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Father’s Day: Sonora Smart Dodd, the lady who started it all

Sunday (June 18) is the 107th Father’s Day celebrated in the US since Sonora Smart Dodd created the holiday in 1910.

more lifestyle Updated: Jun 17, 2017 20:51 IST
In this 1940s family photo Sonora Smart Dodd, founder of Father's Day, is seen in Spokane, Wash. Father's Day, which has since become an international celebration, was created by Dodd to honour, among others, her own father, William Jackson Smart, who raised her and her five siblings after their mother died. Sonora Smart married John Bruce Dodd.
In this 1940s family photo Sonora Smart Dodd, founder of Father's Day, is seen in Spokane, Wash. Father's Day, which has since become an international celebration, was created by Dodd to honour, among others, her own father, William Jackson Smart, who raised her and her five siblings after their mother died. Sonora Smart married John Bruce Dodd.(Betsy Hillerman Roddy and Barbara Hillerman Lieske via AP)

This Father’s Day, Betsy Roddy will write two cards: one to her dad, and the other to her late great-grandmother, Sonora Smart Dodd.

The second card is a century-old family tradition honouring the mother of Father’s Day.

Sunday is the 107th Father’s Day celebrated in the US since Dodd created the holiday in 1910. As a result, she is the one responsible for those annual gifts that run the gamut from embarrassingly silly-looking neckties to kids’ finger paintings crafted with so much love by those tiny hands that they can bring a tear to the eye of even the most stoic father.

It’s a tradition Dodd decided to start as she sat in a Spokane, Washington, church on Mother’s Day 1909, listening to a sermon about - what else? - Mother’s Day.

“And it bugged her,” Dodd’s gregarious 55-year-old great-granddaughter recalled with a laugh as she sat in her living room in Los Angeles. “She thought, ‘Well, why isn’t there a Father’s Day?”

(File) This June 16, 1999 photo shows the grave marker of Sonora Smart Dodd at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in Spokane, Wash. Dodd is known as the founder of the first celebration of Father's Day in 1910. Sonora Smart Dodd, lobbied local church and public officials for its creation. In the years that followed, Father's Day grew to become an international event and Dodd lived to see President Richard Nixon declare it an official US holiday in 1972. (AP)

Dodd and her five younger brothers, after all, had been raised by their father after their mother died in childbirth in 1898.

William Jackson Smart became a farmer after fighting in the Civil War. He not only held down both parental roles but did it with “leadership and love,” his daughter always said, and she believed he ought to get some credit.

“So she worked tirelessly with the local clergy and got the YWCA on board, and they had their first Father’s Day in Spokane in 1910,” said Roddy, displaying a copy of The River Press of Fort Benton, Montana, which reported on the event.

Although that story predicted the celebration would go nationwide by the next year, Father’s Day was slow to catch on. So much so that Dodd spent the next 62 years lobbying everyone from presidents to retailers for support.

Finally, in 1972, President Richard Nixon declared the third Sunday of June a federal holiday honouring dads. Dodd, who died at age 96 in 1978, had lived to see her dream come true.

In this June 12, 2017, photo, Betsy Roddy of Los Angeles holds a copy of the August 17, 1910, edition of The River Press of Fort Benton, Mont. The newspaper was one of the first to report on Father's Day, an event held for the first time in June of that year in Spokane, Wash., after Roddy's great-grandmother, Sonora Smart Dodd, lobbied local church and public officials for its creation. (AP)

A Renaissance woman, the mother of Father’s Day was a painter, poet and businesswoman, running a funeral home with her husband while raising the couple’s only son, a future father named Jack.

“I take a great deal of pride in that renegade spirit that she clearly had,” said Roddy, marketing director for a large Los Angeles company.

Dodd’s great-granddaughter inherited some of that spirit herself. Raised in Washington, DC, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Penn State before heading to Europe for several years of backpacking between studies at Vienna’s Webster University, where she earned a master’s degree in international business.

Moving to Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, she found her niche here in marketing and stayed, eventually moving into a Craftsman-style home on the city’s west side, where she lives with her two dogs.

The only child of an only child and recently widowed after 24 years of marriage, Roddy never had children of her own. That not only leaves her with the title of Great-Granddaughter of Father’s Day but also assures she is the last direct descendant of the holiday’s creator.

This November 21, 2014, file photo shows the sign outside the home where Sonora Smart Dodd lived in Spokane, Wash., in the early 20th century. The sign commemorates Dodd as the person who conceived the idea of Father's Day in 1909, the so-called Mother of Father's Day. The Craftsman-style house is privately owned and occupied, but the marker telling the story of the local connection to the holiday's history can be seen in the front yard. (AP)

Although she’s always been well aware of that legacy, she’s never talked about it publicly until now.

She began to get more involved after MyHeritage.com, the company that helps people trace family histories, asked if she knew her family’s story.

Learning that she did, MyHeritage dug up historical documents about Dodd that Roddy says even she and her mother, who lives in Florida, didn’t know existed. They are considering eventually turning over some of their artifacts to a museum.

As a child, Roddy said, she loved her great-grandmother deeply, visited her every year and treasures the poems, books and notes she gave her, including one welcoming her to the world on the year she was born. She still keeps it, in pristine condition, in a small box in her home.

Still, as a child, Roddy says, she took Father’s Day largely for granted, concluding the elaborate celebration, including the special card for her great-grandmother, was just something her family did. Even as an adult, she’s generally kept quiet about being the ultimate Father’s Day insider, leaving it to her mother to spread the word.

But no more.

“It’s time for me to pick up the baton and carry it proudly,” she says with a smile. “I’m the last direct descendant. The legacy is here, which is an honour.”

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