In honor of Father’s Day, I’m writing about my father. My Dad, John Svoboda, was born in 1914 in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents, John and Anna, were immigrants from Bohemia. Their first child, a little girl, was stillborn. My Dad was born a year later, followed by five other children: Helen, Jim, Charlie, Alice, and Henry (Hank).
The family lived in St. Adalbert Parish on the city’s east side. They spoke only Bohemian at home. Dad said he learned English “on the streets” playing with the other kids. His first grade teacher was Sister Maron, a Sister of Notre Dame. Amazingly, she taught her first graders how to read and write in two languages: English and Czech.
Dad attended East Tech High School where he played nose tackle for the football team that won two senate championships. For a very short time, the Olympic track star, Jesse Owens, was on the team, before the track coach, seeing his incredible talent in track, yanked him off the football team lest he get injured.
Dad graduated in 1932 during the dark days of the Great Depression. Though he longed to go to college, that was impossible. His Dad, a carpenter, could find little work, so Dad had to help support the family of eight. Fortunately, he got a job in an auto parts store, working 60 hours a week for $12. As conditions worsened, his pay was cut to $9 a week. Dad dutifully handed his paycheck to his mother each week and she gave him 50 cents for himself.
Prohibition was repealed in 1933. The next year Carling Brewery Company opened and advertised for “young, tall, strong men” to work the assembly line. My Dad fit the bill. He was young—20; tall—6′ 4″, and strong—about 230 pounds worth. He worked at Carling’s 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 364 days a year. Those first years, he got only Christmas off. When we asked Dad how he endured such a grueling schedule he said, “I considered myself lucky to have a job.” His paycheck was so big (about $75), no local bank could cash it. A kind (and honest!) neighbor who worked at the bank downtown, got it cashed for Grandma.
In 1933 John began dating Millie Mach from St. Procop’s, a Bohemian parish on Cleveland’s West Side. John courted Mom via the streetcar that ran beneath the high level bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River. They were married in 1937. A year later they had their first child, Frankie, named after my mother’s father. Although the baby looked healthy, sadly he died 3 days later. For the wake, my Mom was still in the hospital. My Aunt Alice, a teenager at the time, remembered Dad sitting in their living room and receiving callers with the little white casket on his lap.
Within six years, Dad and Mom had four more children: Mary Ann, John, Paul, and Dolly—that’s me. (I always say, they saved the best till last!) Meanwhile, in 1941 Dad quit the brewery and began to work as an apprentice for Thompson Products in Euclid. Soon he became a highly skilled tool and die maker. Dad could fix just about anything—cars, washing machines, lawn mowers. If he couldn’t get the parts he needed, he made his own. During WWII, he helped make the machines that made the airplanes for the war.
In 1942 John realized a life-long dream. He and Mom bought a small farm in rural Willoughby Hills. They got an old farmhouse, a barn, a chicken coop, and 22 acres for $6,000. Within a year Dad bought a few white Embden geese and began experimenting with hatching eggs. Soon he had several hundred geese and the Golden Goose Farm was “hatched.” We raised geese for the ethnic neighborhoods of Cleveland. We also shipped live geese all over the country. Farmers in Mississippi even used our geese to weed their cotton fields. While running the farm with my Mom, Dad continued to work often 10 hours a day at Thompson.
It’s hard to capture my father in words. He and Mom were married for almost 66 years. He always teased her that he had signed the marriage license with a pencil, but we knew he had signed it with his life and love. As a father he was gentle, steady, and strong. He took delight in being a dad and, years later, a grandpa and great-grandpa. He made it easy for us kids to believe in the image of God as a father. He was an avid gardener, growing traditional crops like corn, beans, and tomatoes—as well as unusual things like figs, kiwi, and Carpathian walnuts. He was an expert when it came to mushrooms, knowing their names in Latin, English, and Czech.
Dad tended his orchard and vineyard, and enjoyed making wine and brewing beer. He had a passion for reading and love for classical music. Our house was filled with the strains of Beethoven’s Fifth, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
Dad was a man of deep but humble faith. Through some very rough times, he proved to be a man of profound personal integrity. At our large family gatherings, he was a tall reserved presence. Family and friends came to him seeking advice on gardening, building, and machinery as well as counsel for personal problems. He was truly a sage.
Dad was not perfect. He regretted working those long hours that kept him away when we were growing up. He also took a long time to make decisions—whether he was choosing a wife or buying a new radio or car. But all his shortcomings are overshadowed by his goodness and love.
The last month’s of Dad’s life were difficult for him and all of us. We watched helplessly as this once robust man diminished before our very eyes. Those last days, when I brought him Holy Communion at home, he mustered up the energy to pray the Our Father with Mom and me. Then he stretched out his large hands to receive the Sacred Bread that had sustained him his entire life, through times of darkness and light, turmoil and peace, pain and joy. On this Father’s Day, I thank God for my Dad—for the blessing of being loved by him and for the privilege of loving him in return.
Did anything stand out for you in this reflection?
Would you like to share something about your father with us today?
Happy Father’s Day to all you dear Dads out there!
Today I chose an old song by a very young Amy Grant called “Father’s Eyes.” I played this song for my Dad on his 70th birthday. I believe I inherited much of my basic attitude toward life from my father and my mother.
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