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on the corner “Developing character”

By Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief

In your ongoing thoughts about death—those once-in-awhile contemplations about a time of life we only experience vicariously through the death of meaningful people—we need to enjoy the lessons taught by those admired who have already gone through that transition. I’ve been thinking much about my father who died 50 years ago this year. He modeled so much significance, love, creativity and character.

My dad often reminded my twin brother and me “to have good, strong, consistent character.” He rarely amplified the meaning or spoke in specifics about this wish for us. He didn’t define or explain it. He was helping us become both autonomous and authentic, and was using an altogether different method than words. (Words in italic indicate my idea about the ingredients of character.)

For a while, I equated good character with my willingness to obey “Do Not Walk on the Grass” signs. He never imposed himself on us, but he joined us in our enterprises and often taught us with general principles instead of specific rules of behavior.

It was during the ‘30s, the pre-war depression years. One birthday my brother and I wanted bikes. Maybe we were 10 or so. Our dad went down to the “Industrial,” otherwise known as “the Dusty,” and bought two very used bikes. One of them had a gear setting that made it almost impossible to peddle. Somehow, he must have believed that my brother had the stronger legs, so he got this one. This assignment was fine with me. I got the other one. The tires on both held air, and we were mobile.

Being prudent, he gave us certain parameters as to where and when to ride them, and if not obeyed, the bikes would be grounded. Good character, I learned, had something to do with voluntary obedience.

He rarely defined terms and almost never used any kind of a lesson or lecture. He lived his values and acted on them. He understood the importance of emotions and which ones to quell and which to act on.

He was born in 1899, on the cusp of the 20th century, in Helena, Mont., in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers, and raised a Catholic by a single mother and her caring sister. He never knew his dad. He left Catholicism for reasons unclear to me and found The Salvation Army. I’m glad. I’m also unclear about the extent of his formal education, but while still 16, he went to training in Chicago and became a Salvation Army officer.

Over time, I discovered that “parental trust” produces “child trustworthiness”; that I had the capability within me to be empathic, but that I was responsible for developing it; that we learn true virtue through consistent, loving parental modeling not by lessons directed at our brains; that values need consistency and visibility in behavior.

I learned about grace through his forgiving nature as my dad spoke with me concerning rights and wrongs, appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the quiet of a bedroom where my mother had sent me at age 9 to have corporal punishment administered by my father. My mom had told me that my father would deal with me, and he did.

When he arrived home, he explained, cautioned and caused me to want to correct the choices I had made that day. Then, taking off his belt, he said something like: “Okay, your mother expects a spanking, so bend over my knee.”

I did as directed, and he brought the belt down viciously on his other leg and said: “Now cry and yell.” Again, I did as directed. Going out to the kitchen, my mother said, with a knowing smile, “I hope that helped you.” There was a lesson in justice here as well. The punishment fit the dimensions of the wrong and dealt with it in a responsible manner.

He was a man who communicated the kind of strength that brings calm to difficult situations; that sought the best option in emergency situations; that prompted people to trust him. He always thought “big.”

He didn’t always get along with superiors. I think he had a difficult time with status quo non-risk takers. He resonated to change agents with creativity. Wherever he was stationed he had programs on the radio and strong connections with the press.

Nothing describes my dad’s character better than his compassionate commitment to otherness—to caring about those less fortunate than himself. He was clearly captivated by the mission of the Army and its dedication to the poor. His commitment to this segment of society was both vigorous and passionate. This focus has passed firmly into his succeeding generations. There was a strong compassion about him, especially for those who had fallen hard in the ‘30’s great depression.

In 1945 the war evidenced imminent cessation of hostilities. My brother and I had one more year of high school. We moved to Los Angeles and attended the Citadel Corps that has since turned into three different “Tabernacles.” We each married the beauty we live with today and produced an abundance of children. We each remain active, moving forward with life, autonomous with personal choices, but very similar in relation to matters of character.

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