How My Father Helped Build America

His daredevil days behind him, my dad became a union man

Paul Hawthorne
They tell me my father was a high-school daredevil who once hung from the George Washington Bridge to collect on a $5 bet. I never met that man.

By the time he became a father at the ripe age of 21, James Petersen was a solid planner and provider. He worked two jobs -- one as a warehouse worker for a nearby steel company and another as a school bus driver.

An award-winning football and track star, he went on to win a company citation for having the most organized warehouse. The only time I saw him wear a suit to work was during contract negotiations when as shop steward he was fighting for the rights and benefits of his Teamster colleagues. He was a union man.

I always knew my father was proud of me. My earliest media exposure came at age 16 months in the company newspaper, Purdy's Planet Press. Later when I went on to take a newspaper job, he cried because his college-educated valedictorian daughter was earning only $140 per week. (I did not witness this. My mother told me about it many years later.)

My father and I disagreed on the need to like your work.

With responsibilities only to myself, I could afford to love mine and it took me around the world and led to bigger and better paychecks.

When I took a detour into investment banking research and marketing, my parents visited me one day to have a New York City lunch. My dad didn't really understand what I did (not a lot, Dad) but knew it had to be something because I had an office overlooking Bryant Park.

For me, the most satisfying father-daughter work moments arose when he'd mention a front-page story he read in that very first newspaper I worked for. His independent steel company had long since been purchased by behemoth National Steel and relocated so we were both working in the same county. He'd pick up my paper on the way to work or his buddies would point out stories they'd spotted and saved for him.

My dad was only 48 when National Steel closed his plant.

He had become increasingly frustrated by the management decisions he knew were detrimental to the firm. For a little while it seemed like things might correct themselves, but the decision had been made.

When the plant closed, he walked away with a full pension for 30 years work, but a piece of him died with it.

Work was my father's bedrock. (As his older brother Jack, a former Merchant Marine, would say: "We're Petersens. We work.") Without the anchor of a job to go to every day, he experienced some depression and eventually found work as a courier for a bank. It got him out and talking to people, but it wasn't the same.

He finally hit pay dirt by networking.

A family friend who worked with my mom had learned of a job in the County Parks Department. Her cousin didn't want the job, so she recommended my dad. He was able to tap some political connections in town and landed it. That job made all the difference to his life.

The money was squat, but the benefits were astronomical and he got to meet new people every day. My dad still likes to boast about his prescription plan that subsidizes the medications he takes. He beat the family curse and got a quintuple bypass, dodging any heart attack. This made him eligible to retire early with a second full pension and benefits.

So he left the job he loved.

My dad was a man of simple hobbies. Sports on TV. A week of summer vacation down the shore. Obsession with the OJ Simpson trial. Breakfast at the diner. His grandchildren.

To this day, behind the boasts, I suspect he regrets that choice to leave.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. Love you. Thanks for everything.

> More on the influence of dads on our work

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