Becoming my father

As I age, I hear my father’s words come out of my mouth with greater frequency.

I see how strongly I have been imprinted by my father. I have his creativity, work ethic, conviction, stubbornness, and tendency toward anger as a way of expressing concern.

I deeply love and respect my father, and as my own set of three boys grow up, I understand and relate to him better with each passing year. He has walked this journey ahead of me and did a good job raising three boys into men of character. I hope to emulate him in that achievement.

Larry Wallace sitting on a green sofa with his two young sons, Lance and Lee, in his lap.
My dad with Lee and me when we were all MUCH younger.

My dad is no longer on a pedestal of perfection. He is accessible and knowable and human. I am innately made up of his best – and worst – qualities. Our weekly phone conversations often provoke tiny revelations about my character and call attention to my own tendencies that are adding up to the inevitable self-discovery and self-assurance that leads to wisdom.

My father’s personality made a strong impact on my brothers and me, and his traits have been both adopted and resisted. Maybe it is the way of fathers and sons, but love and conflict have been part of our relationship since early adulthood.

When I was very small, my earliest memories were of him working night shift for American Airlines and having to be quiet during the day while he slept. I remember him retiring from American to go to Bible college and go on staff of our church as associate pastor. I went from being fairly anonymous in our church to garnering attention wherever we went. From the point he “surrendered” for the ministry, he worked at being a better person to others. He was kind and attentive when approached, and I saw him apply himself academically.

Dad has always been a hard worker. Whether it was long days of sermon preparation and visitation at area hospitals or in people’s homes, he was not afraid of effort. He was the kind of church staff member and senior pastor who was willing to roll up his sleeves, literally, and unclog toilets, set up tables for the senior adult program or mop the fellowship hall.

In his younger days, Dad could be bold and impulsive. He may have been afraid of the life-changing career move when he answered God’s call on his life and left the world of airplane maintenance, which he knew well, but I never saw it. He handled the disappointment of not being called to a church in Orlando where he preached in view of a call. And he humbly went back to work on aircraft at General Dynamics when our church in Texas could not afford to keep him on staff. Those were big risks, and I’m sure stressful and trying times for him, full of doubt and concern for providing for his family. But he never failed us.

I saw my father take on the biggest responsibility of all when he accepted the senior pastor position at another church in Central Florida. When we moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to Lake Wales, Fla., we all viewed it as an adventure, and no one was more affected by that adventure than Dad. He became consumed by the stresses of the congregation, which also operated a kindergarten through 12th grade Christian school. The finances of both institutions were a wreck, and no one had informed him of those issues before he took the job. But as was his way, Dad internalized those stresses and did his best to shelter us from what kept him up at night.

Dad has always been a man of conviction, willing to act on his beliefs. He does not do lip service. A firm believer in the proverb “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” he insisted we help him change the oil, brakes and spark plugs on the car, so we would learn some self-sufficiency. He couldn’t abide the thought of being dependent on anyone, and he didn’t want us to not learn to fend for ourselves.

His commitment to serving the Lord obviously stemmed from conviction. I remember as a small boy looking up at him during the invitation hymn at the end of the service as he prayed and hoped someone would respond to the message and walk the aisle. Even when he worked nights, he was still at church every time the doors were open, and by the time he went on staff, he was already doing everything he could do for our church. He was basically an unpaid staff member.

Dealing with the stress of leadership may not have suited him, but the creativity called for writing and crafting and delivering sermons did. A fiery pulpiteer, he blended well the Scripture with illustrations, and when he had the time, he enjoyed studying and writing sermons. He flashed that same creativity in his storytelling around the table or with company. Whether they were stories of his growing up, his time in the Air Force, working for American Airlines, fishing trips or church life, he had a knack for holding people’s attention and spinning a good tale. He once confided in me about a book series he would like to write about an international spy with a photographic memory. I should steal his idea and write it now as a tribute. I think the idea has enough merit that I haven’t forgotten it.

He loved surprising us. Whether it was secretly packing the car on Thanksgiving Day to take us on a surprise weekend getaway to Galveston or bringing home an above ground swimming pool, Dad loved seeing our curiosity turn to joy.

Lance Wallace sits in a brown chair holding his newborn baby son who wears a knit green cap.
See the resemblance? I guess having three boys does make me and Dad more similar than different.

Like Dad, I, too, have shown a propensity for hard work. It didn’t strike me as unusual to work long into the night at the newspaper, and when I transitioned to public relations, I put in many 60-plus hour weeks writing and disseminating messages for my nonprofit employers. Yard work was my therapy. Mowing, trimming, blowing, raking, weeding – I grew up doing yard work year-round in Florida, and the dirt and sweat was as familiar to me as the computer keyboard and notepad. Like Dad, I am not afraid of working hard.

I also made a big career jump, though not as big as Dad’s, when I left newspaper journalism for public relations. I didn’t have to relocate, at least not immediately, but I embraced the big life change a few years later when we moved from Macon to Lilburn for my job.

Church is important to me, and I have wrestled with a sense of calling all my life. I spent 10 years communicating for a missions-sending organization which gave me close proximity to church leaders and ministers. I traveled and spoke in churches and saw the lives and work of missionaries up close. As much as that experience profoundly influenced me, I did not ultimately believe I was called to serve the local church like Dad or my brothers. I am at church every time the doors are open, teaching Sunday School, leading committees, chaperoning kids to camps, chairing the board of deacons and serving in a variety of capacities as needed. I love the local church and profess that love in a monthly blog called View from the Pew that captures a lay person’s perspective of church life.

Mom is the one who convinced me one day that my inclination toward writing came from Dad. I am compelled to write, recommitting myself to New South Essays during the pandemic. Whether any of my avocational writing amounts to anything, it gives me such mental satisfaction to complete even small writing projects that I have to acknowledge a genetic predisposition to creative expression.

In the days of stress that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also become keenly aware that I share Dad’s habit of showing concern as anger. When I fly off the handle, it is never about the thing I’m raging against. It is the buildup of unvented frustration over circumstances outside of my control. And when I do explode, I feel shame and guilt that I now know Dad felt, too.

I am learning to handle my temper better. I wish I could be infinitely long suffering. I want to express concern as compassion and empathy. To do so, I need to go against my programming and nurture and establish a new model for my boys. Men of previous generations did not have permission to handle their emotions in constructive ways or even acknowledge that they had emotions in most cases. I have learned to recognize Dad’s feelings for what they truly are and not be scared because he seems angry at me.

In these and many more ways, I am like my father. I hope the world is better for it.

Tell us about your father. Leave a comment with what you’ve learned about yourself as it relates to your dad. Reflecting on the commonalities isn’t always easy, but it is meaningful.

What I admire most about my dad

Today’s post is in celebration of my dad’s 78th birthday.

All relationships are complicated at times, and the bond between fathers and sons is especially freighted with family history, birth order dynamics and role expectations. I have been blessed to enjoy the benefits of a healthy relationship with my dad for nearly all of my 51-plus years.

Larry Wallace holds a largemouth bass in a boat on a lake in Central Florida
A largemouth bass always elicits a huge smile from Dad, whether he or one of his boys caught it.

Neither of us are perfect, but our human frailties do not prevent respect. He has many skills I covet, including fishing, grilling, and repairing everything from lawnmowers to cars to home furnishings, but here are the his qualities I admire most:

Conviction. Dad stands by what he believes. He believes the worship of God to be a sacred act and dresses accordingly when attending church. He believes Jesus Christ died for his sins, and he can, at the very least, prioritize participating in the life of the church as a response to that sacrifice. He believes everyone needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he prays fervently they will, witnesses when he has an opportunity and invites people to come to church who might otherwise not hear the Gospel. He leaves Gospel tracts with restaurant servers and toll booth workers. He gives generously to missionaries who take the Gospel to the far reaches of the world. My dad has religious convictions that he stands by and organizes his life around, and I have always admired him for it.

Calling. The direct result of his conviction was his response to God’s call on his life to become a pastor. A mechanic for American Airlines, Dad was not looking to be a preacher when he began to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudging that more was required of him. He did not have an ego-driven need to stand in front of people and be affirmed. He wasn’t looking to turn his life upside down and take on a difficult challenge. He had a good job with a clear career path and a young family he was able to provide for financially. Though he wrestled with what surrendering to the ministry might do to his family and his financial stability, he ultimately knew God was calling him to set aside those doubts and trust Him. So after 10 years at American Airlines he retired, went back to Bible college to earn a degree, and joined the staff of our church as associate pastor. He remained faithful to that call even when circumstances forced him to leave the church staff and return to aircraft maintenance work at General Dynamics. He continued to give his life to serving the Lord through our church until he was called to serve as the pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Florida. I’m sure it was a difficult decision to relocate his family from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to rural Central Florida, but because of his commitment, he followed through.

Laughter. Not every part of Dad’s life was deadly serious. As much as conviction and calling drove his daily decisions, he has always been a person who enjoyed laughter and making other people laugh. His sense of humor helped him cope with the stresses of the ministry and his skill at storytelling made him an appealing preacher and speaker. I remember countless dinners we were invited to in people’s homes where he became the evening’s entertainment. He regaled guests and hosts alike for hours with stories from his childhood in Georgia, serving in the Air Force, catching fish, or raising three boys. When our church started a senior adult ministry called “Keenagers,” he found a willing and eager audience for the most cornball of his jokes, relishing in their groans and chuckles. I hope I inherited some of his storytelling skill, though I confess I don’t have as good a memory for jokes.

Adventure. Dad would go out of his way to surprise us or spark our imagination. When Santa brought us our first Atari video game system, he converted the interior of my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in our garage into the cockpit of a spaceship. While we blasted space invaders on our old TV screen, we felt like we were in the Millennium Falcon dodging Imperial star destroyers and tie fighters. He also put in an above-ground swimming pool at great expense and effort. We spent many hours over two summers splashing and playing through the Texas heat before we moved to Florida, and the pool immeasurably enhanced our summer fun. I will take to my grave the year my parents secretly packed the car on Thanksgiving while we unsuspectingly played in the yard all day. That evening after our traditional meal, Dad piled us into the car for what he called “going for a drive.” As dusk turned into night, my brother, Lee, and I repeatedly asked, “When are we going to turn around?” Dad responded each time with “Do you want to turn around?” That simple but profound question not only helped me embrace adventure and new experiences on that trip to Houston, Galveston, and the Texas monument in San Jacinto, his igniting the exhilaration and reward of encountering the new and unknown fueled so many of my choices throughout my life.

My dad, like all dads, is complicated, but I am grateful for his love and support throughout my life. I hope I am able to give the same gifts and pass on these qualities to my boys. It is a tremendous legacy worth passing on.