As another Father’s Day draws near, I wonder why we forget to sing praises to our fathers more often. I am guilty of this. From day to day, I am more apt to raise a tribute to my mother—who definitely deserves every praise given. However, too frequently and unintentionally I minimize the tremendous person that my dad, Solomon Walker, was and the enormous impact that he made on my growth and development as a boy, young man, and man.
The words that I will now share are in honor of my father. Solomon Walker, if he were alive today, would be 102. He was born in South Carolina to Nannie Walker and Davis Holly. He grew up poor, not unusual during this time period in the south for black families. He also grew up without access to formal education. My dad used to say that he went to school for only two days. I’m not sure if that was true, but I can attest to the fact he could not read or write a legible sentence. In reality he was illiterate.
But although my father did not have formal education, he understood the power of being educated. Over the years, I came to realize that he was on a mission to ensure that his three children were educated.
While in his teens, he lost both parents. He then traveled from rural South Carolina to Philadelphia. He stayed with relatives and picked up odd and end jobs. Eventually, he landed work as a stevedore and then as a career construction worker. During those days—the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s—most construction laborers were African American. Solomon Walker was gifted with an amazing and engaging personality. That gift served him well. He was promoted to the position of labor foreman, quite a feat for a black man at that time and especially for a black man who couldn’t read or write. He directed and led a group of 10-20 laborers daily on construction work sites in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Each day my father hired, fired, doled out overtime, and kept track of his assigned duties. He would come home from work with his time book in hand and give it to me. Our evening ritual was my recording every name of each laborer who was under his charge. I would enter the hours worked for regular and overtime shifts. The unbelievable part of this ritual was my father’s ability to carry the names and hours of every man in his head all day. He memorized them all until he could unpack them with me. As his teenage bookkeeper, that’s when I began to realize and fully appreciate my father’s gifts and talents.
I still can recall the day when my father asked me probably the most important question he would ever ask. Son, do you want to go to college? This was highly unusual for my father. He typically left questions that revolved around education to my mother. I quickly and assertively said, “Yes sir, I sure do.” He replied in a commanding but uniquely caring voice, “Well, I guess you will have to go to work with me.” At 14, I was soon to become a construction laborer working with men twice my age.
Because of my father’s position as a labor foreman and his ability as a relationship builder, I was able to work as a carpenter’s helper and in various other labor positions for 7 years. I worked shoulder to shoulder and side by side with men who were limited in education—most barely completed high school. But all talked to me about the importance of getting, as they termed it, “a good education.” When I received my paycheck, the same amount as the older and more experienced adults, dad made sure that the first stop before we arrived home was the bank. Half of my pay went towards my college fund and half of the half left went to my mother for household needs. Looking back over that experience, I realized that my father had a master plan in mind.
That plan was to get me to college by providing me a job doing what he had to do every day. He knew that this exposure would allow me to witness and experience the tough work that I surely would not want to do as an adult. He was absolutely correct! Stepping on nails, lifting heavy planks, and working under hot and sweaty conditions was not what I wanted for my future. My father’s plan to allow me to see what many undereducated black men had to do for a living was a profound and indelible experience.
At the same time, my father helped to understand the importance of punctuality, being prepared to work, and completing assignments and receiving directions from leaders in charge. Because of my father’s plan to enable me to appreciate the importance and power of being educated, I have been able to become a successful educator, teacher, principal, and the founder of a national education organization. As I think about my father, I can recall the many times that he would say with pride to anyone with earshot, “That’s my son. He is a teacher,” and later, “He is a principal.”
Solomon Walker was a man of faith. He was a provider. He was willing to help those who were down on their luck. He was also someone who knew people and everyone knew him. He taught me to be trustworthy, kind to others, and responsible for my actions. In his own special way he never let me forget that all things would be possible with an education and that opportunities would be limited without one.
Of course there were times growing up when I resented some of the things that my father wanted me to do or understand. It’s natural for an adolescent male to want to challenge expectations set for him. But, I am glad that I became discerning enough to value what my father was doing on my behalf. I am the man that I am today because of who he was and what he did. I am very proud on the eve of another Father’s day to say that I love my father, Solomon Walker. I know that he would be proud of the service that I am doing for others. Each day, I am more aware of the gifts that he shared with me and I see each day how much I am like my father. And I know realize that he was the smartest man that I knew.
To all of the fathers, I send applause and a salute. I also send encouragement for you to be the best affirmative, supportive, and loving man that you can be for your family and community. Take a moment to reflect on the impact that your father had on you. Further, take time to look at yourself in the mirror every day and say thank for another opportunity to shape and influence the lives of your children and others, just as my father did for me.
Happy Father’s Day!