Editor's note: This is an excerpt from "Life Lessons from Fathers of Faith"
My father was the perfect athlete. The shape or size of the ball was unimportant; he did better with it than anyone else. As the North Cache High School basketball team forward, he was a key player in winning the 1946 state championship. It was a remarkable night in the history of high school athletics as the little "David" school from Richmond, Utah, toppled the "Goliath" of Grantsville High. To hear my father describe the game would take as long as it did to play it. He cherished all the plays, the players, the audience members … everything.
I am sure that when his eldest son was born he hoped for another all-American athlete. I was that son — and, unfortunately, I was not born with the burning desire or the physical prowess to excel that he had. During my youth, my dad tried his best to interest me in various forms of athletic achievement. We played "catch" a great deal. He kept admonishing me to "keep my eye on the ball." It wasn't until after I married and got my first pair of eyeglasses, that I realized it was actually possible to SEE the ball.
Dad never mentioned his disappointment about my not following in his "sports-shoe" footsteps, but I worried. Children tend to do that when they know how important something is to their parents. My dad paid for my dance lessons, piano lessons, trumpet lessons, oboe lessons and on and on. He never begrudged it, but I still felt I must be a disappointment.
As president of the Utah Pharmaceutical Association and a member of the National Association of Retail Druggists (NARD), my father was appointed to the U.S. President's Council on Drug Abuse. Their convention was to be held in the windy city of Chicago in the summer of 1969, and my father was invited to be a panelist. The chairman of the panel was to be NARD President Willard Simmons — my dad's idol. Because he frequently appeared on the cover of many of the professional magazines to which my father subscribed, even I was familiar with his imposing and distinguished face. Willard Simmons was to the pharmaceutical industry what Babe Ruth was to baseball and Michael Jordan was to basketball.
My mother was not able to attend the convention with my father, and my dad asked me to go with him. I was stunned and a little bit apprehensive. I had never spent that kind of one-on-one time with my father. I was born at a time when my father was starting out his business — a time during which it was crucial for him to invest long hours in his pharmacy. I understood all that, and the time I did have with my father was quality time. But now I would have him all to myself for days, and he would have ME all to himself.
As we flew on a United Airlines flight to Chicago, he explained that he would be very busy during the day at the convention but he said we could do anything I wanted to do in the evenings. "Anything?" I asked. He agreed. Looking from my current perspective, I realize that had I been the least bit sensitive to my dad's interests, I should have suggested we go to Wrigley Field to see a baseball game at least once. I'm ashamed to say I didn't.
All I could think of were the theatrical possibilities in the Windy City. I asked if we could go to a musical; my dad agreed. I asked if we could go to a play; again, the answer was yes. Then I asked about a symphony concert; he said, "OK." Finally I asked about an opera. After a pause, he asked, "A what?" But he gave me permission to make the choices, and, best of all, he gave me his wallet so I could get the tickets. We had good seats! Greater love hath no man than to lay down his wallet to a teenager!
I was so excited to show off my treasure trove when Dad returned from the first day of meetings at the Bismarck Hotel. There was Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten" with Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst Tuesday night; "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown" in its preview run at the Civic Theatre on Wednesday night; an "Evening of Mozart" with the Chicago Symphony on Friday; and an evening of Wagner with the Chicago Lyric Opera on Saturday. But the most prized jewel in the crown — the piéce de résistance on the menu — was two wonderful seats on the left aisle, row four, in the Shubert Theatre for Thursday night to see Jose Ferrar in his first run out of Broadway as Don Quixote in "The Man of La Mancha." I was especially proud of those La Mancha tickets.
Dad looked at the tickets with an air of nonchalance and simply said, "Looks good." After a moment of silence while he took off his tie, he said, "We may have a little problem with Thursday night, since we're going to have dinner with Willard Simmons!" His eyes lit up as he made his proud announcement. "Dinner with Willard Simmons! Imagine it," he said.
He didn't need to tell me how excited he was. I had watched his respect for Mr. Simmons over the years, and I knew the real reason he wanted to come to Chicago was to meet this extraordinary man. He saw my crestfallen expression and asked what was wrong. I reminded him that we had tickets for La Mancha that night.
"Don't worry," he assured me. "Dinner is at 6. The show is at 8. Two hours is plenty of time to eat!" My worries evaporated; where I come from, two minutes is enough time to eat!
But when we arrived at the Millionaire's Club atop the Prudential Building on Michigan Avenue overlooking the lake, I knew we were in trouble. A long table decorated with candles was laid out with place cards. Mr. Simmons was seated at the end of the table; my dad was to his left, and I was next to my dad.
My heart began to sink as I realized each person at the table had his own waiter and the silverware was spread out so far on each side of the plate that you had to ask the person next to you to help you reach it! Even the ketchup was served in sterling silver.
The courses began to arrive slowly—one by one, by one, by one. By 7:30 we still hadn't been served the main course. Then, to my great chagrin, I was given a plate boasting something my mother and I had been trying to kill in the garden for years!
My dad was entranced by the opportunity to visit with Mr. Simmons. He hung on his every word; it was like watching a great king dining with his adoring subjects. At that point I realized this was not a meal — this was a pageant! It was my dad's night of nights. He was collecting pearls of wisdom from his idol while enjoying an amazing meal on someone else's tab. It was clear that this "dinner" was an all-night affair. What was I to do?
I glanced subtly at my watch and realized we barely had time to make it to the theater if we left that very moment. I had only two possible alternatives: I could either tug on my dad's sleeve and remind him of the time, or I could remain silent, have my life ruined, and sulk for the rest of my life. I chose the latter.
Then at 7:40, my father suddenly rose from his chair, and in a firm but gracious tone of voice he said, "Mr. Simmons, I have had one of the nicest nights of my life being here with you, but I'm afraid I have a more important engagement … with my son."
I was stunned.
Mr. Simmons, somewhat surprised, rose and shook our hands as we headed to the elevator. I was glad that it was dark outside so my dad couldn't see my tears. At that point in my life, I mistakenly thought that dads shouldn't see their sons cry. I was wrong. My tears that night were tears of joy, security, surprise and love — because even though I was not quite created in his image, my dad loved me for who I was!
We got to the theatre just as the house lights were dimming, and we didn't miss a beat of that glorious score. When at the end of the first act Jose Ferrar moved downstage just in front of us and leaned on his crooked, war-torn staff, he seemed to be peering directly into my eyes. As he sang "The Impossible Dream," I was convinced the song had been written with me in mind. I had some big dreams — dreams that statistically should have been impossible. But sitting in that magnificent theater that night, I knew I could battle any "windmill," because my dad believed in me.
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Michael Ballam's operatic and recital career has spanned three decades and four continents. A native of Logan, Utah, he has performed in the major concert halls of America, Europe, Asia, Russia and the Middle East, with command performances at the Vatican and the White House. A professor of music at Utah State University, he has also starred in three major motion pictures, appears regularly on television, serves on the board of directors of 12 professional arts organizations, and is an accomplished pianist and oboist. He also currently serves as general director of the Utah Festival Opera, a company he founded that has become one of the nation's major summer festivals.