By Ron VandenBoom
Theres more to being a father than just receiving a fishing pole on Fathers Day.
Fatherhood is a 24-hour-a-day occupation that for one local father has meant years of sacrifice, hard work, and an unbridled desire to make a difference.
Anthony English, Detachment Readiness NCO with the Chinook National Guard, is the father of four natural children, one permanent foster child, and over a period of 13 years, more than 90 temporary foster children.
If you can help one, youve made a difference, English said. You help somebody out because they need it.
Being a father was not a priority for English when he was stomping through the rice paddy of Vietnam during the late 1960s, but life was to change when in 1971 he and his wife Dixie had their first child a daughter they named Angie.
After three years in Vietnam and after being in war and seeing so much destruction, he said, it was kind of a healing process being a father.
The positive affirmation of life that came with being a father led to what English called the beginning of my real adult life.
Now youve got something of your own youre a root, he said. Thats what parenthood is for me I used to be a branch off of my fathers tree, but now Im a root and my children are branches of me.
English continued to add branches to his tree with the birth of his son Frank in 1975, Joseph in 1979, and Emilia in 1982. A fifth child, Brian, would also join the family permanently when in 1982 he came to Englishs by way of the Foster Parent Program and later changed his name legally to English. While never legally adopted, he lived with the family throughout his childhood.
Many families would perhaps think four children are branches enough, but for English it proved to be just the beginning.
It was in the early 1980s when he was struck by the condition of a child living in a home nearby.
She was neglected, English said. Her parents were always drinking, smoking pot or whatever.
The situation was enough to tug at the collective heartstrings of the English family and would radically change their lives.
It was after that we decided to give it (foster care) a try, English said. I guess our attitude was, if we could help just one, we could make a difference.
After going through the necessary training, they accepted their first foster child into the family. Over the next 13 years, more than 90 children, mostly girls, would be cared for in the English home.
A lot of people dont want to take in girls they think theyre more trouble than the boys, English said.
But to English and his family, it really didnt matter. They were licensed for children 0-18 years of age and boy or girl, it really didnt matter. Any kid who came through his door was welcome and very much like his own. All they needed to do was obey the rules and never run away.
They may not be there for very long, depending on the circumstances, but while theyre here, theyre mine, English said.
For English it was rules that made the difference between just providing a house and being a home.
The first thing you need is to give those kids rules, he said. Its something many of them have never had and they need to know there are rules.
With Englishs military background, and the military bearing that comes with it, there was little doubt about his attitude toward rules.
The number one rule was you never run away and if you do, you cant come back.
It was a hard and fast rule that, according to English, was never broken or even tried.
I was the disciplinarian, he explained, My wife used to have to tell the kids two or three times to get out of bed in the morning they just wont get up for me, shed say. I never had that problem. Id yell get up and theyd get up.
It was not so much that English had rules, all families have rules, but it was the fact that he enforced the rules that made the difference.
Another, and one of the harshest rules he enforced, concerned being late for curfew.
For every minute youre late, its one hour you have to be home early next weekend, he said.
English also required that every child eat supper at the family dinner table.
Even if you didnt want to eat, you had to be there, he said, and if you had a friend over at the time, they had to sit there with you.
He describes this time as the one part of the day when the family could come together to discuss the days events or problems the children might be having. It was a time and a means whereby the children had input.
They also needed to be excused before they could leave the table, he said.
Sometimes English said the children accused him of being grumpy.
I wouldnt be grumpy if I didnt care, he said would be his response.
Thats the way my dad was with me, he said. When I did something wrong and my dad corrected me, he would tell me how I ought to be thanking him for caring enough to teach me something important, something I would need to be a stand-up, decent, responsible adult.
The evening meal was just a prelude to the weekly Thursday night family meeting.
This was again a special time when everyone gathered to discuss their gripes or perhaps extend compliments to someone who had done something nice during the week.
We had a fish bowl with compliments and complaints in it, English said.
The children would place notes in the fish bowl thanking someone for a good deed or perhaps complaining about some rule. The bowl would then be emptied during the Thursday night meeting and the notes read.
It was not all discipline in the English household; reward, too, played a part.
I used to give $50 to students who got all Bs on their report card and I gave $100 to the students who got all As, English said.
For many of the children, their time in the English home was the closest they would ever get to a normal childhood. Over time, they would even come to call English dad.
Some of them still do, he said.
But not all of the children who stayed in the English home were success stories and all too many of them were only there for a short time as they were constantly being returned to their biological parents.
Many would come and go several times, English said.
Theres good and theres bad because you always know the whole idea behind Foster Care is to get the child back to their family, he said. But that doesnt stop you from getting attached. Thats the part that hurts the letting go thats the tough part.
English has been forced to say goodbye permanently to a few of the children that shared his love and his concern for their welfare.
One of his children was recently lost in a drive-by shooting and another was burned to death in a fire several years back. Another was murdered south of Chinook about 15 years ago.
English gave up being a foster parent about five years ago, he said. For those children who have grown up and are still around, there are still some who call English dad. Several of the girls, English said, have asked him to give them away when they got married and others have dropped by the house just to bake cookies or say hi.
The toughest thing we had to hear during those years was you must be angels, English said. We werent angels. We just helped somebody out because they need it.
Today, as English looks back at the time, the kids, the hurt, the failures and the successes, he is in some ways typical of all fathers everywhere who want the best for their children. He just had a bigger family.
In his current capacity with the Montana National Guard in Chinook, he is still a father figure with many would-be sons or daughters in his outfit. They still come seeking his advice or looking to him for help.
After all, isnt that what being a father is all about?
For English, Fathers Day is more than just a fishing pole or necktie. Its not something measurable at all. It has no weight, takes up no space, and cant be spent, lost, or stolen. Its the memories, the love, the respect, and the knowledge that he has made a difference in a life not just someone elses life, but his own.