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Column: Unpaid and unappreciated

Opening up The Chronicle each morning rarely surprises me anymore. After all, as a writer and editor for the paper, I usually read much of tomorrow's news the night before.

Last Thursday's edition threw me for a bit of a loop, though. There, on page six, was my father looking back at me. I knew, of course, that we were doing a feature on my father's role on Duke's Academic Council. Nevertheless, it was still more than a little surreal to see a picture of him taken 30 years ago, in addition to a feature article on the Christie Report.

Growing up as a kid, I never really knew much about my dad's accomplishments. Whenever we sat in a circle in elementary school and talked about our families, I just said my mom's a lawyer and my dad's a teacher, he teaches law. Hanging out in his office, I never thought of the Duke Law School as any unusual place, it was just where my dad went to work in the mornings.

I've never really thought much about my father being a James B. Duke professor of law. I've certainly never called him that myself, and it's not like his business cards flaunt that title.

But yet there he was Thursday morning, wearing that same placid grin I'm so accustomed to seeing. There he was, reflecting on something he had done 30 years earlier, a decade before I was born.

Seeing my father actually talking about his accomplishments was the greatest surprise of all. He doesn't do much of that at home; I've always learned about his myriad of successes piecemeal.

So, it is only now as an adult that I have ever really sat back and said, "Wow."

But this piece isn't about me just realizing that my father's a great man because of all he's done professionally. No, this piece is about me realizing that my father is simply a great man, and, indeed, a great man least of all because of his accomplishments outside our home.

I guess it's important to point out that I have never been the best son, particularly when it comes to filial piety. I remember once in little league baseball I was struggling with my swing. As I walked back to the bench after yet another strikeout, my father offered a piece of friendly advice. My response? "Shut up, Dad."

My coaches and teammates sufficiently stunned, I rode the pine the next few innings. "Don't you ever tell your father to shut up," one of my coaches yelled. Turns out, of course, that my father's advice--to slide farther to the front of the batter's box--was entirely correct.

My father, though, didn't make much of the event. In all my life, he has never asked that I fear him. Other dads may demand their sons' unwavering respect, but my father figured he'd just earn it.

I've failed at a lot of things in life, and the litany is long. I've failed tests, I've been cut from sports teams. I've neglected responsibilities. My father's responses have always been measured, but they didn't have to be.

My father rarely fails. When he was 13 years old his own father died, but my father didn't flinch. He took care of his mother, allowed his sister to go off to college without any other obligations and then proceeded to bust his ass getting a full scholarship to Columbia.

He has never framed himself in these terms, however. Ever. Whenever I fail, he never states the truth, namely that he probably wouldn't have. He's never made me feel like I'm in competition with him.

As a result, I don't lay awake at night wondering if I've done enough to earn my father's respect. Even more importantly, I don't toss and turn wondering whether I've earned his love.

You know, in this age of post-modernism and encouraged psychoanalysis, today's youth are taught to look at their childhoods for answers when it comes to their own faults.

I used to blame my father for how weak I had once felt. After I skipped two grades when I was 10, I got bullied and intimidated for the rest of middle school and a good portion of high school.

I didn't know how to fight back, and I certainly wasn't very physically intimidating. It would take me years in the weight room to make the football team and to get a job as a nightclub bouncer.

My dad being such a non-violent man, I figured I was easy prey mainly because he failed to do his job. I was wrong, of course. His emphasis on kindness and non-confrontation has served me well. I don't have a fierce temper, and I'm strong enough to let insults slide by without feeling so insecure as to fight back. Thanks to my father, I'm smart enough to realize just how counterproductive violence is, no matter how much I may want to retaliate.

I now realize that my father is an ideal, something he has always been, actually, and always will be. His tremendous work ethic and kind heart are simply two of his most obvious attributes.

My father's biggest triumph is his lack of ego. Never has he needed to dazzle me with stories of his successes. Never has he inferred that his pride in me would come only if I earned it. I realize now, at age 20, that my strengths are his, while my failures are all my own.

Ask to see a great man, and I will show you my father.


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