February 21, 2014

Dad’s Day a time to celebrate fathers, their gift of children, founder says

Bill Bissmeyer, left, is pictured with Tony Dungy and sons, Bill Bissmeyer III and Thomas Bissmeyer, at the Dad’s Day breakfast at Cathedral High School on Feb. 11. (Submitted photo)

Bill Bissmeyer, left, is pictured with Tony Dungy and sons, Bill Bissmeyer III and Thomas Bissmeyer, at the Dad’s Day breakfast at Cathedral High School on Feb. 11. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Bill Bissmeyer felt his emotions welling up as he scanned the overflowing crowd that had come together to celebrate an event that has touched the lives of so many fathers and children.

For Bissmeyer, it was hard to believe that 12 years had passed since he started Dad’s Day at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis—a breakfast program during which fathers and their children share a meal, time and compliments with each other.

It’s a program that has spread to more than 1,150 chapters in 45 states and several countries.

It’s also a program that has been embraced by Tony Dungy, the former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and one of the founders of All Pro Dad, an international organization devoted to helping men become better fathers. (Related story: Dungy says God, commitment and love are the keys to being good father, husband)

Indeed, as Bissmeyer looked around Cathedral’s crowded cafeteria on the morning of Feb. 11, he exchanged smiles with Dungy, who had returned to Indianapolis to help mark the 100th Dad’s Day event at the school.

“The idea for this really came from Bill Bissmeyer,” Dungy said later in his talk at the event. “Getting together, honoring your kids, showing them you care, spending one morning a month together, it all really started here in Indianapolis.”

The magic between a dad and a child

Bissmeyer and Dungy share a desire to have men understand that their most important work is not their job but being a father.

They also share the one heartache that no father ever wants to know—losing a child.

For Dungy, the heartbreak came in December 2005, when his 18-year-old son, James, committed suicide.

For Bissmeyer, the tears and the pain began on Jan. 5, 2002, when his 17-year-old son, John, died in his sleep from a viral infection that attacked his heart.

Two months after John’s death, the Dad’s Day breakfasts began, starting with a group of fathers and sons at Cathedral who wanted to make the most of the time they had together.

Thoughts of John flowed again through his father’s mind on Feb. 11. Still, publicly, Bissmeyer focused on what he calls “the magic” of Dad’s Day.

“There’s a magic in these breakfasts between a father and son,” said the father of five sons. “It’s so simple. A father and a son meet for breakfast and talk to each other. Its simplicity has allowed it to grow. It’s had more longevity than we ever would have thought.”

Dad’s Day also has a spirit of happiness and celebration that Bissmeyer has strived to foster.

“It’s a fun, light way for fathers to appreciate the greatest gifts God has given them—and that’s their kids,” he said.

Bissmeyer has also tried to create an atmosphere where fathers and children can start anew if their relationship is troubled.

“No matter how bad it is, no matter what is going on, you have the ability—with God—to work it out.”

Just don’t wait, he advises.

“There were a minimum of 15 families at Dad’s Day [on Feb. 11] who had lost children since we started it.”

A gift of love

In the 12 years since Bissmeyer started Dad’s Day, he has often been thanked by fathers for making them see how much their relationship with their children means.

He and his wife of 38 years, Helen, have also been invited regularly to share in the happy moments of other families’ lives.

“On average, we’re invited to 50 birthday parties and 10 weddings a year,” he said.

Still, he stresses how his efforts for Dad’s Day are a way of returning the love that he has received.

“Dad’s Day has allowed us to give back a tremendous amount of personal care that has been given to our family by a lot of people over the years.”

The monthly breakfasts also remind him of the bond he had with his own father. As the youngest of five children, Bissmeyer was the last one at home when his dad took him, during his high school years, to breakfast a couple of times a month at a country diner.

Bissmeyer remembers that cherished time with his father.

He remembers the special times he had with his son, John.

Those memories and emotions flow into Dad’s Day.

“The work that Helen and I put into this is very selfishly keeping John alive,” Bissmeyer said. “It’s a legacy to our parents, too. It’s a legacy of families.” †

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