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Jewish World Review June 23, 2000/20 Sivan, 5760

Larry Elder

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Consumer Reports

Dad -- IN "MY FATHER'S FACE," author James Robison tells of a federal prison chaplain who decided to improve morale. The clergyman approached a major greeting card company and asked for a donation of 500 Mother's Day cards, one for each inmate. Spotting a good PR story when they see it, the company agreed. Each inmate enthusiastically filled out a card for his mom, and morale picked up.

For Father's Day, the chaplain decided to duplicate his previous success. Again, the greeting card company agreed to donate 500 cards. But this time, the project crashed and burned. Not a single inmate -- not one -- wished to fill out a card for his dad.

But this should not surprise us. Eloise Anderson, former director of California's Department of Social Services, says, "Fully 70 percent of all prison and reform school inmates come from fatherless homes."

Long-distance carriers tell us that, on Mother's Day, Americans generate over 150 million phone calls, compared to less than 100 million for Father's Day. The greeting card industry observes a similar disparity between the numbers of cards sent to moms versus those sent to dads. This is not good news. Anderson says, "A boy in a single-parent home is twice as likely to be incarcerated as his peer living with both parents, regardless of race, income or education level."

My own father, a child of the Depression, left home at age 13. He worked a series of hard, low-paying jobs, including shoeshine boy, hotel valet, cook, and, right before he entered World War II, as a Pullman porter for the railroad. He joined the Army, and cooked for thousands of GIs. But, at the end of the war, he returned to the South, seeking work as a short-order cook. "Sorry," restaurant after restaurant told him, "You have no references." References? How about that wartime stint on the island of Guam, cooking for and serving GIs while awaiting the invasion of the island of Japan? Sorry, no references.

So my dad packed up and moved to California, a state he saw while working on the railroads. Sunny, bright, and seemingly freer, California seemed more fair. My father again sought work as a short-order cook. Sorry, owners repeatedly told him, we need references.

So my dad went to the local unemployment office, and informed the clerk that he intended to take the first job that walked in the door. He literally sat for hours in the office until something came through.

Nabisco Company, the clerk advised him, needs a janitor. The work included cleaning toilets. "Would that be acceptable?" the lady asked my dad. Within a few months, Nabisco promoted him from janitor to supervising others. He also began a second job as a janitor, and, on weekends, cooked for a wealthy family in the suburbs. He also attended night school three nights a week to get his high school equivalency.

By the age of 45, my father scraped together enough money to start a cafe, a life-long dream. At first, he kept his regular job, covering his bets in case the restaurant failed. It didn't. For nearly 40 years, my father awakened shortly after 4:00 a.m. to open the restaurant at 6:30 a.m. He never missed a day, never arrived late, and never served a bad meal.

The restaurant sat in the Pico-Union area, an increasingly gang-infested part of town. One of the city's most notorious gangs, the 18th Street Gang, calls Pico-Union their turf. But my father employed Spanish-speaking locals, served good meals, and watched a generation of youth grow up, get married, and have children. And, while graffiti vandals sometimes wrote on the restaurant's walls, my dad never got robbed, mugged, or otherwise physically harassed. People respected him.

No, my dad and I did not always get along. Gruff and blunt, my dad often intimidated my two brothers and me. But we never doubted his love or his commitment to his family. On paper, he had much to overcome. He never knew his biological father, and he grew up black, without much education, in the segregated South. Still, my father never railed against "racist" America. His message: Work hard, keep your nose clean, and the sky's the limit.

My mom and my father recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary.

Through example, my father taught me the importance of discipline, hard work, sacrifice and dedication.

Dad closed the doors on Elder's Snack Bar, 1230 South Valencia Street, Los Angeles, Calif., about five years ago. He seldom took a vacation, and built a successful business with a loyal, grateful clientele. He now busies himself, at age 85, with Spanish lessons, and takes a one-mile walk daily.

But then, no one who knew him expected any less.

Happy Father's Day, Randolph Elder. I love you.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate