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Guideposts Classics: Dick Van Patten on Fatherhood

In this Guideposts Classic from May 1980, Dick Van Patten, the star of TV’s Eight Is Enough discovers there’s more to being a father than being a good provider.

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I felt a small tug at my shirtsleeve.

“Dadd-eee!” The exasperated tone in my son’s voice told me it was probably his third or fourth attempt to get attention. Seated at the dining-room table of our home in Bellrose Village, Long Island, I’d been absorbed in theater trade papers, desperately searching for an acting job. It was summer, 1963, and I hadn’t worked for three months.

“What is it?” I asked irritably.

“Daddy,” he said, hopefully, “let’s go play catch, okay?”

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Nels was eight, blond, blue-eyed, the eldest of our three sons. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, his brothers appeared—surrounding me like a band of Indians.

“Yeah, Daddy,” said seven-year-old Jimmy, “let’s go out and play!”

“Come on, Daddy,” piped six-yearold Vincent, “Please!”

“Daddy’s busy,” I heard my wife, Pat, say, shepherding the kids toward the kitchen.

I returned to the papers, but couldn’t concentrate. My work had always meant everything to me. Everything. Besides, my idea of being a good husband and father was based upon being a good provider. I felt like a failure.

I stood up and walked over to the living-room window. Outside, the setting sun cast long shadows over the neat green lawns and white frame houses.

With sadness, I recalled how happy Pat and I had been when we moved here as a young couple six years ago. When I met Pat, she had her own successful career as a professional dancer; she’d given it all up to marry me and raise our family.

Back then I was still riding high on the wave of success following my long-running role as Nels on the popular I Remember Mama TV series, sure I’d go on to be a star. After all, I’d been acting since childhood.

I still recalled vividly my first audition. I was seven years old. My grandmother accompanied me to the neighborhood theater in Queens, where MGM Studios was sponsoring a child personality contest. Grandma Van Patten had lived with us for as long as I could remember. I guess at that time she was just about my best friend.

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Now she remained by my side until I was called before the judges to recite my poem. “You can do it,” she whispered, squeezing my shoulder reassuringly.

When I won the contest, which resulted in a four-month contract, Grandma was the one who moved with me to Hollywood. I was 15 when she died. By then, I’d acted in numerous Broadway shows and was working and studying under Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

I was always glad that Grandma had lived to see my success. But, I thought ruefully, good thing she isn’t around to see me now…

In recent years, I’d found myself having to accept smaller and smaller parts. There was no good explanation why, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Not even in church could I find comfort or guidance. My own prayers seemed flat, vague. As I grew increasingly irritable and impatient, my behavior was taking its toll on my family—especially my sons.

I felt the gentle touch of my wife’s hand on my shoulder. “Dick,” she said softly, “don’t worry.”

I gave her the same annoyed look I had earlier given my son. But Pat’s concerned expression remained unchanged. “Honey,” she said, “I think maybe we should pray about this.”

“Pray? Don’t you think I do?”

“I mean,” she said quietly, “let’s pray together. Let’s pray specifically. You know you’ve always said you’ve never prayed without receiving an answer.”

Pat was right. I did have faith in a personal God, and strong belief in the power of prayer. But this problem of a declining career and no money coming in was so big—I didn’t know how to pray about it.

Pat seemed to sense my thoughts.

“God knows what’s best for us,” she said. “Let’s simply ask Him to get us through this summer according to His will.” She paused. “Okay?”

“Yes,” I said dully. “Okay.”

Holding hands, we stood by the window and prayed.

I didn’t feel any better.

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A few more weeks passed. Nothing changed. Pat asked if I would mind if she tried auditioning for some local dance productions. I wasn’t crazy about the idea. But, reluctantly, I agreed. We needed the money.

One muggy morning, I was seated at the dining-room table, scanning the trade papers, when Pat rushed in, breathless and smiling. She had just auditioned for a summer production of Hit the Deck, at Jones Beach.

“Guess what!” she gasped. “I got the job! They want me in the chorus! And the pay’s not bad!”

Instead of being pleased, I felt my stomach tighten into a knot.

“That’s great,” I said tersely. “That’s real nice, Pat.”

She came over and hugged me. “Rehearsals begin tomorrow.” she said. “I’ll be gone a lot during the days. You’ll be all right taking care of the kids, won’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Fine.”

By this time, the three boys had found places around the table and were listening with rapt attention.

“Don’t you see?” Pat continued. “This is the answer to our prayer.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Right.” It was an answer, all right, but it sure wasn’t the one I’d been hoping for.

When Pat was working, I didn’t really mind taking care of the kids. That is, I didn’t mind the duties involved: fixing meals, doing dishes, enforcing naps and bedroom clean-ups.

What bothered me was the way God had chosen to answer our prayers. True, thanks to Pat’s income, we were “getting through the summer.” But what long-term good could ever come from this situation? It sure wasn’t helping my career.

One hot afternoon as I was putting away the last of the lunch dishes, Jimmy entered the kitchen.

“Daddy? …”

I stiffened, feeling a request coming on. I was in no mood for requests.

“Daddy, can we go to Greenwood?”

“Greenwood” was Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery, where my grandmother was buried. The kids loved visiting Greenwood; with six square miles of wooded grounds, four lakes, lots of wildlife and great shady trees to climb, it was more like a park.

Only 20 minutes away, it was, for our family, a place of good times and happy memories. Why not? I thought. We haven’t been to Greenwood in ages.

“That’s not a bad idea,” I said. “Get your brothers, and let’s go.”

Once at Greenwood, we walked the familiar hilly path to Great-Grandma Van Patten’s grave. We talked a little about what a wise, loving lady Great-Grandma had been, about how happy she must be up in Heaven and watching us down here on earth. As we talked, I felt myself relaxing, forgetting the tensions of unemployment.

Then we sat cross-legged on the soft green grass and decided what game we’d play. “How about looking for the oldest marker?” I suggested.

“Yeah!” The boys agreed. The game was a family favorite.

“Remember the rules?” I asked.

Big brother Nels was quick to remind us. “Ten minutes to search; report back here when we hear Daddy whistle; then we see who wins.”

“That’s right,” I said, and we set boundaries for our area of play.

“Ready?” I asked. Three heads nodded. “On your mark—Get set—Go!”

A mad scramble, and we were off-running and stopping, peering and bobbing, as we hunted for epitaphs of long ago. Caught up in the game, I felt like a kid myself. The sun was warm and friendly on my back. The breeze rustled the leaves of the trees in soothing whispers.

Before I knew it, I was daydreaming about my own childhood—and about Grandma Van Patten. She was always there…her steady blue eyes shining, her voice encouraging, her gentle touch conveying her trust and love for a little boy.

I found a tall, leafy tree and leaned against its massive trunk. In the distance, I heard the whoops and hollers of my kids having a good time.

“1890! Here’s one from 1890!”

“Aw, that’s nothing. I found one from 1865!”

I shut my eyes, allowing my thoughts to drift…

Why, I wondered, had Grandma spent so many hours with me? Surely she must have had better things to do. But she’d always been so selfless, so generous with her time—as though being with me was genuinely important to her. Our times together had meant so much to me.

I’d been so self-absorbed lately—so wrapped up in worry about my career. Perhaps—I felt a twinge of guilt at the idea—perhaps, there was more to being a good father than simply being a good provider. Could it be that God was trying to tell me that my sons might need and benefit from the same kind of love and attention that Grandma had given me?

“Daddy!”

I opened my eyes to see my three sons standing over me with puzzled expressions.

“Daddy, we’ve been waiting for your whistle!”

“Daddy, it’s been over ten minutes!”

“Daddy,” said Vincent, accusingly. “you’ve been sleeping!”

“Come on, you guys,” I said gruffly, “I was just resting. Now, who found the oldest marker?”

But in the minutes that had passed, something had happened to me. Surrounded by my happily chattering boys, I felt my heart melting. How precious my sons were…how short was our time together…how much I loved them!

For the first time, I fully appreciated that, next to God, my family had to be the most important thing in my life—even more important than my career. And with that realization, a great imbalance was corrected in my heart. The weight of worry about getting work had lifted; God, I knew, would take care of that in His own time.

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I was also beginning to understand a little better how God works. By keeping me home for the summer, He had shown me how to appreciate and love my family in a new way that otherwise would have been impossible.

This was a lesson worth more than all the jobs in the world. It was the kind of lesson—I smiled to myself—that Grandma Van Patten would be pleased to know I’d learned.

After that sunny afternoon in Greenwood, I considered each day an opportunity to grow closer to my family. My sons and I did everything together. Before summer’s end, neighborhood kids were coming to the door and asking if Mr. Van Patten could come out and play.

The rock-solid foundation of love and trust that was established proved to be invaluable later. In 1970, we moved to Hollywood, where the stresses and strains of show-biz careers have been known to destroy the strongest ties.

Today, we remain as close as ever. Nels still lives at home with Pat and me. Jimmy and Vincent live across the street. Nearly every morning we still manage to get together for breakfast. On Sundays when everyone’s in town, we enjoy going to church together.

Thousands of years ago it was written, “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers…” (Malachi 4:6). I’m convinced that even in this rapidly changing world, the family can work—that it remains God’s will for His children. It’s up to us to live in accordance with that plan.

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