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Tops of the Pops

Some of our favorite people recall the lessons they learned from their dads.

Al Roker

Coanchor and weather reporter, the Today show
My father was a patient guy. Every now and then he'd lose that patience and break out "The Belt." I was around nine and I remember just before one spanking he trotted out the old bromide "This is going to hurt me more than it does you." When he said that, I asked him to do us both a favor then and skip the spanking. He started laughing so hard he sat down and said, "Get outta here, and don't tell your mother."

When I'm dealing with my children after a long day, I think about him. Eight hours driving a bus, dealing with New Yorkers, making change and small talk, then coming home and dealing with six kids and a wife who had been cooped up with those kids. Yet he played with us, talked to us, and listened to us. His was a rare gift.

Bonnie Raitt

My dad [Broadway leading man John Raitt] lives very much in the moment. He has an innate ability to pick himself up from any setback or loss and just, as he says, "move on down the road." This deliberate focus is, I think, a big part of the reason he's continued to stay in such strong voice, such good physical and mental health, all these years, and surely why he seems much happier and less neurotic than most stars you find in the dodgy and mercurial world of show business. It took me some time to get the healthy lifestyle right, but I certainly admire these lessons of making every day and show count, of respecting the gift that is our talent and this amazing job we get to do for a living. [John Raitt, who was alive when his daughter wrote this, died in February at the age of 88. —Ed.]

Conan O'Brien

Host, Late Night With Conan O'Brien
I'm one of six children, and when you travel in a pack like that your early memories of your father all involve discipline. For the longest time my dad was simply a black-haired arm reaching into the back seat, trying to grab one of us. It always reminded me of the famous scene in King Kong where the hero is trapped on the cliff face while Kong is blindly reaching around, trying to crush him with his giant fist. My father believed in frontier justice. He'd say, "I don't know who broke the clock in the front hall, so you're all going to be punished." It seemed unfair at the time, but now that it has become the basis for our country's foreign policy, I'm starting to think my father was onto something.

Katie Couric

Coanchor, the Today show
One of my most moving memories of my dad is when he came to the hospital once when my husband, Jay, had to have complicated surgery having to do with his[colon] cancer. It was a hellacious time, and I was, needless to say, a basket case. I walked into New York Hospital and saw my dad waiting for me. He hadn't told me he was coming, and to see him, with his big set of white hair and looking so elegant in his suit—to have him there with me—made me feel so much better.

Television is such a showy profession. Some parents might brag, but mine don't believe in it. I remember one time my dad was at the garage getting his car fixed and someone asked him, "Are you Katie Couric's father?" He said, "No, she's my daughter."


Jimmy Buffett

Singer-songwriter, author
In early 1995, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He was a draftsman and a dynamo of energy with whom few people could keep pace. Now he had to face the awful reality that he was losing his mind. Once the devastating news settled in, our conversations were more personal than they had ever been.

One day we were sitting at the end of the pier that my father had built, looking out over the shallow waters of Mobile Bay, savoring the day.

"You know what I was just thinking about?" he asked.

"What?" These days that could be a loaded question.

"Remember when you got thrown out of the sailing club for leaving the race and sailing all the way across the bay?" I had to think only a moment about that major event in my misspent youth.

"You bet I do," I said with a laugh.

"I never told you, but that was about as proud as I ever was of you. I mean, being the first Buffett to get a college degree was good, don't get me wrong, but that time you just decided to light out on your own, that was a moment. Looks like you have made a career out of doing what you're not supposed to do. I'm proud of you, boy."

Nina Totenberg

Legal-affairs correspondent, National Public Radio
I credit my father, a classical violinist, with my having a career at all. I grew up at a time when there were no women in news. None. So what gave me the idea I could do this? Well, there were women performers in music. My father considered them equals. They were equals. And he always seemed to expect that his daughters could do anything they wished. I'm not sure he had any idea what the news world was like. He just assumed that if I worked hard and was good at what I did, I would succeed.

Kris Kristofferson

Singer-songwriter, actor
My father was a sharp, intelligent, capable man, with a smile as warm as sunshine and a heart big enough to take on anything. I never saw a problem he couldn’t handle, whether it was pulling my rain-soaked car out of the mud where I'd run it off the road and gotten stuck on Christmas night—he did it all in total silence—or taking over the management of the world’s then-largest private airline, Aramco, in Saudi Arabia.

And there were hidden acts of kindness. As a teenager, I'd gotten into trouble with another kid over some stolen hubcaps, and we were forbidden by the police to hang out together. He wrote me a letter years later saying that whenever my dad was in San Francisco, where my old friend was working, my dad would stop in to see if he was okay. Every trip. He did that for years.

Donald J. Trump

Chairman and president, The Trump Organization
My father was very disciplined but also very kind. What I recall most vividly is when he would take me along to his construction sites. That was incredibly exciting to me.

The most important lesson I learned from him was to be responsible. He had good advice, he was always on my side, and he was proud of me. He meant so much to me, and the loss will always be there. I think of him every single day without fail.

Dean Ornish, M.D.

Founder and president, The Preventive Medicine and Research Institute
One of the reasons that my father, who's almost 80 now, became a dentist was so he could always be home for dinner and spend weekends with his family. At one point he had thought about being a musician, but he said, "I’m not going to do that because I'd be on the road all the time and I wouldn’t be with my family."

In my work I have spent so much time with so many accomplished people, and their biggest regret is that they didn't spend time with their families. My father would be there when I woke up in the morning and have breakfast with me, and he would be home most nights in time for dinner. If I ever needed him, he would leave the office early. I didn't fully appreciate at the time how rare that is and how much that affected my view of the world as a loving place rather than a hostile, dangerous place.


Vijay Singh

Professional golfer
My father was a very fair man, but he was also very strict, and we were disciplined in a way that's lacking in America. We weren't supposed to do anything out of line, and he kept us in line. It was not necessarily correct, but you learn from those things and adjust.

He lives in New Zealand now, and he's very proud of my success. He was here for the Masters in 2004, and we had a great, great time. It was the first time he'd come to America and the second time he'd met my 14-year-oldboy, Qass. It was wonderful. We all had dinners together and talked about little things here and there, in our way. He had a better relationship with my boy than he'd had with me. It was a way of getting closer to me.

Maria Bartiromo

Host, The Wall Street Journal Report With Maria Bartiromo
My father was not an economics guy, but he owned a restaurant, the Rex Manor, in Brooklyn. It was very much a family business, but to me it was big business, and I particularly remember going there on Mondays with my father and watching him do the books. I can't say I knew exactly what was going on, but I would always see him there, with his big calculator and all the books spread out, going through revenue and earnings, and that was a major influence on me. Years later, I recognized that it was my father who had planted the seeds in my head of taking ownership of something and of wanting to pursue a business career.

Matt Lauer

Coanchor, the Today show
You hear so much about children of divorce. Either I was naive and just not paying attention, or my parents did it as well as any two parents have ever done it. I never felt animosity. My dad and mom decided at some point that they couldn't be married anymore, but they still liked each other as people. When my father came to pick us up on weekends, it wasn't one of those situations you hear about where the dad sits in the driveway and honks the horn, waiting for the mother who pushes the kids out the door after saying something nasty about the father. He would come in, have a drink. If there were no urgent plans, he would have dinner.

I was 37 when my dad died, and I never had a doubt in my 37 years that no matter what happened, my dad would be there without questions asked. I knew I wouldn't get a lecture; I knew it wouldn't be used as a life lesson or rubbed in my face. I just knew he would be there for me when I went to him. I hope that I will be thought of by my children in that same way.

Excerpted from Big Shoes by Al Roker and Friends, edited by Amy Rennert. Published by Hyperion. Copyright © 2005 by Al Roker. Bonnie Raitt excerpt © 2005by Bonnie Raitt. Jimmy Buffett excerpt adapted from A Pirate Looks at Fifty© 1998, 2005 by Jimmy Buffett.


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