When I was a boy growing up in the South Bronx, my father was the dominant figure in my life. A Jamaican immigrant like my mother, who worked his way up to a foreman's job in Manhattan's garment district, Luther Powell never let his race or station affect his sense of self. West Indians like him had come to this country with nothing.
Every morning they got on the subway, worked like dogs all day, got home at 8 at night, supported their families and educated their children. If they could do that, how dare anyone think they were less than anybody's equal?At home, my father was the neighborhood Solomon -- the village wise man people came to for advice, for domestic arbitration or for help in getting a job. He would bring home clothes, seconds and irregulars, and end bolts of fabric from the company where he worked and sell them at wholesale or give them to anybody in need.
He was totally unimpressed by rank, place or ceremony. Once, when I was a colonel stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., I invited my parents to join us for Thanksgiving dinner. My father talked with generals as if he had known generals all his life and then table-hopped through the mess hall, like Omar Bradley mixing with the troops before an invasion. I was struck by his total aplomb: Luther Powell belonged wherever Luther Powell happened to be. He was a short man, just 5 feet 2 inches tall; but, like Napoleon, he was masterful.
Remembering him fondly on Father's Day, I realize how much of my own success I owe to his example. And when I think of that, I worry about the great many young people who will not be spending today with their own fathers.
Nearly 40 percent of our children are growing up without a father at home. Some sociologists predict that this figure could reach 50 percent in the next few years. It is a cruel and often life-warping deprivation.
Teenage boys without fathers are notoriously prone to crime. Seventy-two percent of adolescent murderers and 70 percent of long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes. Even if they stay out of jail, fatherless boys are still two to three times more likely to drop out of school or to get divorced in later life.
That boys need fathers is widely recognized. Less so is the fact that girls need them, too. It is unconditional love from their fathers that teaches young women they are worthy of affection and respect from other men. Just as teenage boys without fathers are two to three times more likely to commit crimes, teenage girls without fathers are two to three times more likely to conceive a child out of wedlock. Moreover, they are just as likely as the boys to have their adult marriages end in divorce.
In recent years, a new organization called the National Fatherhood Initiative has been engaged in a wide range of activities to promote "father involvement." Some of these activities seek to integrate fathers who are absent because of divorce or imprisonment into the lives of their children. Others are aimed at fathers who may be physically present but not actively involved in their children's upbringing.
But what if such involvement cannot be achieved?
Is it possible to fill the gap that a missing father leaves in a child's life? Not completely, but the gap can be narrowed. The presence of a caring adult mentor may be enough to help that child avoid the worst pitfalls that beset fatherless children.
For more than two years, I have been leading a national crusade for young people called America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth. America's Promise is committed to helping children and teens develop the character and competence they need to be successful in life. To accomplish this end, the very first thing we try to do for needy youngsters is to put a caring adult in their lives.
America's Promise is working with youth-service organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Clubs, and with mentoring initiatives sponsored by various state governments, to increase the number of adult mentors available to young people. Another fine organization, 100 Black Men of America, has already doubled the number of mentoring relationships its members have with youths. But there are still millions of kids who need a caring adult to point them in the right direction.
Traditionally, fathering meant to beget a child -- to perform the male role in conception. To most people today, however, fathering means to perform the child-rearing functions of a father. On this Father's Day, let us honor the biological fathers who are working to provide for their children and raise them right. Let us also honor the men who are shouldering the responsibilities of fatherhood for children other than their own. And let us make it our business to meet, to the fullest extent we can, the needs of children who have no father or father-figure at home.
A caring adult mentor can make the difference between whether a fatherless child succeeds or fails in life. To learn how you can become a mentor to a child, or to learn more about America's Promise, please call 1-888-55-YOUTH. Or visit our Web site: http://www.americaspromise.com.
Gen. Colin Luther Powell, U.S. Army (Ret.), is chairman of America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth.