From the archives: Wendy Davis’ tribute to her dad

Posted Thursday, Sep. 05, 2013  Print Reprints

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Editor’s note: For Father’s Day 2002, the Star-Telegram asked several prominent Fort Worth residents to describe life-defining moments with their fathers. Here is what then-Councilwoman Wendy Davis wrote.

The Competition

“Thwack!” A red ball reels past me on the lawn. It is my croquet ball, and it has just been hit off line by my opponent.

My dad, the perpetrator of this injustice, stands watching his handiwork, his left foot still perched atop the yellow ball. I narrow my eyes at him, in mock anger. I am 10. We are on the front lawn of our home, my two brothers, sister and I are engaged in the battle to unseat my dad as the reigning champion of the “Russell Croquet Open.”

“Jerrrrry, “ my mother sighs, dragging it out under her breath. She hates it when he does this, ruining, in her opinion, what should be a lighthearted, fun game. He looks back at her, and then at me, flashing an expression of false innocence.

“What?” he asks, his eyes smiling at her and then at me.

My poor sweet mom, always trying to protect our feelings. She is the type who says “Excuse me” when someone bumps into her. She is a caretaker, always thinking of your needs ahead of her own.

Then, there is my dad. A competitor. And the fact that I am only 10 is of little concern to him as we battle for the win at this week’s “Open.” He has a title to defend, after all.

I would have it no other way. Even at that age, I see the respect implicit in this act of competitiveness. He deems me a worthy foe, not to be spared the opportunity of beating him when he has played his best.

I’ve learned the importance of this respect already, having been scolded by my paternal grandmother when she caught me letting her win at gin rummy. How insulted she was! Yes, I know that to play your hardest is to pay the highest of compliments to your opponent.

This memory of our croquet battles popped into my mind a few days ago, when my husband and I were paired with a father and his 16-year-old daughter for a round of golf. They immediately squared off against each other, and I smiled, thinking of my dad and me.

Croquet was just the tip of our competitive iceberg. There were the board games, card games, chess matches, badminton, horseshoes and games of H-O-R-S-E in the driveway — the broken windows in the driveway doors standing testament to our occasional wayward jump shots. There were riddles, challenging ones, that my dad would pose, sometimes making us wait days before he would reveal the answer.

There were games he made up in the car to occupy us on long road trips, but games he enjoyed as much as we did. There was: “Guess how many miles to the next gas station? Who can be the first to spot a yellow Volkswagen Beetle? Who can spell ‘enthusiasm’ from the first letters of billboard words first?”

Our family competitions, in many ways, shaped my personality. I recall report-card competitions with my brother, Joey, who was a year older than me. I can still see us proudly presenting our report cards, awaiting the possibility of being announced the winner of that semester’s challenge.

Some might think this cruel, matching children against each other, but we loved it. And we learned how to succeed because of it.

Through my dad’s many games and challenges, we also learned how to think strategically, how to lose well and how to enjoy winning — but not too much. Maybe it is because my dad is an only child, and with us, he saw the opportunity to be a kid again, this time with siblings.

But I think he knew what he was doing. His face revealed it when we would best him at a game. There was definite pride in his deep brown eyes when we would succeed and beat him.

And when we would lose, there were those same gentle eyes, the arm around the shoulder, the advice on strategy so we could improve the next time. It was an incredibly loving and safe environment in which to learn that life doesn’t always go your way.

I wonder if my dad will ever understand how much this gift has sustained me during times of personal difficulty. I wonder if he knows that there was a moment in my life, sitting in the dark in the living room of my small apartment, a 2-old-daughter to raise, no money to pay the electric bill and little food in the refrigerator, when I was able to believe that my life could improve.

I wonder if he knows that those lessons he taught me gave me the courage to sign up for a few classes at Tarrant County Junior College to try to better myself for the sake of my daughter. I wonder if he knows that the competitive drive he nurtured in me was the most significant factor in my ability to graduate from Texas Christian University and Harvard Law School.

I wonder if he knows that he gave me the belief in myself to run for public office.

I can still see myself on the day I graduated from law school, walking across the stage and into his arms. I see him holding me, sobbing because he was so proud. “I was able to do this because of you, Dad,” I should have said. And now, I can say it.

I am who I am because of you, Dad.