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My father, my hero

Ask people about heroes, and you will hear a small number of names again and again. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes up a lot. So does Mother Theresa. And so do mom and dad, often for reasons that aren't clear to anyone other than their progeny.

The psychology behind that phenomenon is pretty obvious. Parents are more than our first role models. They are our first superpowers, our first gods.

Towering above us, these exalted beings hold our fate in their hands. They reward us, punish us, protect us, mystify us, and sacrifice for us. When we are small, they are heroes of the first rank. But as the years go by, they fall from grace in our eyes. To establish our own identities, we are forced to rebel and to look elsewhere for heroes.

Parents are more than our first role models. They are our first superpowers, our first gods.

But for many people, the deep-down longing for heroic parents persists. Even if our parents are almost entirely lacking heroic qualities, we honor their quieter virtues and cherish the few stories that cast them in a noble light.

It's no wonder that many people, given the chance to name their heroes, pick their parents first.

Of course, some parents really are heroes. Take, for example, my dad.

His name was Sigmund John Dilenschneider, otherwise known as "Dil." He was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the son of a weaver.

He grew up with virtually no money. When his friends went to college, he went to work and saved what he could. 

He didn't get to college until he was well into his twenties, years after his friends had moved on to other things.

He graduated from the Wharton School in Philadelphia, where he met my mother. But this was in the midst of the Depression, and money was tight. Even after they got married, they couldn't live together because he couldn't afford an apartment.

Finally my dad got a job at a newspaper and his career began. He worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Bulletin. 

Then he moved to New York and got a job with Scripps-Howard. He ended up in Ohio, working for the Cleveland Press and finally the Columbus Citizen. 

That's where he was when the story I'm about to tell took place. I was very young at the time, but I remember it well.

It began when the phone rang. To my surprise, my dad took the call in the basement. 

Unbeknownst to him, I was huddled beneath the basement steps in a favorite hiding spot of mine, listening to the whole thing. 

I don't know how much I understood at the time, but I'll never forget the drama and tension surrounding the whole event. 

Later on, my parents filled me in on the details.

The call came from a local department store called Cousins & Fern. Cousins & Fern was then a major retailer in Columbus, Ohio. Its advertising support kept the paper alive. But they had a problem: The store's CEO or founder, I don't remember which, had just committed suicide. The person on the phone wanted my dad to keep the story out of the paper.

My dad said he couldn't do that. He promised to present the story respectfully and not trumpet it across the first page. But they had to treat it as news, he said, because it was important. He reiterated that point a couple of times. A long silence followed. It turned out the guy on the other end of the phone had threatened to withdraw all the Cousins & Fern advertising if my dad published the story.

This could easily have destroyed the paper. But my dad didn't flinch. He said, "I'm sorry, I've got to do it, and I hope you'll be able to understand why I've got to do it, and I hope we'll retain your advertising." Then he hung up and went upstairs. I followed.

The next day, two things happened. The story ran in the paper, just as my father had said it would. And Cousins & Fern withdrew all of its advertising.

Freedom of speech wasn't a meaningless phrase to my father. A newspaperman through and through, he wasn't willing to compromise on that. To this day, I am tremendously proud that he took that stance.

Fortunately, he didn't have to pay the consequences, though he was willing to. 

Two or three days later, a guy named Fred Lazarus, the founder of the Federated Department Store chain, called my father and asked him to come over to his office. My dad went. 

As he told the story, he and Fred Lazarus sat on an elegant French couch and sipped demitasse coffee from delicate China cups. Fred Lazarus said he was surprised that Cousins & Fern had decided not to advertise in the paper any longer. That meant Lazarus could increase his own advertising commitment to the paper. In fact, he said, he wanted to put Cousins & Fern out of business. 

Which is precisely what happened. Lazarus doubled his advertising commitment; my dad's paper was safe; Cousins & Fern folded; and Lazarus went on to become Federated.

That wasn't the only time my father stood up for freedom of the press. 

There was always the issue of which columnists were going to be published in the paper. Scripps-Howard had an annual meeting at which all the papers came together and decided which candidates to support in the next election. Their politics were middle-of-the-road. 

The Dispatch, which was the other paper in town, was highly conservative -- they were so tight they squeaked -- and my dad always felt it was important to represent another point of view.

Accordingly, he filled the pages of the Citizen with liberal columnists. In a conservative town like Columbus, that was not a popular thing. But it was his view that a newspaper should offer alternative points of view, and he didn't care if he took a lot of criticism as a result.

I must note another heroic aspect of my dad: Even when he was provoked, he made a point of getting along with everyone who worked for him. 

One time, the pressmen went on strike. Those were the days of hot linotype. Using hot type was a noisy, dangerous process. The Linotype operators wore gloves in case they caught the hot type. You had to have gloves. 

One day, my dad, who represented management, went down to the composing floor and one of the Linotype operators threw some hot type at him. It bounced off his chest and shoulder and fell to the floor. When it stopped sizzling, he picked it up and handed it back to the Linotype operator. 

He said to him, "You might want to remelt this lead because if we don't, it's going to cost us money and we won't be able to give you the raise you deserve." 

The guy was trying to start a fight. My wise father refused to take the bait. He believed in civility -- and negotiation.

He was quite a figure. He was a religious man who never had a bad thing to say about anybody. He reached out to people all over the community and was always involved in civic activities. 

He was a strong believer in education.

He was not a big spender. He had only one suit -- a blue one, which he wore every day because he couldn't afford another. 

On Saturdays, he would take the suit to Swan Cleaners for a dry cleaning. At some point, my mother would announce that his suit was getting shiny, and he would buy a new one. 

In my memory, there was never an overlap between the old suit and the new one. My father was always a one-suit man. The old one, suffering from advanced old age, was retired. The new one immediately took its place.

My dad was also heroic as a father. 

For example, I wasn't a very good baseball player. Because he knew baseball mattered to me, he got me some special instruction, bought me a better mitt, and did everything he could to help.

When I was hitting, he was there celebrating. When I was not hitting, he would never say a word. 

I remember one of the most devastating moments of my life. I was at bat, and I struck out. And as I walked back from the plate, I saw my father parked in the car about fifty yards away from the ballpark. 

He had seen me strike out. But he never mentioned it, never humiliated me. 

He was that kind of guy. 

I try to keep his example in mind.

My dad wasn't emotionally expressive, and he didn't tell my brother and me what to do. He helped us reach our own conclusions. 

He encouraged. He helped us develop our own talents, and he gave us the tools to do it. 

He also took great pride and pleasure in our achievements. That made a big difference. I don't know if that's heroic or not, but it made me feel pretty good and proud to call him my father.

On the day when I left home for my first job, my dad performed one of his most heroic actions: He came home for lunch. 

Now, I have to say that my dad was always working. He put in long hours at the paper. He never came home in the middle of the day. 

But on the day when I was preparing to leave Ohio and go to New York for my first real job, he came home at noontime. It was highly irregular. 

He sat down at the kitchen table with me and we had tuna fish sandwiches. For a few minutes, we hardly said anything. Then he looked at me and said, "This is a big thing that's going to happen now. You're going to go off, and I want you to be very successful and do what you want to do. But I want you also to know that if things don't work out, I'm here for you. All you have to do is call me." 

He meant it. And I knew it. 

A stranger might not fully understand this, but when my dad came home for lunch that day, it was a heroic gesture. It fortified me at a critical moment in my young life. 

I hope to provide the same sense of support for my kids some day.

Robert L. Dilenschneider is founder and Chairman of The Dilenschneider Group, a global public relations and communications consulting firm headquartered in New York City. He is the author of eight books — including the best-selling "Power and Influence: The Rules Have Changed." This op-ed is adapted from his book, "A Time for Heroes: Business Leaders, Politicians, and Other Notables Explore the Nature of Heroism."