Young Scott Burns Drinking Beer
Robert M. C. Burns

Let me tell you about my fathers.

Many men wish that they had “a real father.” I was one of them. I have few memories of my biological father. All are of being a little boy, sitting on bar stools. They are good memories because that is where I learned about pizza pies, birch beer, smoked herring and sips of actual beer. My stepfather, who entered my life when I was 10, had the impossible job of living up to my imagination of what a father should be and do.

I spent a lot of time angry and sorry for myself.

Only when I was in my 30s did I realize that many men had been fathers to me. They may, in fact, have done a better job than any natural father could have done. So let me tell you about my fathers. Maybe it will help you make a list of your own.

Karl Maas and his wife couldn’t have children. He lived in the same suburban housing development as we did. He helped a very awkward left-handed kid learn to throw and catch a ball. Without him, I never would have played baseball. Nor would I have learned that being left-handed could be an advantage, at least at first base. My baseball career never went beyond Little League, but without Karl I might never have played team sports or learned to push the way you do when you run the mile or cross-country.

Gerhard Fankhauser was a widowed biology professor when I met him on a staircase in Guyot Hall at Princeton. I was a high school senior looking for a way to do a science project on light and oxygen production for space travel. I never did the project, but he made me a laboratory assistant and put me in charge of his experimental salamanders. I watched him and learned patience. I noticed something about the salamanders we caught and he suggested books, so I learned about statistics and the math of biological growth. He took a chance on a curious 17 year old.

Archibald MacLeish also took a chance. He admitted an MIT student into English SA, the exclusive creative writing course at Harvard. The 3-time Pulitzer Prize winner lightened up the first class by saying he’d always found that a few shots helped if you were going to discuss poetry. Then he broke out bottles of scotch, bourbon and vodka. He urged us to stretch and to risk failure. So I did. I’m embarrassed about every word written in that period, but I found that you could survive failure, particularly if you do it a lot.

Bill Hearne was a senior staffer at Arthur D. Little, Inc., a management-consulting firm. I was assigned to him as a 29-year-old grunt. Bill worked in printing and publishing, from the new technology of photocomposition to press management. But his gift was problem solving. All problems could be solved, some way, some how. When we were grinding our teeth he would say, “We need to find another way to look at the problem.” So we did. Flexibility is an amazing gift.

Bill McIlwain became editor of the Boston Herald-American when I joined as a columnist in 1977. I was 36. He was open about his recovery from alcoholism and devoted to his friends in rehab. Like my grandfather, Charlie Mahoney, he took a lot of knockdowns, but he always got up. After a year, when the business editor dropped dead playing tennis, I asked to add his job to my column responsibilities. McIlwain told me to get on it and let me start an immediate redesign of the section. Perhaps he wouldn’t have made the decision so easily if it had been something truly important, like the sports section, but he put his trust in me. The closest he ever got to an effusive statement was, “Scott, no one is ever going to think you don’t work hard.”

A few years later, McIlwain left the Boston Herald. I was 40, I think. When his replacement came into his first news budget meeting I heard a voice in my head, “You’ve had your last father. You’re your own man.”

I could wish for nothing more, nothing better. If you’ve always felt short of fathering, start making a list. It may surprise you.