- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

Credit has always been given to Anna Jarvis of Webster, W.Va., for beginning the annual observance of Mother’s Day, to the delight of jewelry stores, florists and Hallmark stores everywhere.

Less well known is the origin of the day set apart on the third Sunday in June to honor fathers. Few know that its beginnings came from Sonora Smart Dodd, the daughter of a Union veteran.

The tiny town of Jenny Lind, Ark., in Sebastian County has been absorbed by nearby Fort Smith, but back in 1842, a young man named William Jackson Smart was born there on his parents’ farm. He was 19 when he enlisted in the 1st Arkansas Light Artillery, organized in Fayetteville on March 21, 1863, and equipped with six 3-inch, rifled, wrought-iron guns.

His unit’s service was extensive in the area from Cross Timbers, Mo., to several sites in Arkansas, including colorfully named ones such as Poison Springs, and out in the Indian Territory. The Union was stationed at Fort Gibson in what today is Oklahoma when in August 1865 word was received of the war’s end. William Smart was mustered out on Aug. 10.

A few years after the war, William married Ellen Victoria Cheek. They eventually moved to Washington state, near Spokane. Sonora was the firstborn, arriving on Feb. 18, 1882, and would be the only daughter. The couple added five children to their family, about whom little is known, but Ellen died in 1898 from complications during the birth of a son, Marshall.

William had six children to raise alone..

One May Sunday in 1909, his daughter, Sonora Louise Smart Dodd, by then a married woman, sat in church listening to the annual sermon on mothers and motherhood. Having lost her own mother, she realized that her father had acted as both mother and father to his brood.

She determined then to find a way to have a Sunday set apart to honor fathers, and because her father’s birthday fell on the third Sunday of June that year, she decided that could be the time for the annual observance. One year later, on June 19, 1910, the first Father’s Day was held in Spokane as a local celebration.

However, Mrs. Dodd was not satisfied that only Washington set aside a day to honor fathers, and after much correspondence and lobbying, a National Father’s Day Committee was formed in New York City. Various national leaders fell in line to give weight to the idea, and supporting it became a popular cause.

President Wilson approved of the concept in 1916, and President Coolidge lent his support in 1924 to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.” Nothing happened.

Actually, Mrs. Dodd had a compatriot far in the East, as Grace Golden Clayton of Fairmont, W.Va., had a similar idea after a coal mine explosion took the lives of more than 360 men, 210 of whom were fathers, in December 1907.

The disaster affected her deeply. A later story in the Fairmont Times includes this quote from Mrs. Clayton as reported by Glenn Lough, Marion County historian: “It was partly the explosion that got me to thinking how important and loved most fathers are. All those lonely children and those heart-broken wives and mothers, made orphans and widows in a matter of a few minutes. Oh, how sad and frightening to have no father, no husband, to turn to at such an awful time.”

Neither woman knew of the other’s actions, and after Mrs. Clayton brought the idea to her minister, a local observance in West Virginia was held near her father’s birthday, on July 9, 1908.

A man entered into the mix as well. Harry C. Meek, a member of a Lions Club in Chicago, gave talks urging the establishment of such a commemorative day, and a plaque honors him at a local YMCA in Spokane.

However, neither Mrs. Clayton nor Mr. Meek went further than their immediate locales in pursuing the concept of a national day for honoring fathers. It fell to Mrs. Dodd to keep the project going.

Again, time had to pass for more definitive action to occur to make it a national observance. In 1956, by a joint resolution of Congress, the concept of Father’s Day finally was recognized. In 1966, President Johnson signed a formal declaration making the third Sunday in June the official commemorative day, and in 1972, President Nixon established, once and for all, the permanent national observance of this day to honor the nation’s fathers.

Fortunately, the proud daughter who began it all lived to see her dream become reality. Sonora Smart Dodd was singled out for honor at the World’s Fair held in Spokane, Wash.,in 1974. She died four years later at age 96.

Martha M. Boltz is a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table and a frequent contributor to this page.

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