Arrow-right Camera


A prime mover

Sat., June 19, 2010

Father’s Day founder also a tireless artist, poet, leader

Jerry and Bev Numbers are convinced that Spokane’s Sonora Smart Dodd, who founded Father’s Day 100 years ago today, was an extraordinary woman. A Renaissance woman.

They ought to know. They live in her house.

More precisely, they own her former house at 603 S. Arthur St., and have been remodeling it so they can move in permanently. While rummaging through the attic and the basement, they have come to realize that Dodd was a dynamo of energy and creativity, whose accomplishments go far beyond dreaming up Father’s Day.

“(Father’s Day) is just a drop in the bucket,” said Bev Numbers, a longtime Spokane Realtor and former Spokane City Council member.

“The deeper you go into her life, the more interesting it is,” said Jerry Numbers, a retired Spokane teacher. “We kind of, probably, just got obsessed.”

Look into her story, and it’s easy to become obsessed. Here’s a short list of Dodd’s talents and accomplishments:

Ceramic artist and painter – Dodd was a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and a well-known artist in the region. Several of her paintings hang on the walls of her old home.

Poet – She was an internationally published poet with several volumes to her credit. She was the author of what was considered Spokane’s official “welcome poem,” titled “Bide Here With Us.” She was one of the founders of the state’s Poetry Day and she originated the idea of an official Lilac Poet for Spokane’s annual Lilac Week. She was herself named the Lilac Poet in 1954.

Writer – She wrote newspaper and magazine feature stories, including several for The Spokesman-Review, on subjects of history and literature. She also wrote and illustrated the “Children of the Sun” series of children’s books on Native American themes.

Dollmaker – She was well-known for her handcrafted ceramic dolls, depicting Native American children. The Numberses found one such doll hidden in floor joists of their attic – it was this discovery that spurred their curiosity about Dodd’s artistic accomplishments.

Businesswoman – She was one of the founders, and later vice president, of Spokane’s Ball & Dodd Funeral Home. She was still on the company’s board of directors at the time of her death in 1978 at age 96.

Organizer and committeewoman – The list of her memberships is dizzying, including the Spokane Woman’s Club, the National League of American Pen Women, the American Poetry League, the Spokane Art Board, the Renaissance Society of Spokane, the Students of Northwest History, the Spokane Advertising and Sales Association, the First Presbyterian Church of Spokane, the International Toastmistresses and … well, many, many more. She was, to put it mildly, a joiner.

Yet she was also a leader in many of these organizations, which helps explain how this young Spokane woman was able to enlist ministers, editors, legislators and finally U.S. presidents into her Father’s Day cause. She was, by all accounts, an uncommonly charismatic woman.

She was described as gentle and modest, but this 28-year-old Spokane mother was also tireless in pushing the idea of Father’s Day to fruition.

It began in 1909 when Dodd was sitting in Spokane’s Central Methodist Church listening to a Mother’s Day sermon extolling the virtues of mothers.

“I like everything you have said about motherhood,” she told the pastor after the service. “But somehow, ‘father’ seems something apart. Do you not think it would be fair and fine to give father a place in the sun?”

She had excellent reasons for being sensitive to the status of fathers. In 1898, while she was growing up on a dryland ranch between Wilbur and Creston, her mother died. Young Sonora was only 16; she had five younger brothers.

Her father, William Jackson Smart, dedicated himself to rearing all six children “alone and unafraid.” She said he was “a very strict man, a real disciplinarian,” but also a “kind and loving parent who kept us together and happy.” She called him a “golden rule type of father.”

So she drafted a petition asking that one Sunday in June be designated as Father’s Day. Gaining support was not always easy; she later said it took a “certain degree of temerity.” This was during an era when mothers were considered the child-raisers and fathers were considered aloof at best and derelict at worst. One of the popular songs of the time was titled, “Everybody Works But Father,” a song that irritated Dodd to no end.

“The time was expedient for the emancipation of father,” wrote Dodd.

The “shackles of disrespect,” in her words, “had worn themselves weak.”

She finally convinced Mark H. Wheeler and George A. Forbes of the local YMCA to co-sign her petition. They went to the Spokane Ministerial Alliance and proposed that the first Father’s Day be celebrated on June 5, 1910, her father’s birthday (he was still alive), but the ministers needed more time to prepare their sermons. So the first written record of the Father’s Day concept comes in a Spokane Daily Chronicle front page story on June 6, 1910, noting that the Spokane Ministerial Alliance and YMCA had “enthusiastically” endorsed Mrs. Dodd’s proposition and agreed to declare Father’s Day on June 19.

So 100 years ago today, preachers across the city delivered Father’s Day sermons. Fathers wore red roses and families wore white roses in honor of fathers no longer with them. Local businesses took out newspaper ads with Father’s Day themes.

News stories – written “either in the spirit of jest or earnest,” in Dodd’s wry phrase – streaked across the country by wire. Before long, letters were pouring in from all over the country and the world. At the peak, she was receiving 100 letters a day, many from people who wanted to expand the celebration to their communities. Dodd recruited several other Spokane women to help her handle the correspondence.

Momentum built over the next few years as other cities began celebrating Father’s Day. Politicians, including William Jennings Bryan and Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge, got behind the idea, at least informally. By 1925, Dodd wrote that the entire country was paying “tribute to fatherhood.”

Yet Father’s Day still didn’t enjoy formal recognition. In 1938, the International Father’s Day Association, of which Dodd was still honorary president, said its No. 1 project was to win official congressional recognition of Father’s Day.

It took a long time. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June to be Father’s Day. In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution making Father’s Day a true national holiday. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon made the designation permanent.

“I am happy that this could have come to pass in my lifetime,” said Dodd, 90.

She would live another six years. She was buried at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in Spokane, where a monument will be dedicated at her gravesite on Sunday at 2 p.m.

So, now you can understand why Jerry and Bev Numbers have become proselytizers for Sonora Dodd. In fact, they want everyone to soak in the Dodd experience by seeing the home she lived in for 33 years, a 1913 Craftsman. So they are holding open houses from 9 a.m. to noon both today and Sunday. Some special guests will be in town this weekend – the extended Smart-Dodd family, which is holding a Smart-Dodd family reunion this weekend. The Numberses will host a reception for the Dodd family at the house on Sunday evening.

The Numberses are convinced that the Dodd home is something special – and they’re not the only ones. The Dodd House was listed in the Washington Heritage Register in May; a spot is now pending on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are four comments on this story »