A lone battle for a lone father:
How a single parent of 14 children inspired Father’s Day
After 62 years of perseverance, Sonora Smart Dodd finally got her wish. In 1972, President Nixon officially declared the third Sunday in June to be a national Father’s Day; with the UK following soon after.
Since the age of 16, Sonora had dedicated her life to the honour of her own dad who, being widowed for the second time, chose to raise his 14 children by himself.
This is the story of two selfless lives, and one devoted family.
In the modern world it would be easy to dismiss Father’s Day as a commercialised tradition; more about the gifts and the companies that sell them, than the male role models worth saluting. In the UK and parts of Europe this cynicism was, no doubt, compounded today as the annual avalanche of novelty socks were bestowed upon a generation of politely appreciative, yet somehwat underwhelmed, dads and father figures. (Many of whom will have paid for their gimmick stitched gifts themselves, via their children’s pocket money!) Today’s common cynicism makes the origin of Father’s Day all the more surprising, and all the more heart-warming.
Father’s Day didn’t become a firm fixture in our calendars until 1972, more than 60 years after Mother’s Day was formally established. In fact, technically speaking, celebrations of motherhood can be traced back thousands of years, in various guises, to the ancient Greeks. Somewhat fittingly, then, it was a Mother’s Day celebration in the early 20th century that gave birth to its male equivalent—and without a profit motive in sight.
“Today’s common cynicism makes the origin of Father’s Day all the more surprising, and all the more heart-warming.”
Mother’s Day 1909, and during the morning church service, Sonora Louise Smart Dodd started to contemplate how her father, a widower who had raised his children alone, deserved to be honoured in a similar way. Growing up in Spokane, Washington State, USA, Sonora was just 16 years-old when her mother, Ellen, died. This left her and her five younger brothers in the care of their father, William Jackson Smart. And as far as Sonora was concerned, the American Civil War veteran did a sterling job bringing them all up. Sonora described her father as a man who exemplified fatherly love and protection.
“He was both father and mother to me and my brothers and sisters,” Sonora told the Spokane Daily Chronicle during an interview many years later.
William was actually father to 14 children. He had been married and widowed before he met Sonora’s mother, and had five children from his first wife. On top of that, Sonora’s mother Ellen was herself a widow, who had three children from a previous marriage. William truly was a family man, caring for all 14 children single-handedly.
“‘He was both father and mother to me and my brothers and sisters,’ Sonora told the Spokane Daily Chronicle during an interview many years later.”
After her epiphany on Mother’s Day, Sonora got busy petitioning her local churches, shop owners and government officials in a bid to drum up support for a day of celebration to be held in honour of dads like William. Her hard work eventually paid off and, on 19 June 1910, Washington State marked the nation’s first state-wide Father’s Day.
William had led a selfless life, entirely devoted to family. Little wonder then that Sonora had originally petitioned for Father’s Day to be held on 5 June, her dad’s birthday. Unfortunately, Sonora’s local churches couldn’t pull the day of celebrations together in time, so they eventually settled on 19 June—the third Sunday of the month. Father’s Day soon caught on across Washington State, and when prominent politicians of the time began praising the idea, national media attention followed. It wasn’t long before congressmen began lobbying for Father’s Day to become a national holiday. And in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson even visited Washington State to celebrate Father’s Day himself. It’s unknown if William Jackson Smart met the President that day, but we do know it would have been one of his last Father’s Days. William died in 1919.
The campaign to mark Father’s Day nationwide lost pace slightly after William’s death, but that didn’t stop Sonora (pictured above) dedicating the next 53 years of her life to the cause. And in 1972, at the age of 96, she finally realised her dream when President Richard Nixon signed a Congressional resolution declaring the third Sunday in June to be Father’s Day in the USA.
Six years before her death Sonora, by then a talented artist, poet and children’s book author, succeeded in giving father figures like hers the recognition they deserved. Fast forward to 2021, and Father’s Day is marked across the globe—from the UK to India, Japan to South Africa.
In the same spirit of Sonora Smart Dodd, this Father’s Day we’re celebrating the male role models who have dedicated their lives to the care of others. Selfless father figures who, like William Jackson Smart, fight a lone battle to provide the love, care and protection of a family that every child deserves.
Loneliness leaves a child unsure of their place in the world, it inhibits their development, and it deprives them the need to give and receive love. Between 14–20 June we’re exploring how isolation impacts lives, and we’re celebrating the bonds of family—where children belong.