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It started here: Sonora Dodd, the Spokane mother of Father’s Day

Sun., June 18, 2017, 6 a.m.

On Mother’s Day in 1909, 28-year-old Sonora Smart Dodd sat in a Spokane church, turning a question over in her mind as the preacher spoke in glowing terms of the virtues of motherhood.

After the service, she approached the preacher and posed her question. Why, she wondered, was there no Father’s Day?

“The preacher was eloquent, though he didn’t even mention the word ‘father,’ ” she recalled of the sermon at Central Methodist Church in a later interview.

“I began thinking of my mother, who passed away in 1898 while I was yet a child. My thoughts naturally turned to my father, William J. Smart, who was left with the responsibility of rearing six children,” Dodd, who herself passed away in 1978, is quoted as saying.

Along with Mark Wheeler and George Forbes, Dodd submitted an official petition for the establishment of Father’s Day. It was positively received.

Initially, Dodd wanted the first Father’s Day to be on June 5, her father’s birthday. Clerics that year asked for more time to prepare proper sermons.

On Monday, June 6, 1910, the YMCA convened a meeting with Dodd and the Spokane Ministerial Alliance. The group enthusiastically endorsed the idea of Father’s Day, to begin on June 19, 1910.

On that day, Dodd attended the service at her new church – the Centenary Presbyterian Church, now known as Knox Presbyterian Church at Post Street and Knox Avenue.

The mayor issued a proclamation declaring Father’s Day, and the governor made it an official observance statewide, according to historic preservation consultant Linda Yeomans.

Community groups prepared home dinners and handed out roses (red if you had a living father, and white if your father was deceased).

Dodd, with her infant son in her arms, rode in a two-horse carriage delivering flowers and gifts to orphans, the aged, hospital patients and prisoners.

Around the nation, an observance takes hold

Following news coverage of the first Father’s Day, congratulatory telegrams streamed in from around the country. One of the first correspondents was William Jennings Bryan, a former presidential candidate and acclaimed orator.

The observance spread across the nation over the next 60 years, in large part through Dodd’s efforts, Yeomans said.

As years went on, Dodd pursued the effort even further, and the observance won congressional and presidential endorsements in subsequent years.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson came to Spokane for Father’s Day.

In 1922, the third Sunday in June became the designated observance.

In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge recommended that Father’s Day be celebrated in all states.

In 1937, Congress was asked to make the third Sunday in June the official Father’s Day.

Finally in 1972, President Richard Nixon declared the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day every year.

In a stroke of journalistic accountability, The Spokesman-Review in 1973 exposed erroneous claims from Chicago that Father’s Day had its origins there.

“Can you imagine how energetic and forward-thinking she was?” Yeomans said of Dodd. “That woman just kept going.”

Living on in brick and mortar

About 10 years ago, Jerry and Beverlee Numbers undertook restoration of Dodd’s bungalow at 603 S. Arthur St.

In 2010, the Numbers opened the home to visitors in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Father’s Day.

They placed a monument at the front of the home and greeted visitors on several subsequent Father’s Days.

The Numbers still have unexpected visitors, though. The monument became an international geocache and Pokemon site.

Born on Feb. 18, 1882, in Jenny Lind, Arkansas, Dodd was the oldest of six children.

The family came to Washington state in 1889 and settled in a farmhouse near Wilbur.

The death of Sonora Dodd’s mother in 1898 became the pivotal event that led to Father’s Day. She was 16 at the time, the oldest of six children living a hardscrabble existence. Without her mother, Dodd was left to help raise her younger brothers with her father.

“Her father has to be the father of Father’s Day,” said Yeomans, who documented the origins of the holiday as part of the historic register listing for the Dodd home.

She said that between Dodd and her father, the two of them kept the family from starving. Their abandoned farmhouse still stands near Wilbur, Yeomans said.

A graduate of the Chicago Art Institute, Dodd became an artist and poet.

She won an art competition in Hollywood for her tie-dye studio costumes. She became famous for her ceramic doll figures of Native American children.

Jerry Numbers said he found two of the dolls in the house. About a dozen more were given to him by the Dodd family.

Most of the dolls and other artifacts are being donated to Whitworth University.

The (un)usual Sonora Dodd

If anything, Dodd was modest.

“I am just a mother doing usual duties,” she demurred in one interview.

She was also a businesswoman. She helped to found the Ball and Dodd Funeral Home, and was a licensed mortician, Yeomans said.

Not surprisingly, Dodd was something of a celebrity throughout her years. She became an honorary member of most civic organizations in the city.

Shedding conceit, Dodd said, “I was a plain child … and one who just happened to get an idea that was bound to come along.”

Her only child, John “Jack” Dodd Jr., was named father of the year in Washington, D.C., in 1952.

In interviews, she talked about her father, who died in 1919.

“I remember everything about him. He was both a father and mother to me and my brothers,” she said.

Dodd spent years corresponding with Father’s Day advocates and was a tireless advocate for the holiday.

Asked if she objected to the tradition of gift-giving on Father’s Day, she said she thought honoring fathers with gifts was a great idea.

According to a 1959 article in The Spokesman-Review, Dodd “never made any attempt to cash in on her plan for Father’s Day and has refused hundreds of offers to endorse products in connection with the observance.”

Deep down, she saw the holiday as spiritual, Yeomans said.

Credit in the eyes of the world

In 1931, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce officially dedicated Mt. Spokane State Park as the father mountain.

A plaque affixed to a piece of basalt rock commemorates the meeting that founded Father’s Day at the entrance to the YMCA, 930 N. Monroe St.

At Expo ’74, Dodd rode in a limousine to acknowledge the transfer of the YMCA plaque to its former location in Riverfront Park.

Dodd credited the Spokane Chronicle newspaper with helping spread the word about the importance of observing the first Father’s Day. The Chronicle carried a front-page story about the endorsement of the YMCA and ministers to observe the first Father’s Day in 1910.

She died in 1978 at age 96.

A basalt monument was erected in her honor near her gravesite at Greenwood Memorial Terrace.

“Praised for enriching ‘the religious, civic and cultural life of Spokane,’ and for ‘giving Spokane credit in the eyes of the nation and the world,’ Sonora Smart Dodd’s far-reaching contributions were summarized by The Spokesman-Review at her death: ‘Honor for thousands of fathers everywhere and for her home city through [the] establishment of Father’s Day is an everlasting epitaph for Mrs. John Bruce Dodd,’ ” Yeomans said in her research.

According to a story from the Associated Press, Betsy Roddy, of Los Angeles, will write two cards this Father’s Day: one to her dad, and the other to her late great-grandmother, Sonora Dodd.

The second card is a century-old family tradition honoring the mother of Father’s Day, Roddy said.

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