Having researched, studied and practiced proven, long-term strategies in pursuit of molding better dads, fatherhood guru David Hirsch of Barrington still has a soft spot for the Band-Aid approach.
"Carry a Band-Aid in your wallet," says Hirsch, 53, as he opens his wallet to reveal a wrapped adhesive bandage that he's been carrying with him since his five children were young. "It seems like too simple an idea, but it's very tangible."
If a child can turn to dear old Dad after a skinned knee or a boo-boo, maybe that kid will become accustomed to turning to Dad later for help with more serious problems.
"As simple as it sounds, it morphed into talking about things," Hirsch says of the Band-Aid approach, a fathering tip he learned on his way to founding the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative, the state's first nonprofit, statewide effort to connect children with their fathers.
Evidence of that increased communication interrupts Hirsch's message as he answers a phone call from his daughter Emily, 20.
She phones with news that former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday with a parachute jump. Hirsch, his wife, Peggy, Emily and her siblings, Dave, 24, Amanda, 23, Charlie, 19, and Addie, 17, parachuted five years ago during a family vacation to New Zealand, and Emily loved it so much, she persuaded her father to join her in a jump to celebrate her 18th birthday. Now, parachutes open into a friendly chat.
Hirsch says he's never had that easy relationship with his father. The fatherhood role was filled by Sam Solomon, his mother's father. As a boy, Hirsch once lived with his grandfather, the first American-born child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, and that relationship continued until Solomon's death at age 93 in 2001.
In the years leading up to the 1997 founding of the fatherhood charity, Hirsch's pursuit of fatherhood improvement was strictly personal. A broker and financial adviser, he and his wife, Peggy, had just had their fifth child and Hirsch was completing an intensive fellowship for his career that demanded his attention.
"I could sense that I wasn't engaged as I could have been," Hirsch says of his role as a husband and father.
A numbers guy who seeks out winning strategies, Hirsch made connections with Peter Spokes and Ken Canfield at the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City. Hirsch picked up the Band-Aid idea from Spokes (one of the many "Spokesisms" Hirsch quotes) and started the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative to find tools to help the more than 1 million kids growing up in Illinois homes without dads.
As a 2014 Father of the Year, Allen Lynch of Gurnee says his fatherhood trophy trumps the Medal of Honor he received as a 22-year-old during the Vietnam War. During a deadly firefight, Lynch ran through a hail of bullets to carry three wounded soldiers to safety, stayed with them as his company withdrew, carried the wounded to a safer location and single-handedly fought off the enemy for hours until rescue forces arrived.
"On the battlefield, you're doing something pushed by adrenaline." says the 68-year-old war hero, who, with his wife, Susan, has three children and six grandchildren. "It takes time to be a dad to your kids. This is a 20-year, 30-year, 40-year run."
Working in hospitals, schools, charities and businesses, the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative provides dads with programs and resources to help them become better.
"This isn't like a disease where you can put a couple of really smart people on it, and they'll find a cure," says Hirsch, who admits he has fallen short of the goals he sets for dads.
When he was too busy with work or his charity, a gentle, "Hey, Mr. Fatherhood" from his wife would bring the focus back on his family, Hirsch says. When the group he founded named Hirsch as a Father of the Year in 2007, his kids told stories of him making time for hockey games, softball practices and trips to figure skating competitions where the fans would consist of "21 moms and one dad."
Distributing fatherhood coins that proclaim, "Great dads are present physically, emotionally and spiritually," Hirsch says he realized he needed to do more for his spiritual side after the death of his mentor, Spokes, from leukemia at age 57 in 2010. A longtime churchgoer with his family at St. Anne Catholic Church in Barrington, Hirsch converted to Catholicism.
"It's not like you were wrong and now you are right," Hirsch says of the decisions he's made on his quest to be a better dad. "You evolve."
Launching a new 21CD campaign for 21st Century Dads, Hirsch says communication and sharing information with other dads is key.
"Where's the GPS for being a better dad?" Hirsch says, adding that signs pointing the way can be found at the initiative's 4fathers.org website or by calling (800) 996-DADS (3237).
Hirsch carries his gentle reminders.
"If you ever see me, ever, without my coin, I'll buy you a drink," he says of his "Great Dads" coin, which also urges fathers to give love, commitment, patience and honesty. And if any of his children do get a boo-boo, they know where they can get a well-worn Band-Aid.