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The Mother of Father's Day

After telling the origin of Mother's Day, I will now relate how Father's Day came to be a national holiday.

Sonora Smart Dodd (1882-1978)

In 1909, twenty-eight year old Sonora Smart Dodd sat in the Central Methodist Church in Spokane, Washington, listening to the sermon of the Reverend Harry Rasmus. He rambled on about the newly created Mother's Day, the importance of mothers and the virtue of motherhood. After the service, she approached him for a few words. "I liked everything you said about motherhood," she told him. "However, don't you think fathers deserve a place in the sun too?" She was upset by widespread mocking of fathers in popular culture at the time as lazy, sleazy and drunk and decided that men like her father needed a similar holiday and embarked on a lifelong quest to make it happen.

Her father was William Jackson Smart, born on 5 June 1842 in Crawford County, Arkansas. His father died in 1851, leaving his mother with five children to raise.

Although Arkansas joined the Confederate States of America in 1861, it had initially voted to remain in the Union and not all of its citizens supported secession. On 21 March 1863 William enlisted as a private in the First Arkansas Light Artillery Battery, a military unit organized from Arkansas Unionists. The battery served in Arkansas, Missouri, and the Indian Territory. Armed with six guns organized into three sections, the battery often operated with the First Arkansas Cavalry in expeditions to find Confederate forces and guerrilla bands. During his service, he rose to the rank of sergeant.

After the Civil War, William returned to Arkansas where he began to farm. Sometime in 1865, he married Elizabeth Harris and they had six children. Elizabeth died in 1878, possibly in conjunction with the birth of their last child.

On 18 January 1880, William married the widowed Ellen Victoria (née Cheek) Billingsley. She brought three children into the marriage. She also had another six with William, of which Sonora Louise Smart was the first, born on 18 February 1882.

In 1887 William, Victoria and family moved westward to Washington. Whether or not they may have initially resided elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest is not known, but at some point they took up farming in eastern portion of the territory near the small, rural, Lincoln County community of Wilbur.

On 2 March 1898, in Lincoln County, Victoria died. The cause of her death is not known. She was buried in the Greenwood Memorial Terrace Cemetery located in neighboring Spokane, Spokane Co., WA.

As a cold March wind blew over the rolling hills at dusk, a lonely, heartbroken man trudged home to his children, wondering how he could explain why their mother would never come home again. Returning from his wife's funeral, his loneliness was increased by the unfamiliar countryside of eastern Washington. Now he had to be a mother as well as a father to his brood.

In the difficult years that followed, William Smart did his job well and Sonora was particularly conscious of her father's quiet sacrifice and devotion. She could never forget when her baby brother ran out of the house and into a stormy night, calling for his mother and the calm way their father gathered the little boy into his arms and sang him to sleep.

That night Sonora made a vow to herself that some day she would repay her father. It was this incident that Sonora said was the real beginning of her idea to designate a special day for fathers.

On 26 April 1907 William began the paperwork process to obtain a U.S. Government disability pension based on his days of Civil War soldiering. The request being granted, on 2/1/08 the old soldier began receiving $12 per month. By the time of William’s death the stipend had increased to $40 per month.

When Sonora married John Bruce Dodd, a young Spokane business man, her father had reared all of her siblings to adulthood and educated them to become useful citizens. Sonora graduated from Northwestern Business College of Spokane then studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she graduated with a major in Industrial Arts. She later studied with distinguished American sculptors Alonzo Victor Lewis and Larado Taft.

William Jackson Smart (1842-1919)

William Jackson Smart died on 4 December 1919 after an illness of twelve weeks. His obituary, stated that he passed away in Spokane County at Sonora's home. The obituary went on to note that William was survived by six sons and three daughters, all of whom were present at the time of his passing.

Married and herself the mother of a son by then, Sonora set out to get her plan in motion and approached the Spokane Ministerial Association and the local YMCA with the idea of celebrating Father's Day on June 5, which was her father's birthday. Both groups liked the idea, but due to timing constraints, the celebration would take place on June 19 instead.

As Mother's Day had the carnation as its emblem, the rose was chosen for Father's Day. A red rose would represent a father who was still living; a white in memory of one who had passed.

As the years went on, Sonora pursued the effort and the observance won congressional and presidential endorsements in subsequent years. Newspaper syndicates from coast to coast played up the story. A department store owner, John Matthieson, arranged a picture of the father of our country, George Washington, an American flag and a card with two words written on it: Remember Father.

Sonora even wrote to officials in Canada in an effort to get it observed in that country as well. The press in Mexico, Japan, Korea, Germany, Norway, Sweden and India took notice.

However, not everyone agreed in the need for a special day. In 1910, Governor M.E. Hay of Washington, when asked to express his opinion of father's day, wrote: "Now, as to this fathers' day movement, while, of course, I do not disapprove of the movement in any way, still I feel that mothers' day is the more important of the two and that we fathers can scratch along some way or other without having such a flattering mention of us. We men are somewhat bashful and might feel much embarrassed were we to receive so much public adulation."

In 1916, on an odd demonstration of then-modern technology, Wilson honored the day in Washington, D.C. by pressing a button, which signaled telegraph signals to be sent to Spokane, where a flag was unfurled.

In the 1920s, a movement arose to combine Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in favor of a single Parents’ Day. It did not take long before retailers wanted to make Father’s Day a “second Christmas” for men, to encourage sales of ties, hats, socks, shirts, pipes and tobacco, and golf clubs.

By 1922, the third Sunday in June became the designated day of observance. Two years later, President Calvin Coolidge recommended that Father's Day be celebrated in every state. He wrote: "As I have indicated heretofore, the widespread observance of this occasion is calculated to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and also to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligation in behalf of their children."

During the Great Depression, so many people were pinching their pennies that the economy needed reasons for people to spend money. Father’s Day was promoted by struggling stores as an occasion to get fathers some of the clothing and material goods they needed. It was a way to invite people to get Dad the necktie or pair of socks that he probably would not buy for himself.

In 1937, Congress was asked to make the third Sunday in June the official Father's Day. The resolutions failed passage, but, by then, the day was recognized by proclamation or popular acclaim in every state.

In 1957, Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine introduced a bill to create an official day, writing: "Either we honor both our parents, mother and father, or let us desist from honoring either one. But to single out just one of our two parents and omit the other is the most grievous insult imaginable."

On 24 April 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the holiday into law, declaring the third Sunday in June as Father's Day every year.

Sonora died on 22 March 1978 at the age of 96.

Happy Father's Day!


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