin Sweeney was 3 years old when his father died of heart failure. Jim Sweeney had held a series of increasingly lackluster jobs, the last of which was driving a street sweeper in San Bruno, Calif., the San Francisco suburb where the Sweeneys lived. When he died he left a 34-year-old wife, six kids, no money and a gaping hole in the family’s life.
Jim’s youngest boy, his fifth kid, grew up to work in politics. Kevin, 44, was Gary Hart’s press secretary during his presidential run, worked for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the Clinton administration and is now a consultant on environmental and human rights issues.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Sweeney found himself thinking of the thousands of kids left parentless by the attacks. Perhaps he could help them a little by telling his story? Despite the sad event that defined his childhood, Sweeney says, “I was a pretty happy kid.” How had he pulled that off? In an essay for Salon in November 2001, he explained that five years after his father died he had chosen three new “fathers” of his own:
“I picked out three men from our working-class community and decided that they would teach me how to be a father. None of them would know about their surrogacy, but I would watch them closely.”
That essay became the book “Father Figures: Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life,” which fleshes out the story of how Sweeney chose Jim Gaffney, Chick Kelly and Sherm Heaney to guide him. All three were, like Jim Sweeney, Irish Catholic and the head of a large brood. Gaffney was handsome and smooth, “DiMaggio with kids running around.” Kelly was a butcher, a former all-city football player who, though a quiet man, “filled a room.” Heaney, who played basketball at the University of San Francisco just before Bill Russell and K.C. Jones won championships there, was the friendliest guy anybody knew, and he taught Sweeney a worldview through sports: “If you could play good defense, well, there would always be a spot for you,” Sweeney writes. “The greater lesson, though, was in knowing how a game was played, in how something was done well.”
Sweeney writes that his Irish-Catholic family was typical of its time and culture: They didn’t bring up sad things, didn’t talk about their feelings. At Jim Sweeney’s 1962 funeral, a priest told Kevin’s mother, Marian Sweeney, “I want you to have that smile on your face that you always have.” He writes that it wasn’t until 17 years later that the Sweeneys began to talk about their sadness. In many ways, the issues were still unexplored until Sweeney wrote “Father Figures” and showed the manuscript to his mother and siblings.
The book also forced the family to face some hard facts about Jim Sweeney. Though well-liked, he was an alcoholic, a man whose adult life in many ways followed a steady downward course. Sweeney hadn’t learned these things as a kid, when his dad was always described in shorthand as “a great guy” and a wonderful dancer.
Some disclosure is in order: Sweeney is a frequent contributor to Salon, where his wife, Jennifer, is an editor. (They live in Piedmont, Calif., with her daughter, Hannah, 16, and their daughter, Julia, 7.) He’s also a good enough friend of mine that I declined to review the book, although after our conversation he wrote to let me off the ethical hook: “You need not look out for a friend as you edit this piece.”
A pair of work-at-home dads, we spoke by phone from our respective home offices.
I know you were approached by a publisher after your Salon piece, but why did you write this book?
It’s not a book I ever imagined writing, but I wrote the piece for Salon after Sept. 11, and I had a specific reason then. I’d seen all those obituaries in the New York Times, and seen that there were now thousands of kids who were going to be raised without either a father or a mother. It was overwhelmingly sad, and then I realized, well, that’s me, I know something about that, I lived through that.
And then I went to another level and realized: But I didn’t have a really sad childhood. I had a really sad event, but not a sad childhood. So I wrote that piece looking to reach, specifically, men in the communities where people had been victimized by the bombing. After that I got a lot of feedback, from all different kinds of people, not just men who saw themselves as father figures. Some of it was from single women raising kids on their own, or from people who had experienced the death of a parent at different ages and wanted to tell me about what they’d been through, or who wanted to mine my experiences for something that would help them. So it became kind of a much more broad topic, something perhaps more universal.
Was there any suggestion to write it from a self-help angle? “How to Be a Dad,” or “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Fathers.”
I didn’t want to write anything that I thought would be a self-help guide because I think there’s a lot of hubris in that attitude. I’m not stupid enough to try to write a how-to guide for dads. I don’t want to demean anybody who has, but I don’t have enough confidence to say, “This is how you do it.”
Let’s talk about your father figures, these three men. You’re a dad. In the book you mention in a generic way that there are times when you say to yourself, “What would Chick do here?” But can you recall a specific time when you called on something that you learned from one of them?
Two weeks ago my [16-year-old] daughter and her friend did something that was against house rules, and I just acknowledged it. And then after about 20 minutes, I realized, well actually, this friend of Hannah’s that was over, she doesn’t have a father. She’s actually kind of like part of our family. Her name is Ashley. And I realized I shouldn’t leave it unsaid, I should go up and explain specifically why I was upset, and I should tell them that I don’t want them to do it again because it has to do with their safety, and that I care about both of them. Not just Hannah. I care about both of them.
I did think specifically of Chick Kelly before I talked to them. It’s not as if I’m unconsciously saying very often “What would Chick do?” or “What would Sherm do right now?” But in that case, I was acknowledging Ashley’s importance in my life.
It’s in those instances when I think of Chick Kelly, because I saw him as this emotional rock, I mean this really steady presence, who when something needed to be said, he could establish the right cadence and presence and simply say it. I think of that sometimes when I want to get collected before I talk to Hannah about challenging issues.
What is something about fatherhood that you didn’t pick up from them, that you had to learn for yourself?
I think the biggest thing about fatherhood for me that I didn’t get from them is that it really is a willingness to provide unrequited love. Like you were saying the other day with your son, you know, the first month, there’s almost no interaction.
I said you don’t get much back.
It’s a gift to the kid that you’re taking care of him. You can’t expect anything back. There are periods when a child is very young, and there are periods in adolescence, when you don’t get anything back for a long time. But if you just stick with it, you’re rewarded.
Is there anything that you learned from them that you’ve unlearned, that you’ve abandoned?
They were — like my father, like me — imperfect dads. So there were things I did not write about in the book that I observed and realized I probably didn’t want to do. Among the three there was one that was probably more harsh, more judgmental of his kids’ behavior than was constructive. That’s a case where I saw it then, but I still loved him so much and wanted to be like him so much. But I could see that the harsher treatment of the older kids, the harsher treatment perhaps of girls in the family than of boys, was something I wanted to avoid.
But I will say that these guys were all very clear about what they thought was right and wrong, and they were willing to say, “Look, this is how a good life is lived.” That’s a tendency that I embrace, and that I miss in today’s society, the unwillingness to participate in discussions of morality, the hesitation to do so. At the same time, I realize that our entire culture back then was judgmental, and unfair to many people. So that’s a tendency I saw in those guys and I respected then, but now that I’m their age and I’m implementing it, I’d like to be judicious in doing so. And, you know, some would argue that I should be more judicious. And some do argue that.
One of the major themes that you keep coming to throughout the book, and you end up on it, is this theme of language, acquiring the language to talk about your feelings, one’s feelings. That was absent from your house — your family didn’t talk about the loss of your dad.
It was entirely absent. But I think it was absent from a lot of houses back then. Part of it was us, part of it was just the larger culture of the time, certainly Irish Catholic culture. There was a lot of bottling up. And that was one of the issues that was hard to write about because I couldn’t just say, “You have to talk about these things.” I had to show some of the things we didn’t talk about and why we didn’t talk about them, and that’s troubling sometimes for a family to have to see publicly.
And also I presume it’s not something you really learned from these father figures.
Well, as I look back, one thing about each of them that was interesting was that they didn’t often leave things unsaid. So while Jim Gaffney may not have been articulate about emotions, he did say to me on several occasions, “I really admire your mother.” And he said it in a way and with a cadence that suggested it was something that he felt very deeply. He didn’t leave it unsaid. That’s an easy thing to kind of let pass, but he felt the need to, and he found the ability to, say it out loud.
There’s the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Sherm actually did say nice things. So the fact that he may not have communicated with me or others on emotional issues, he at least was saying enough that people understood that he felt warmly about someone or something, or felt blessed.
Has your mom read this book?
I wrote three distinct drafts, and I sent each of them to my brothers and sisters and my mom and invited them to comment. The first go-around was very difficult for my mom to read, partly because it was hard for her to admit that there were mistakes that she made, mistakes that we made as a family, and she just didn’t feel like having to deal with that publicly. And then there were issues that I raised about my father, who was imperfect. I had to show how his imperfection affected our ability to talk about him after he died.
That was really hard, and it was also hard for some of my brothers and sisters, and I think we grew immensely as a family in the last year and a half because of the first draft and the discussions it led to. As we got to the second and third draft, my mom — I think — began genuinely to love the book, and saw that it can help other families, and saw that it was a respectful and loving portrait of our family.
Sherm Heaney is the only one of the three father figures still alive. Has he read the book?
He has. He read an early manuscript and then he read the final draft.
What does he think?
You know, he’s very congratulatory. He says, “This is great and I’m sure this’ll help other people.” I sense that Sherm is hesitant to be held up as a model dad. But I think he is a model dad. He’s a very competent, very confident guy.
Hannah is old enough to get this whole thing. What does she think of the book?
She’s been complimentary of it and she’s been supportive. I think she’s probably relieved that all these stories that she’s heard over and over and over again at the table are finally out in book form so that maybe now I’ll stop repeating them. I think she’s shocked that all the stuff she’s heard for free, somebody’s actually going to pay 23 bucks to read.