What are your memories of your father? What lessons do you wish your kids could learn from you? What are the worst jokes you've gotten away with? Those are the questions we asked four South Jersey dads—a CEO, a landscape artist, an independent contractor, and a doctor—whose loved ones nominated them as Father of the Year for 2013. The one thing these fathers have in common? They make time with their kids on a one-on-one level. To those of you who have already learned this: we salute you, too (thanks, Dad). Here are four short stories of South Jersey men taking the time to be there.
Michael Palcko (pictured)
Lots of parents make grand gestures to put a smile on their children’s faces, but Glendora-based contractor Michael Palcko took that idea to a whole new level—and made the idea of a simple pool a bit obsolete. Last summer, he spent two months building a fully functioning water park in their backyard out of PVC pipes and other supplies.
What came together was a park complete with slides, water cannons and a dump bucket for his kids, neighbors and friends to enjoy.
If that wasn't enough, he followed that up with homemade snow during the mild 2012 winter to make sure his kids—2-year-old Dylan and 8-year-old Branden—got to experience a winter wonderland.
“At the end of the day, when I come home from work and the windows are open, all I can hear is ‘Daddy’s home! Daddy’s home!’” Palcko says. “I’m never sure if they are waiting for a hug, or waiting with water balloons to ambush me.”
A fitting tribute for a dad whose kids “look at me like I’m a superhero.” (“I’m not saying that I am,” Palcko says, “but I don’t correct them.”)
Projects like that are just part of his involvement in his children’s lives, says his wife, Jennifer. Palcko also coaches his son’s Little League teams, regularly takes them fishing and paintballing, and occasionally plays baseball in the house, to Jennifer’s chagrin.
“It’s all about them,” Palcko says. “My biggest surprises about what goes into being a dad are that my kids add fuel to my fire, and I can get away with being myself by acting like a kid and it’s cool.”
To that end, he says he’s not too proud to tease his boys; say, for instance, by telling them that he’s got Bieber Fever, and running around the house shouting it. “They get embarrassed,” he says. “The only difference between them and me is that I have power tools.”
Some of the best teaching moments as a dad come when he takes the boys fishing, he says, because “the excitement in my son’s face when he catches a big fish is more rewarding than winning the lottery—because he did it all by himself.”
“My own father was never there for me or my own family,” he recalls, “so I learned how to be a wonderful parent from my mother. It has influenced me because I know how important it is to be there for my children as a good father and role model.”
But even with all the excitement of a backyard water park (or ski slope), it’s the small moments Palcko wants his kids to cherish: bedtime stories, tickling, and going to ball games.
“It’s not about who has the most toys,” he says. “It’s about spending quality time with one another.”
It took Moorestown residents Tim and Susan Kerrihard four years to get pregnant, Tim says, “so there was always a lot of anticipation” until the news was finally confirmed.
“Both of us were almost in shock, actually.”
Looking back on that moment now, however, he adds, “Somehow, when [Susan] told me, it was as if I almost knew what was going to come out of her mouth. It was fantastic.”
For Kerrihard, fatherhood in the years that followed has been fueled by the excitement of that moment. As the president and CEO of the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, Tim has long days, but gives up all of his spare time for his family, Susan says.
“He loves to act silly, come up with fun games to play, or help out at the kids’ sporting events,” she says.
Kerrihard does confess a fondness for making up goofy songs to speed up everyday tasks—and admits that his children Sydney, 9, and Tommy, 7, aren’t shy about telling him how bad they are—“but it’s all in fun,” he maintains.
By comparison, Kerrihard’s own father “is a man of few words, even a bit stoic,” he says, but from his dad, who volunteered to coach his sports teams, Kerrihard learned what it meant to be “a real family and community man.”
“His love for me and my siblings is deep and passionate,” Kerrihard says, “and I now understand how he feels about his kids, because I think I probably feel the same way about mine.”
Kerrihard says the biggest lessons he wants to leave his children are mostly about perspective: “having a real sense of joy about life, showing tolerance, appreciation and love for others, and finding out what you are passionate about.”
“I absolutely love watching Sydney and Tommy develop, as individuals and together as best friends,” Kerrihard says. “They’re just 14 months apart and really get along well together.”
John Nystedt “got a later start” beginning his family, according to his wife, Dawn, “but his 12- and 14-year-old boys are the light of his life.”
As an outdoorsman and landscape architect, he works for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and volunteers with the Saddler’s Woods Conservation Association and Shade Tree Commission in his hometown of Haddon Township.
Nystedt’s love of nature is something that was instilled by his own father, and something he is happy to pass on to his own children, Nick and David, whether canoeing, swimming or camping. He also finds time to coach Nick’s flag football team and take him to practice with the Collingswood Youth Theatre group, and play basketball in the backyard with David.
“My favorite thing about being a dad is the wonder I get watching them grow up,” he says, “seeing how they have their own way to go about things, how they are so much their own wonderful, difficult, lively, caring, inventive personalities, and knowing that they’re getting more ready, day by day, to take on the world.
“The biggest surprise is that I keep learning so much from my children,” he continues. “They have great insight into issues and situations that I really appreciate hearing.”
Some of his favorite memories of fatherhood are older—like hoisting one of his sons, as a toddler, to sniff through the spices in the spice cabinet, furthering his love of cooking—and others are more recent, like the great feeling that came from tutoring his other son in math.
“It was a great feeling for me when he figured out how to do the problems on his own after I showed him how, followed by big smiles and high-fives,” he muses.
Although Nystedt describes his own upbringing as fun but rigid at times—his dad taught him that “it’s so much more important what you do as a father and man, as compared to what you say”—but he’s not above sharing funny stories of his own bad luck or his own mistakes.
“They seem to love that,” he says. “Through the stories, I am subtly teaching them a little of what not to do, but mostly that it’s OK to make mistakes—and that I make plenty.
“I’d like my kids to remember that I love them dearly, no matter what they grow up to do, whatever they mess up, whatever they succeed in.”
Emmanuel Botzolakis’ childhood largely shaped his fatherhood. His parents divorced when he was very young, and work took his father out of state. Botzolakis traveled on weekends and holidays for visits, he says, “but in the end, our time together was limited. Remembering what that felt like, I promised myself that when I became a dad, I would always be around and involved in my kids’ lives.”
You might think that’s not easy for someone with a bunch of letters after their name, but Botzolakis, MD, Ph.D.—a second-year resident at the University of Pennsylvania—finds the time.
The Cherry Hill resident is “a busy physician-scientist,” as his wife, Liya Beyderman, MD, explains. (His areas of interest and research are neuroradiology and molecular imaging.) But she points out that Botzolakis “always finds time to read a book, play chess or just go explore outside” with his sons Stefan, 5, and Adrian, 3. He teaches them to swim, reads at library time, and chaperones class trips.
“He spends all his free time outside of taking care of patients with his family, and that is not something that one sees often these days,” Beyderman says. “He is always able to make any activity a fun one for the kids while teaching them important life lessons.”
Botzolakis says he’s always loved kids and “had been looking forward to being a dad for a really long time” before his wife told him they were going to have children.
“I remember imagining how fun parenthood was going to be,” he says. “How we would take lots of fun trips and do all sorts of fun activities. Looking back, parenthood has certainly turned out to be loads of fun, but I totally underestimated how much work it would require and how little sleep I would typically be functioning on.”
For someone so accomplished himself, it’s no surprise to hear Botzolakis say the lessons he most wants to impart to his sons are on the “importance of persistence and hard work; that nothing worthwhile [happens] overnight. That said, I’m also hoping they learn the importance of maintaining balance in their life,” he says. “I’m a big believer of ‘work hard, play hard.’”
Although Botzolakis says it often falls to him to be the disciplinarian in the household, he recognizes that somebody’s got to do the job.
But “even after all the time-outs, toys confiscated, and chores assigned,” he says, “I hope they'll never forget that I love them more than anything and that I would go to the ends of the earth for them.
“If I were to change anything, it would just be to remind them of that more often.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 4 (June, 2013).
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