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“Let her try, Polly.”

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I would not be here if my daddy hadn’t pushed open a door so that I could have a chance.
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I wish I could give my daddy a call for Father’s Day tomorrow.

After my mother died, I called him every night. Most weekends, we watched sports together, with Daddy in Oklahoma and me in Massachusetts, and we called back and forth on the phone after a really good (or bad) play.

I wanted to keep him company, and I wanted to hear his voice.

He taught me to dream big. In the 1920s, he had big dreams of his own: He wanted to fly airplanes. He was barely out of high school when he rebuilt a two-passenger, open-cockpit airplane and taught himself to fly above the prairies of eastern Oklahoma. I always pictured him landing and taking off in vast wheat fields, a tiny plane in an immense blue sky.

He survived the double blows of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in the small town where he grew up. Decades later, both my parents still talked of bank failures and families who lost their farms during some of the toughest times for our country.

By the time World War II came along, they already had three young boys. Daddy tried to enlist to be a fighter pilot in the war, but the Army Air Forces (as it was known then) said he was too old, or at least that’s the explanation I heard.

When the war finally ended, he desperately wanted a job flying the new passenger planes for one of the fast-growing airlines like TWA or American. But that didn’t work out either. My mother told me that those jobs also went to younger men.

So he moved from one job to another: He was a salesman, he fixed cars, he ended up as a janitor. He liked working with his hands, doing repairs around the house. And like a zillion other families, we got by.

When I was a senior in high school, I started thinking about college. I wanted to be a teacher, and that meant I needed a college diploma. But my mother said it was out of the question. She pointed out that we couldn’t afford college, that she and Daddy just didn’t make enough money. Besides, he’d had a heart attack, and now it took both of my parents’ paychecks to manage.

I knew how much my parents sacrificed for my future and for my brothers’ future, but I wanted to teach. It was my big dream, and I wouldn’t give up.

My mother kept saying no, and we argued back and forth. Then Daddy surprised both of us, saying: “Let her try, Polly.” And I was off and running.

There were lots of bumps and wrong turns along the way. I got married at 19 (it didn’t work out). I moved. I dropped out of school. But eventually, I made it.

Whatever I did, my daddy believed in me and my big dreams. He would say, “That’s my Betsy."

In truth, I think he found it pretty miraculous that his baby girl had ended up a teacher. He nearly busted his buttons the first time I was quoted in the newspaper.

When he got sick, I came across a video series about the airplanes of World War II. I bought all the videotapes and took them to him. I was sure he would love seeing the old planes, that he would point out this or that plane he remembered from the war. But the only thing he wanted to talk about was how much he missed my mother.

For months — for years, actually — after he died, I would see or hear something and think, Oh, I’ll tell Daddy about that. And then I’d get a little jolt all over again. He was gone.

I would not be here if he hadn’t pushed open a door so that I could have a chance. That is how this daughter of a janitor ended up as a public school teacher, a law professor, and a United States Senator. And our story isn’t unique. Parents all across our country are working hard to give their children the opportunities they themselves never had.

That kind of sacrifice — a sacrifice fueled by love — is why I’m in this fight all the way. All of our children deserve a chance to succeed. And all of our parents deserve the peace of mind of knowing their hard work created a better future for their children and grandchildren. That is the promise of America, and I’m fighting to make sure we keep that promise.

My daddy is gone, but I want to wish him a Happy Father’s Day tomorrow anyway — and to all the fathers and father figures who are trying their hardest to give their children a strong future, setting the example every day of what it means to care for the people you love.

Elizabeth

 

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