The story of Father’s Day is a story of the love of a daughter for her father, and of how one determined person can make a difference.
Sonora Smart Dodd was the first born child of William Jackson Smart, a Civil War veteran from Arkansas, and his wife Ellen. Smart and his growing family soon settled on a rural farm near Spokane, Washington, where Smart became a farmer. Sadly, when Sonora was 16, her mother died in childbirth, leaving Sonora and her father five young boys to raise. It was common for widowers with young children to send them to orphanages or other relatives to raise, but Smart kept his family together. Even after Sonora married, Smart was a devoted parent to the five young boys.
Mother’s Day observations began in 1908, following a campaign by Anna Jarvis. Sonora attended the first Spokane, Washington observance of Mother’s Day in 1909 at the Central United Methodist Church. After hearing the preacher praise the contributions of mothers to their families, she wondered why their was no recognition of fathers’ roles. A young mother herself, Sonora still believed that there should be a special day honoring fathers. Sonora approached the Spokane Ministerial Association and YMCA to set aside a day in June to celebrate fathers.
On June 19, 1910, Sonora’s vision became a reality. YMCA boys decorated their lapels with fresh-cut flowers – red if their father was living and white if their father was dead. Sonora, traveling in a horse-drawn carriage with her new-born son, gave presents to shut-in fathers throughout the town. Later, Sonora and her family attended services at the local Presbyterian church, where the minister gave a sermon honoring fathers.
Word of Sonora’s local celebration traveled from Washington State to Washington, D.C. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson commenced the Father’s Day celebration in Washington, D.C., and the celebration resumed in Spokane where a choir of one thousand voices entertained attendees. Wilson’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, signed a resolution in supporting the establishment of an annual father’s day. Although the initial support for Mother’s Day was broader and stronger, Father’s Day slowly grew in popularity due in large part to Sonora’s dogged determination. In the 1960’s President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order decreeing that Father’s Day be celebrated on the third Sunday of June. In 1970, Congress passed an resolution calling upon the president to establish Father’s Day as an official national holiday. President Richard Nixon enacted the legislation in 1972.
One hundred years from the humble beginnings of Father’s Day, Sonora’s love and gratitude for her widowed father has blossomed into nation-wide appreciation for fathers and fatherhood. Her story has a happy ending. While her beloved father died in 1918, Sonora lived long enough to see the establishment of Father’s Day as a national holiday forty-four years after President Wilson traveled to Spokane in 1916. Sonora’s granddaughter started a family tradition for Father’s Day. Each June, regardless of where she was, she sent her grandmother a happy father’s day card. Sonora died in 1978, six years after Father’s Day became an official holiday. She was 96 years old.