Sen. Ensign, surgeon general preach importance of fatherhood
By SCOTT SONNER
Associated Press Writer
RENO – Influential sons of an “absent father” and a “deadbeat dad” urged community leaders Monday to reinforce the importance of fatherhood to a generation accustomed to men abandoning their children.
U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona described a father who “was hardly ever there” and never “told me once he loved me” in the keynote address to a “Fatherhood Summit” organized by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
“We need to understand the incredible crisis the institution of fatherhood is in,” Pastor Joe Taylor of the South Reno Baptist Church said in a prayer opening the daylong conference at a Reno hotel.
Ensign, who described his own biological father as “a deadbeat dad who took off,” said it may have been more politically correct to call a “Motherhood and Fatherhood Summit.”
“But frankly, fathers have been the biggest let down in society. It hasn’t been the mothers,” he said, pointing to the one-third of U.S. children who live absent their biological father, one-fourth in single-family homes.
“As society we have lost the stigma. It used to be bad to walk away from your families,” said Ensign, who was adopted at age 15 by his mother’s second husband, Las Vegas casino mogul Mike Ensign.
“Too many fathers – even in divorce today – they walk away. They send a check and don’t have anything to do with their kids,” Ensign said.
“We need to stand up as leaders in our communities and say that is wrong. … Even if you can’t stand their mother, they’re your kids and you need to take responsibility,” he said.
Carmona, who grew up in Harlem the son of immigrant Puerto Rican parents with substance abuse problems, said it was the first time in his 2.5 years as surgeon general he’d been asked to speak on fatherhood. He said he typically addresses such problems as “terrorism, AIDS, SARS, mad cow disease …”
“And yet in the end, this may be the important thing I do to work for our country,” said Carmona, who is married and has four children, three of them adopted. “Being a father is a lifelong responsibility.”
Both men spoke openly about their childhoods to the conference of about 100 local volunteers, religious leaders and social service agencies.
“As kind and caring as he was, my father was hardly ever there,” said Carmona, who was temporarily homeless at age 6 and later dropped out of high school.
“He was a street guy. A good man. A good heart. But I think in my whole life, I don’t think he ever told me once he loved me. I knew he did. But he didn’t know how to express it,” Carmona said.
“I never went to a baseball game with my father. I never took a vacation. I never went on a walk with him. He was a guy that came in and out every once in a while. Sometimes he had money, most of the time he didn’t.
“He was always kind and caring and compassionate. But did he really fill the role of a true father or was he just a biological father?”
Carmona said he returned to his father’s bedside seven years ago just before he died at the age of 77.
“I knew it was going to be the last time. I stood there and held his hand,” he said.
“I thought, ‘Half a century has gone by and here I am holding this man’s hand who I used to call ‘Pop’ but I don’t really know who he is.’ I never really got to bond with him.”
Carmona said he met an Army officer who became a mentor and role model who helped him get on the right track in the service and eventually into medical school.
Ensign, a veterinarian who is married and has three children, said his biological father left when his parents divorced in California.
“I saw him a couple of times as I was growing up but that was about it, no child support,” he said.
Ensign and his mother moved to Reno, where his mother got a job at a local casino. They lived with two other single mothers who each had three children and were left largely unsupervised while the mothers worked, he said.
“I got in a lot of trouble growing up. … I really was on the road to becoming a complete juvenile delinquent,” Ensign said.
His adoption turned his life around.
“The difference that made in my life was huge – somebody chose to love me,” he said. “That is why I take so seriously my job as a father.”