The Fatherless

Absent Dads, Working Moms, Single-Parent Homes, and the Blame Game

“The thinker makes a great mistake when he asks after cause and effect. They both together make up the indivisible phenomenon.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sunday, 17 June 2012, was Father’s Day. Our pastor said, disappointedly, that people came to church on Easter, Christmas, and Mothers Day, but not Fathers Day. So he bent over backwards to emphasize the importance of fathers, and in doing so, showed overt gender bias. You don’t lift dads up by putting moms down. Like the film Courageous (2011), by Alex Kendrick and the people at Sherwood Pictures—I like the Sherwood people—Pastor lay today’s problem of juvenile delinquency squarely at the feet of single-parent homes headed by moms. Some Christian women in the congregation were justifiably offended.

This is my response to Pastor and to Alex Kendrick: I don’t care what social scientists, statisticians, or Sherwood says, when a child goes bad, there are too many variables to blame one person or one factor. The common denominator of wayward children is not necessarily a single-parent household. What if that single parent is a dad, not a mom, do the critics blame him? No. Just single moms. Why is that? Pastor said he’d never seen a woman who could do the work of a man, meaning discipline and management.

Sharing how churchgoing had declined in this country in his lifetime, Pastor never once mentioned that, during those same years, prayer and Bible reading had been removed from public schools, that the country had been demoralized by television and film, that horrors like abortion and euthanasia had become legitimate, or that pornography was now an open secret. Ignoring the current era—the zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”)—he singled out divorce and single-parent homes, particularly the absence of a father, as the cause of our dysfunctional families.

How can anything be that simple?

Consider: A single female head of household—abandoned, divorced, or widowed—is, in practice, a widow. Children with an absent father, whatever the reason, are, effectively, orphans. And the Bible has much to say about “widows, orphans [fatherless], and strangers [foreigners, immigrants, castaways].” Never once does it mention putting on them more than they can bear by maligning or denigrating their humble home. God says to comfort them in their affliction—not put them down. See Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17-21; 26:12, 13; 27:19; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17, 23; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; James 1:27.

Still tender in years, my dad lost his dad to pneumonia. His mom died a couple years later from “consumption.” He was reared in an orphans home. If an absent father is so pivotal, why did my dad turn out “normal”? Why have other orphans turned out “normal”? I personally know “products” of our church orphanages who have become talented artists, musicians, teachers, and church leaders. Many other persons who grew up, on the farm say, without a father, turned out alright. In a different age. If Church or society wants to blame something or someone, let them blame the times in which we live.


George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824) was three years old when his dad, John, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; and his mother, Catherine, rich in her own right, a single parent. At ten years of age, upon the death of his grand-uncle, George became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale, with an estate at Newstead Abbey in Nottingham. He attended prep school at Harrow, then Trinity College, Cambridge University. When not at school, he lived with his mother, or traveled. Mostly Europe and the Middle East. Besides his avant-garde lifestyle, he is known for his Romantic poetry and his service in the British House of Lords. My favorite poem by him is “The Dark, Blue Sea” from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Samuel T Coleridge (1772-1834) was eight years old when his dad, John, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; and his mother, Anne, a single parent. A voracious reader, by the time he was six, Samuel had already read Robinson Crusoe and the Tales of the Arabian Nights. With no interest in anything but reading, he was sent to a charity school in London, Christ’s Hospital, where he met Charles Lamb. He matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge University. Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth were known as Lake Poets (from the Lake District). Southey and Wordsworth became Poet Laureates of England. Coleridge and Wordsworth are credited with launching the Romantic Movement in England poetry. He is known for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was seven years old when his mother, Ewa, died of tuberculosis; eleven, when his dad, Apollo, died, leaving him a full orphan. Conrad lived with extended family in Ukraine until, at sixteen, he went to sea. For twenty years he saw the world, in all its varied sights and cultures, and became self-educated. Afterward he settled in England and developed a writing career, thanks, in part, to his prodigious travel. He wrote Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Typhoon, other novels, short stories, and essays.

John Donne (1572-1631), the preeminent metaphysical poet, was four years old when his dad, John, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Elizabeth, remarried, to a wealthy widower. At eleven Donne entered Oxford University; at fourteen, Cambridge University. Afterward he studied law, entered upon a diplomatic career, became a Member of Parliament, was awarded a DD degree from Cambridge, became an Anglican priest, then Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. In addition to his pastoral duties he wrote elegies, letters, meditations, sermons, songs, and sonnets, two of his most popular being “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” and “Death, be not proud.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was near eight years old when his dad, William, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan, and his mother, Ruth, a single parent. At nine Ralph attended a local school in Boston; then, at fourteen, entered Harvard, in nearby Cambridge. Emerson graduated at eighteen, became a schoolmaster, then attended Harvard Divinity School and turned to preaching. Still a young man, Emerson toured Europe, returned to America, and moved in with his grandfather, at the Old Manse, Concord, Massachusetts, the town where he would become famous as a writer. He wrote only nonfiction: addresses, essays, lectures, poetry, and sermons. You may recall the line “And fired the shot heard round the world” from his “Concord Hymn.” The bridge mentioned in the poem lies behind the Old Manse.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) was eleven years old when his dad, William, a California journalist, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; and his mother, Isabelle, a single parent. The paternal family, the Frosts, arranged for the widow and her children to come east to Massachusetts, where they owned a mill. Robert attended Dartmouth College and Harvard University, but never graduated. After his grandfather left him a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, Frost took up farming and writing, later schoolteaching before relocating to Britain for a few years. On his return he bought a farm at Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and for decades, besides writing plays, poetry, and prose, taught English at Middlebury College, in Vermont. Four times he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Two of my favorite Frost poems are “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowing Evening.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was four years old when his dad, Nathaniel Sr, died in South America of yellow fever, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Elizabeth, moved in with relatives in Salem, Massachusetts. A decade or so later, the widow and her children moved into a brand-new house on Sebago Lake, in Maine. At seventeen Nathaniel matriculated at Bowdoin College, in Maine, where he made the lifelong friendship of Franklin Pierce (later US President), and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne became editor of a magazine, began writing short stories, and then novels, took a job as customs inspector, and lived for a short time at Lenox, Massachusetts, where he became friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr and Herman Melville. After Emerson moved out of the Old Manse, Hawthorne, and his wife, Sophia, moved in, also settling in Concord, eventually owning a home of their own, the Wayside, next door to Bronson Alcott and across the street from Emerson. Though he wrote several novels and short stories, Hawthorne is probably best known for The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and Mosses From an Old Manse.

George Herbert (1593-1633) was three years old when his dad, Richard, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Magdalen, was left with ten children, whom she reared by herself. At twelve George enrolled at Westminster School; at sixteen, at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he earned undergrad and graduate degrees. He became a Cambridge scholar, a Member of Parliament, and a rural parson; there in the country he preached and wrote metaphysical poetry. He is known for The Temple.

John Keats (1795-1821) was eight years old when his dad, Thomas, fell off a horse and died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; and his mother, Frances (“Fanny”), a single parent. The four surviving children were sent to live with their grandmother, Alice. Six years later his mother died, making him a full orphan. John became an apprentice with a surgeon and apothecary, after which he studied medicine at King’s College, London. He received his license, but to his family’s disappointment, instead of practicing medicine decided to become a poet. He took up with Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Gordon Lord Byron and began writing Romantic verse. You may recall “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” from his Endymion.

Jack London (1876-1916), born out of wedlock, never knew his father. When his mother, Flora, married, he took his step-father’s name. A mere teen, in the era before child labor laws, Jack worked long days at a California cannery and read books from the local library. He later hopped a schooner to Japan, worked in a jute mill, then a power plant, and became a tramp, before turning to school. He attended Oakland High, then the University of California Berkeley, but dropped out in favor of the Klondike Gold Rush. In Alaska he was privileged to meet mining engineers educated at Yale and Stanford. His adventures, which also included goldfields in Nevada, provided fodder for his short stories and novels. In his day, he was the most popular fiction writer in America. A prolific author, he is perhaps best known for The Call of the Wild and “To Build a Fire.”

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was twelve years old when his dad, Allan, a Boston merchant, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Maria, turned to her Dutch relatives. To help the family, Herman got a job at sea; his adventures whaling in the South Pacific, as far away as Australia, gave him material for the novels he was later to write; when he wasn’t sailing, he worked as a schoolteacher. Melville married a daughter of a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. They honeymooned in Canada and settled at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, near Lenox, where they reared a large family and he wrote in an upstairs room at a simple wooden desk. One of his novels was Moby Dick.

• James A Michener (1907-1997), fatherless and motherless, was told he was a foundling. He was reared in a group home, in Pennsylvania, by a single woman, Mabel Michener, who took in strays. During the schoolyear he attended school, but, after about age twelve, as soon as summer came, he was off. With about $10 in his pocket, he’d wave good-bye to Mabel and set out to see the USA, on foot or riding the rails. He traveled America. When autumn approached, he’d head back home with about $6 still in his pocket. Precocious, he graduated Swarthmore College summa cum laude, toured Europe, taught school, earned his MA at the University of Northern Colorado, taught at Harvard, worked as an editor at Macmillan Publishing, then, during World War II, served in the US Navy. It was during his stint in the South Pacific that he began to write, and never stopped. After the war, he traveled extensively all over the world, made a lot of money, most of which he gave to charity, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (1948). Many of his stories, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and South Pacific, were made into film; but it is his nonfiction books that I most admire: The Bridge at Andau (1957) about the Hungarian crisis, Kent State: What Happened and Why (1971), his memoirs, and his autobiography. Michener was a prolific writer, a fine journalist, whose eyewitness accounts of world events are as good as anything out there. He was disappointed that his works, because they were deemed “popular” were not taken seriously, never made the literary canon, and are not published in literary anthologies.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wasn’t born yet when his dad, Jonathan, died, and his mother, Abigail, became head of household. Jonathan was sent to live with extended relatives; his guardian was his uncle Godwin Swift, friend of Sir John Temple, for whom Jonathan worked. Jonathan attended Trinity College, Dublin. During the Glorious Revolution he returned to England, where his mother got him a job as administrative assistant to Sir William Temple. Swift took his AM at Oxford University, prepared Temple’s memoirs, began writing satire, returned to Ireland, became an ordained priest, was appointed to a parish, received his DD from Trinity College, Dublin, and eventually became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Among his essays, letters, poems, sermons, and tracts is The Examiner and A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was nine years old when, upon the death of his dad, Count Nikolai, and mother, Countess Mariya, he became a full orphan. He and his four siblings were reared by extended family. At sixteen Leo began studying law at Kazan University, but dropped out. Later he joined the Army, began writing, and traveled Europe, which opened his eyes to the power and abuses of the State and helped form his sociopolitical opinions. When he returned to Russia, he opened schools for the poor and married a much younger woman, with whom he had a large family. He wrote War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyrich, besides short stories and nouvellas.

Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) was eleven when his dad, John, died, and his mother, Jane, became head of household. Sam was reared in Sunday school, became skilled as a printer, educated himself by reading books, became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, lived with his brother, Orion, secretary to the governor of the Nevada Territory, explored the West by foot and stagecoach, then went overseas on a tour of the Holy Land. After he wrote about his journeys and became a famous writer, Sam was able to marry a rich man’s daughter and heir, Olivia, and to live comfortably. Among his books are Innocents Abroad, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Life on the Mississippi. William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature.”

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was eight years old when his mother, Ann, passed away, and thirteen when his dad, John, died, leaving him fatherless and a full orphan. He and his four siblings were separated. William progressed from one school to another till he graduated Cambridge University, by which time he was already writing poetry. Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southey, and Wordsworth were Lake Poets (from the Lake District). Southey and Wordsworth became Poet Laureates of England. Coleridge and Wordsworth are credited with launching the Romantic Movement in England poetry. He wrote Lyrical Ballads and other poems.


Johann Strauss (1804-1849) was seven years old when his mother, Barbara, died, leaving him motherless, and twelve when his dad, Franz, died, leaving him a full orphan. His guardian placed him as an apprentice to a bookbinder, during which time he began taking lessons in violin and viola, and placed in a local orchestra. When his apprenticeship ended, he joined a string quartet playing Viennese waltzes and German folk dances, formed his own band, took up conducting, and began to compose his own music, including the “Radetzky March,” while traveling and learning new sounds. He played at the coronation of Queen Victoria (1838). He also headed the Strauss family of musicians: Johann Strauss II, Josef Strauss, and Eduard Strauss were his sons; Johann Strauss III, Eduard Strauss II, his grandsons.


William Whiting Borden (1887–1913), dubbed Borden of Yale (Class of 1909), was reared in Moody Church, Chicago, and was saved and baptized under the ministry of RA Torrey. Scion of the Borden dairy family, he was privileged. At sixteen he toured Europe, Africa, and Asia; upon his return his dad died, leaving him a half-orphan and independently wealthy. When a friend told him that he would be “throwing his life away as a missionary,” Borden replied, “You have never seen heathenism.” After Yale, he graduated Princeton Theological Seminary. to become a missionary to the Muslims of Northern China, he went to Egypt to study Islam and Arabic; but before he left the States, he made out his will, willing his entire inheritance, $1 million, to the China Inland Mission, Moody Church, Moody Bible Institute, Princeton Theological Seminary, and other Christian agencies. When he looked at the paper, he thought, I’m worth more dead than I am alive. He told the Lord, that if he could do more by death than by life, then take him. The following spring, only twenty-five, he died prematurely, in Egypt, of cerebrospinal meningitis. In Borden‘s Bible his family found these words: “No Reserve,” “No Retreat,” “No Regrets.”

David Brainerd (1718–1747), son of a Connecticut legislator and one of ten children, was fourteen when his dad died and nineteen when his mother died, leaving him the family farm. He was only in his twenties when he was riding horseback through the North woods, too often overexposing himself by not seeking shelter from the cold rain, and afflicted with what must have been consumption or tuberculosis, which later killed him. During his student years at Yale, free speech was forbidden: no one was permitted to say that any faculty or staff was a carnal, unconverted man or a hypocrite. When Brainerd, caring more for his faith than his career, criticized a faculty member, he was expelled. This expulsion was further aggravated by a state law denying ministerial credentials to anyone who had not graduated Harvard. Brainerd had no choice but to work independently. He ministered three years at what he called the forks of the Delaware River (New Jersey), but that was not the extent of his labors. In his brief lifetime, he traveled over 5,000 miles on horseback, all the way from places like Tennessee and North Georgia, through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and back to Massachusetts. With audiences sometimes numbering in the thousands, he evangelized Native Americans, brought grown men to godly tears of repentance, and established Christian missions.“I cared not where I lived or what hardships I went through, so that I could but gain souls for Christ. All my desire was for the conversion of the heathen, and all my hope was in God.” His dedication to the Master was such that his prospective father-in-law and sympathizer, Jonathan Edwards, in whose home Brainerd died at age twenty-eight, wrote his biography. His story caused some influential persons to leave Yale and found a college in New Jersey: Princeton, where Edwards later served as President.

Peter Marshall (1902-1949) was born in Scotland, half-orphaned at four, and reared by his Presbyterian mother. As a teenager, he worked long hours doing physical labor and studied at night. He was also active in his church, taught Sunday school, led junior choir, had a love of music, served as scoutmaster, took young fellows on hikes, worked with the YMCA, and even knew Eric Liddell, the rugby player. After learning that Eric was going to China as a missionary, Peter decided to give himself to Christian service, eventually emigrating to America, where he attended Columbia Theological Seminary, graduating magna cum laude (1931), then pastoring in Greater Atlanta and Washington, DC, where he was elected chaplain of the US Senate. His story is told in A Man Called Peter; his sermons, in Mr Jones, Meet the Master.

Peter John Marshall (1940-2010) was the only child of Peter and Catherine Marshall. Still small when his mother learned she had tuberculosis and was homebound for nearly three years (1943-46), he was placed in the care of a nanny. He was only six years old when his dad collapsed over the pulpit with his first heart attack; only nine, when his dad died from a second heart attack. Peter John attended Sidwell Friends School, DC, and earned his high school diploma at Moody’s Northfield school Mount Hermon (now a prep school), his BA in history at Yale University, and his divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Like his father, he became a minister, pastoring in Hartford, Connecticut, and East Dennis, Massachusetts. Like his mother, he wrote: The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet.

Dwight Lyman Moody (1837-1899) was only four when his dad, Edwin, a bricklayer, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan, and his mother, Betsey, head of household. Like most children, Moody was “put out,” meaning boarded with a family where he could work as a hired hand. Moody later went to work as a salesman, got involved with the YMCA, and began going into poor homes to pick up children for Sunday school. Afterward he became an evangelist, then empire builder, traveling all over England and America preaching the gospel.

Reuben (“Bud”) Robinson (1860-1942), born in rural Tennessee, youngest of thirteen children, was a teenager when his dad died. His mother relocated to Texas, where Bud hired out as a ranch hand. In those days he was known as a wild one. He drank, danced, and gambled. But then the Lord got hold of him. At age twenty, with a pistol in one pocket and a deck of cards in the other, he attended a Methodist camp meeting and was converted. When the meeting was over, he ran outside, disposed of the gun, and threw the cards into the fire. That night, lying under a wagon, with a mesquite stump for a pillow, he sensed the Lord calling him to preach. The main problem was that he had no education, could not read or write, and stuttered badly. But the Lord enabled him to do the impossible. He became a Holiness preacher. His daily prayer was “O Lord, give me a backbone as big as a sawlog, ribs like the sleepers under the church floor, put iron shoes on me and galvanized breeches, give me a rhinoceros hide for a skin, hang a wagonload of determination up in the gable-end of my soul, and help me to sign the contract to fight the devil as long as I’ve got a fist and bite him as long as I have a tooth, then gum him till I die.” and sweet-tempered, with a witty and colorful way of expressing himself, Robinson never wanted for an audience. He’d tell the thousands who thronged his meetings, “My prayer is that the Lord will turn a hogshead of honey over in your soul and just let it ooze out between your ribs until you will be so sweet that every bumblebee and honeybee in the settlement will be abuzzing around your doorstep.” In sixty years of ministry, he traveled 2 million miles, preached 33,000 sermons, witnessed 200,000 conversions, served as a trustee for Texas Holiness University, contributed over $85,000 to Christian education, secured over 50,000 subscriptions to his church paper, The Herald of Holiness (for which he wrote a featured column), wrote 14 books that sold more than 500,000 copies, and was named to Who’s Who of California.

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was two when his dad, Thomas, an innkeeper, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan. mother, Elizabeth, struggled to provide for her seven children by continuing to operate the Bell Inn, a large, elegant hotel in downtown Gloucester. When old enough, fifteen, George helped her by doing chores and serving as bellhop. By night he studied. At seventeen George secured a spot at Oxford University, joined the Holy Club, graduated, took up “field preaching,” engaging massive audiences numbering in the thousands, and became one of the most outstanding evangelists of all time in Britain and America.


William Bradford (1590-1657) was only a year old when his dad, William, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; when his mother, Alice, remarried, the child was sent to live with his grandparents. His grandfather died, then his mother (1597), leaving William a full orphan at age seven. Nurtured in the lap of extended family, the boy turned to reading, study, and ministry, eventually identifying with the Separatists. When this group sailed to the New World (1620), Bradford became the leader of the Pilgrims and the governor of Plymouth Plantation.

Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) was five years old when his dad, William, a lieutenant, died of pneumonia, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Lucy, remarried and moved, with Lewis, to Georgia where her new husband, a captain, lived. At thirteen Lewis entered what is now Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, where he joined the militia, then the US Army, commissioned as a lieutenant like his father. One of his commanding officers was William Clark, who became his companion in the Corps of Discovery project (aka Lewis and Clark Expedition). Lewis and Clark traveled all the way to Fort Clatsop on the Oregon coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

John Smith (1580-1631) was sixteen when his dad died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan. The boy left home and went to sea, then war, was knighted, returned to sea and fell into slavery, from which he escaped. After returning to England, he was commissioned as one of the leaders of the new colony at Jamestown (1607). By canoe Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay and mapped the lay of the land, creating a map that is about as accurate as an aerial view today; his writings about the New World are included in literature anthologies.

Henry M Stanley (1840-1904), born out of wedlock, to Elizabeth Parry, never knew his father; but taking his dad’s name, he called himself John Rowlands. He was reared in Wales by his grandfather until he was five, afterward lived with extended family, but eventually wound up in a workhouse for the poor. At fifteen he became a schoolteacher; at eighteen, he ran away to America, where he met a benefactor, Henry H Stanley, who took him in and gave him his name. Stanley fought in the Civil War (on both sides), then became a correspondent for several newspapers, traveling to hot spots. One enterprising paper sent him on a great adventure: to find the missing missionary-explorer David Livingstone. Outfitted with a well-financed expedition—if Livingstone had had that kind of money, maybe he wouldn’t have been lost—Stanley found the missing man in Tanzania, where, according to the New York Times, he uttered the immortal words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” Afterward, since he was there, Stanley explored the Congo and, later, wrote of his adventures in Africa.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was nine when his dad, Robert, a wealthy merchant, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan. His mother, Elizabeth, struggling to provide, sent him to Methodist relatives, through whom he became interested in Evangelical Christianity. William attended boarding school, prep school, then St John’s College, Cambridge. He became a Member of Parliament, toured Europe, experienced conversion, embarked on a spiritual journey, became a social activist, founded the Church Missionary Society and Society for the Suppression of Vice, and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of the abolition of slavery.


Audie L Murphy (1925-1971) was only a boy in Texas when his dad, Emmett, a sharecropper, abandoned his wife, Josie, leaving her alone to care for the couple’s twelve children. Audie dropped out of school in fifth grade and got a job picking cotton for $1 a day to help support the family. Skilled with a rifle—a lad too poor to buy bullets never wastes ammo—he also hunted small game to put meat on the table. He was only sixteen when his mother died: something he never got over. “When she died, something of me died with her.” He worked at a radio repair shop, then a gas station-store to keep the siblings together, though the three youngest were placed in a Christian orphanage. After learning of Pearl Harbor, Audie was eager to go to war; and, barely seventeen—a little person at only five-feet-five, 112 pounds—he wormed his way into the army, the only branch of the military that would take him. He went through basic training in Texas, through advanced infantry training at Fort Meade, Maryland; was processed through Fort Kilmer, New Jersey; sailed to Casablanca, French Morocco; was given rigorous training in Algeria; and then took part in an amphibious assault on Sicily. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he was in Palermo, Italy, and for the next two years was a seemingly invincible phenom in European combat. His heroics were such that he was awarded every US military combat award for valor available from the US Army, including the Congressional Medal of Honor; he was also given medals by France and Belgium. After the war, barely twenty years old, he appeared in the 16 July 1945 issue of Life magazine as the “most decorated soldier” of World War II. The medals and the publicity led to a twenty-year career in motion pictures, during which time he made over forty films—including his own life story in which he played himself—wrote or composed almost twenty songs—some recorded by well-known artists—and bred quarter horses in California and Arizona. from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he spoke out candidly about the problem and called on the government to extend health care benefits to war veterans for the emotional impact of their combat experiences. He died prematurely, age forty-five, in a plane crash near Roanoke, Virginia, and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Among those at his funeral were President George Bush Sr and Gen William Westmoreland. Normally headstones of Medal of Honor recipients are decorated in gold leaf; Audie had requested that his stone be plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier. After JFK, Audie’s is the second-most visited gravesite at Arlington. His campaign for PTSD led to the Audie L Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital (1973), San Antonio, Texas. The VFW erected a memorial at the remote mountain site of Audie’s plane crash, but it is inaccessible except on foot. Consequently, in 1990, the Appalachian Trail was re-routed to go by the monument.

William T Sherman (1820-1891) was nine years old when his dad, Charles, an attorney, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; and his mother, Mary, a single parent with eleven children. Sherman would have preferred staying with his mother; but when a wealthy neighbor, US Senator Thomas Ewing of Ohio, offered to take the boy in as a foster child, how could she refuse? Sherman later became the man’s son-in-law when he married his daughter, Ellen, at the White House. Sherman, a classmate of Ulysses S Grant and Philip H Sheridan, graduated from West Point; when Grant and Sheridan, with another classmate, Robert E Lee, took part in the war with Mexico and traveled as far as Panama, Sherman felt cheated. He was stuck in primitive, muddy San Francisco, working at a bank. But as fate would have it, it was Sherman who assayed the first gold nugget leading to the California Gold Rush. When Ellen went back to Ohio for the birth of yet another child, leaving the children behind with dad, Sherman played Mr Mom. He later moved to the South and became the first president of what is now Louisiana State University (LSU); but during the Civil War, afraid he might be drafted into the Confederacy, he resigned his job and became a Union general. Unless you read his biography, you won’t know it, but he was an adorable man of lofty intellect. One of my favorite personalities in all history. You will find him also in Bruce Catton’s narrative histories of the Civil War. Sherman’s brothers also did well. Charles became a Federal judge; John, a US Senator and Cabinet member (author of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act); and Hoyt, a banker. Not bad for fatherless sons.


George Washington (1732-1799) was eleven when his dad, Augustine, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Mary, remarried, but George was closer to an older half-brother, Lawrence, who himself died when George was only twenty. George inherited Ferry Farm from his dad and Mount Vernon, another of his dad’s properties, upon the death of his half-brother. At age seventeen George was appointed surveyor, which began his land speculation; later, district adjutant, which led to a military career and the Presidency.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was fourteen when his dad, Peter, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Jane, never remarried. Peter’s estate was divided between his two sons: Thomas and Randolph. At sixteen Thomas entered the College of William and Mary; at twenty-five he was admitted to the Bar. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia.

James Monroe (1758-1831) was sixteen when his dad, Spence, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan. James inherited the estate and enrolled in the College of William and Mary. Still a teenager he joined the Continental Army, was wounded, then took up law. Before age twenty-five, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates and began a political career, serving as Congressman, Senator, ambassador, governor, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and finally President.

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was born about the time his dad, Andrew, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Elizabeth, moved in with extended family who helped rear him. Jackson attended school and worked in a shop. At thirteen he joined a local militia as a courier. When he was fourteen, both his brother, Robert, and his mother died, leaving him now a full orphan. Subsequently Jackson taught school and studied law. After he passed the Bar, he became a country lawyer, then soldier, general, military governor of Florida, Congressman and Senator from Tennessee, then President.

Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was three years old when his dad, Jacob, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; his mother, Mary (“Polly”), worked at home as a weaver. As a boy, Andrew, who had no schooling, was apprenticed to a tailor, but ran away. Later he opened his own tailor shop, became a self-employed businessman, and married the daughter of a shoemaker, Eliza McCardle, who taught him reading, writing, and arithmetic. Afterward he turned to politics, serving as Senator, governor, Vice President, and President.

Rutherford B Hayes (1822-1893) was a fatherless half-orphan before he was born. His mother, Sophia, took charge of the home, rearing Rutherford and his sister, Fanny. Though Sophia never remarried, her son was well educated, graduating summa cum laude from Kenyon College, Ohio, and afterward from Harvard Law School. He became a wealthy attorney, Civil War general, and politician; he served as Congressman, governor, and President. His is the nicest Presidential home I’ve seen: over thirty rooms and 10,000 square feet.

James A Garfield (1831-1881) was an infant when his dad died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; he was reared by his mother, Eliza. James grew up in the Disciples of Christ church, attended public school, worked his way through college, then became a teacher and a preacher before turning to politics. During the Civil War, he was a general, later a Congressman, and, using a “front porch” campaign, was elected President.

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was sixteen when his preacher-dad died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan; he quit school to go to work. His influential brother, William, got him a job as an assistant teacher. Later Grover clerked with a law firm, was admitted to the Bar himself, was appointed assistant district attorney, and was successively elected sheriff, mayor, governor, and President. He had no want of wealth and power.

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was six when his dad, Jessie, a blacksmith, died, leaving him a fatherless half-orphan, and nine when his mother, Huldah, died, leaving him a full orphan. Herbert was passed around among his Quaker relatives and even attended what is now George Fox University, later Stanford University, where he graduated with a degree in geology. He worked as a mining engineer in Australia, became rich in the goldfields, moved on to China and learned Mandarin Chinese, later worked in Russia, then Europe. During World War I President Wilson appointed him head of the US Food Administration; after the war he was head of the relief effort to Europe. And, of course, President.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was the only child of a second marriage. His parents were James and Sarah Delano Roosevelt. His dad, middle-aged at his birth and dead before the boy was full grown, left the childrearing to his wife, who remarked, “My son Franklin is a Delano, not a Roosevelt at all.” Privileged, Franklin made frequent trips to Europe and spoke several European languages, attended boarding school at Groton, and Harvard, graduating with a degree in history; he also attended Columbia Law School, was admitted to the Bar, and worked on Wall Street before becoming Assistant Secretary of the Navy, governor, and President. Franklin’s wife, Anna Eleanor (1884-1962), was eight years old when her mother died and left her a half-orphan; and nine when her father, Elliott Roosevelt—only sixteen months younger than his brother President Theodore Roosevelt—died, leaving her a full orphan. She was privately tutored, then attended finishing school in London. Franklin and Eleanor were the parents of six children.

William J Clinton (1946- ) was a fatherless half-orphan before he was born; his biological father, William Jefferson Blythe, was killed in an automobile accident. His mother, Virginia, remarried; when she had another child, Roger, Bill changed his surname to Clinton to match his half-brother’s. Educated in private and public schools, Bill graduated Georgetown University with a degree in foreign service, then Yale Law School; he became a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford, and eventually an attorney, governor, and President.


These examples are not exhaustive—they just seem so. They are persons with name recognition that I know of because I read history and biography. How many more are out there whose stories I have never read?

You could say, “The exception doesn’t prove the rule.” Who said these were exceptions? They are norms for their time and place in history.

Some, like General Sherman, had a father figure they looked to for guidance; if not extended family, then a step-dad or mentor. Some, like Jack London, did not.

Not all were rich, though some, like Lord Byron, were, because of primogeniture, which made them privileged; but even privilege doesn’t guarantee appropriate behavior. Look at the wayward son of Dolley Payne Madison.

Not all were well-educated, though most were. Education in those days was much briefer than today and consisted largely of Bible knowledge: a person was not considered read unless he knew Scripture. Students entered college (basically secondary school) at twelve and graduated at sixteen, and many never darkened the door of a school again, except to teach. Imagine the freedom! They were not lifelong learners in a classroom; they were lifelong learners in the school of life. Maybe they knew more than we do.

Most orphans were emancipated by the death of a dad: they entered upon adulthood much earlier than today’s youth. They weren’t “late bloomers”; they were miniature adults. At twelve or thirteen. The age of Bar Mitzvah. When a boy became accountable for his actions. Most worked or planned for a career because they knew the value of education and money: they were blessed with a work ethic and survival instincts.

Most orphans had some form of religious belief, even if it was Unitarianism or Scientology, though usually it was Christianity; and society as a whole was more cohesive in its norms.

What is different today is that we no longer have a dominant Christian culture. We have a dominant sin culture. Sin is the problem: not absent dads nor working moms.

That and the fact that we overprotect our children—someone might kidnap them. We don’t require them to work in their youth; they little know the value of money. Children on Waltons Mountain would have known the value of a penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter. Today’s young persons take dollar bills for granted, and treat them like play money, which they are soon becoming. The work ethic is dead—everyone wants a handout. It takes a hundred years, it seems, to get through school; only prodigies can avoid college in their twenties and thirties. Morality is dead—there is no absolute right and wrong. Cinema and the net are Sin City. No one reads the Bible anymore, so they have no idea what it says. Worse, they don’t want to know. In some places the Ten Commandments aren’t allowed to be publicly displayed—someone might be offended …. If you want your children to grow up, then “don’t handicap them by making their lives easy” (Robert A Heinlein).

The mere presence of a dad in a home will not necessarily make a difference. Particularly if he is an inadequate personality, a substance abuser, or a tyrant. Money might. Because the larger issue is whether or not a person’s needs are met. Homes with dads are usually in nice neighborhoods, with nice cars in the drive, and nice playmates at school. Life is more peaceful and comfortable if not perfect. A good husband and father serves as a covering or umbrella over the home, providing a sense of security; without him the wife and children feel exposed. A wise wife appreciates the headship of such a husband. But what if it isn’t available? Does the absence of a father means it all falls apart? I don’t think so. Good moms can pinch hit. Moms and grandmoms have been standing in the gap for millennia, and actually turning out good children ….

You want to help a single-parent home? Think economics: food, clothes, shelter, utilities, transportation … because much of life is simply survival.

“Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do.  With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.”
~Margaret Mead

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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One Response to The Fatherless

  1. Pingback: You Will Not Be Forgotten of Me | Love for a Lifetime

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