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Dad filled in for mom and more

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On the morning she learned her mother had died suddenly in the night, Sally Wahlen Jensen ran to embrace her father on her grandmother's front lawn, with her three younger sisters.

The memory of what her father, Bob Wahlen, said to her on that day has stayed with her for 30 years.

"He knelt on the grass to be at our level, and I pressed my face against his shoulder and cried," Sally recalls. "When I got up, his blue oxford shirt was soaked with my tears. My dad just hugged us and kept saying, 'We'll make it — we'll do this together.' And you know, that's exactly what we did."

Today, Sally marvels that her father single-handedly raised eight daughters while running Wahlen Bros. Furniture in Murray. Bob was the one who accompanied his girls to mother-daughter dates at church and helped put together Halloween costumes and birthday parties.

It was he who took Sally shopping for her first bra, and he who sat patiently outside the dressing room at ZCMI when she needed a dress for the junior prom. He helped with homework assignments, attended school plays and sporting events, made the girls Mickey Mouse pancakes every weekend and even cut the crusts off their sandwiches without a complaint.

Hoping to honor her father for 30 years of "always being there," Sally wanted to meet for a Free Lunch of seafood enchiladas at Salt Lake City's Tres Hombres.

She was 11 years old when her mother, Betty, developed complications from a gallstone lodging in her pancreas and suddenly died, just a few weeks after her 40th birthday.

Relatives tried to persuade Bob to let them take some of the girls, but he wouldn't hear of it.

"He refused to split us up," says Sally. "He knew it would be hard to raise us alone, but he was determined to do it."

The older girls helped look after the younger ones that first summer, with help from a new German shepherd watchdog named Sandy.

"Dad came home for lunch every day to make sure everything was OK," says Sally. "And he had the milkman look in on us and get us anything we wanted. We drank a lot of chocolate milk."

It would have been easy for Sally and her sisters to get into trouble during those first fragile years without their mother.

"But none of us wanted to disappoint our dad," says Sally. "He was so trusting, so loving. We didn't want to give him anything more to worry about."

While Sally sometimes heard him softly crying at night, Bob was always positive in front of his daughters.

"He was never angry about what happened," she says. "It was always, 'This is life and let's make the best of it.' He had to be strong for the rest of us."

The girls ate a lot of bean-with-bacon soup and take-out pizza, and there was always a mountain of laundry to sort through, recalls Sally. None of that mattered, though, "because we had each other," she says. "My dad taught us not to sweat the little things. Now that we all have our own families, we know what a good lesson that was."

Bob took pride in helping plan each of his girls' weddings, from what flavor of punch to serve to the colors of flowers in the centerpieces and whom to hire to play the violin.

Now 70 and remarried, he is still as close to his daughters as he was in those days when he was trying to figure out how to work the washing machine.

On Father's Day, Sally and her siblings are planning to honor him over a home-cooked breakfast in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Bob, no doubt, will be at the griddle, making another batch of those Mickey Mouse pancakes.

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write to me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.