My Search For Substitute Father Figures

At age 12 at Pacific Union College in the Napa Valley, I took up jogging, eventually completing five marathons (with times of over four hours each). I bonded with other marathoners at the college, most particularly with David Nieman, now a professor of public health at Appalachian State University.

I’d hang out at David’s office at the campus and read his magazines and books about running. I’d travel with David and other runners to various races. He was somebody I could talk to about anything. He was a totally upright guy.

I have a good eye for character. I’ve never bonded with a bad person.

My father’s focus was on his work and his religion. It was just easier for me to talk to people like David. They seemed more worldly than my dad. They seemed more accessible. They had more time for me. They were easier to be with. They weren’t as tense and driven.

Looking back, I see David Nieman as my first in a long line of substitute father figures.

Another teacher who befriended me at this time was the Physical Education teacher Chuck Evans. He taught me how to hit a softball, how to catch, and some other mechanics of American sports. He was easy to talk to. He shared my interests in sports and talk radio. Every time I went back to PUC, I liked to look him up. He’d lend me books and he always had something smart to say.

My seventh grade PE teacher Duane Caulkins also became a friend. He’d lend me books and talk to me about sports. We traveled to some running races and baseball games together.

David, Chuck and Duane were all good Adventists but also sophisticated in the ways of the world. I was increasingly interested in what lay outside of the church and they helped me to grow up. They mentored me.

I finished the last six months of eighth grade with the Hartelius family while my parents were in Washington D.C.. Glenn was at the college but he made time to talk about politics with me and to play these games I invented.

A friend asked me why I didn’t play these games with my father. I was horrified at the suggestion. My dad was way too busy. He’d hate these games. He had more important stuff to do. More than that, he was not capable of playing a game for enjoyment. I would feel his lack of ease with the waste of time and that would kill the joy for me.

In the summer of 1981, my family bought a house at 7955 Bullard Drive, Newcastle, CA 95658. About a mile away was a kid my age, Kevin McKee. I spent much of that summer hanging out with him. I really liked his dad, Bob McKee, who worked for the state inspecting prisons.

Bob said I knew more about sports than any other kid he knew. Sometimes we’d sit in the shade and talk about football for hours. We’d also talk about politics. He was a Reagan Democrat. He told me not to worry about nuclear war. He asked me who I believed wrote the Bible. I said men wrote the Bible but they were inspired by God. Bob wasn’t religious (the McKees were my first friends who weren’t religious) and he was my first friend who smoke and drank.

During much of high school, I dreamed about becoming a sportscaster. At times, I’d have this fantasy of Bob McKee giving me a job editing together the days sports highlights.

Circa 1986, while I was at Sierra Community College, Bob asked me which university I’d transfer to. I said Sac State. He said, “You know what they say about Sac State, don’t you?”

“No,” I said.

“Somebody’s got to go there,” he said.

I was so stung by his words that I resolved to study harder and go to UC Davis instead. Eventually, I transferred to UCLA.

In 1988, I came down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and spent much of the next six years at home at 7955 Bullard Drive. Occasionally, I’d run into Bob McKee. I felt like a loser.

The last time I saw him was Sunday, January 17, 1993. I called his home and Kevin answered and he said they were watching the NFC championship game and I asked if I could come over and Kevin asked his dad and he said come over. I was a big Cowboys fan. They rooted for the 49ers. Dallas won 30-20.

I told Bob I was converting to Judaism. I had heard this guy named Dennis Prager on the radio in Los Angeles and he was the greatest thinker. Bob was amused. He knew of my penchant for serial enthusiasm. He said he’d never heard of Dennis Prager before me, but then he saw something he wrote in the newspaper about “Judaism, Homosexuality and Civilization“.

I’ve had no contact with the McKees since that afternoon. Well, I might’ve stopped by in May of 2000 and I think I woke up Mrs McKee from a nap but Bob wasn’t home.

My other main mentor in high school was the Sacramento Bee sports editor Joe Hamelin. His son Scott was in my grade at Placer High School. In my senior year, I got Joe to do broadcasts with me of the school’s basketball games for the community access channel on cable TV.

I interviewed Joe several times for this same channel, including once after he came back from covering the Winter Olympics. Joe gave me a job covering the Kendall Arnett basketball tournament for the Sacramento Bee in December of 1983. It was the first time I got paid for journalism. It was thrilling.

On many an afternoon when I came home school, I’d call Joe to talk about sports and journalism.

Some friends made fun of me for my hero worship.

My journalism advisor Bob Burge was a big mentor for me in high school. He wrote in my yearbook before I graduated in June of 1984: “I remember when you first joined the newspaper staff, I gave anyone permission to strangle you at any time….

“These have been three exciting, lively years…. In seventeen years of teaching I have never had another student challenge me as much as you did. If I have challenged you to remain calm in the face of disaster and to be both a gentleman and a journalist then, we have both gained.”

I spent hours in my Senior year of high school hanging out in the office of administrator Tom Barry talking to him about books, sports, and life. He lent me a couple dozen books, introducing me to authors Robert Ludlum and Herman Wouk (Winds of War and War and Remembrance).

On a Saturday morning in June of 1986, my third day on a landscaping job I hated, my crew went to the home of real estate titan Doug Hanzlick. He immediately noticed that my accent was Australian. It’s those little things that make me feel significant. I wasn’t just another ditch digger to Doug. I was a human being. When I was covered in sweat and grime doing Mexican work, I usually felt like trash, but Doug recognized me and suddenly I liked him and I liked my job.

An hour later, his daughter Becky came out to talk to me. She was cute and nice and it was 100 times better talking to her than swinging a pick. Life was looking up. I loved my job. Knowing that I could mix with these cool people motivated me to work hard for the next two years. One minute I hated my job, the next I liked it, and an hour later, I loved it, all because of the power of human connection.

I loved Doug Hanzlick. He was my favorite boss. I eventually quit my other job to work for him. I loved hearing about how he made his fortune.

Another boss told me, “If you learn to treat people like Doug does, you’ll be rich and happy.”

I set that as my goal, but despite my best efforts, I never mastered it.

When I encountered Dennis Prager on the radio in August of 1988, he became the most significant of all of my father figures.

Still, I kept searching for mentoring. When I wrote on the adult film industry, Russell Hampshire, owner of VCA, was a father figure to me (1998-1999). He verbally spanked me when I screwed up. He praised me when I did good work. He said they were all going to see me on CNN one day. He was someone I could turn to when I had questions and for all I know, his influence might’ve been decisive in keeping me alive in a dangerous industry.

Recently, a boss said to me, “You didn’t get some things in your upbringing. It’s my job to give them to you. I have to beat you up a little bit to get you to pay attention to details.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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