For Pat and for Alan
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Marcus Aurelius
I was looking for a good Father’s Day story, a story about not only a good father, but a good man. He didn’t know it, but he sent me the story in pictures. His oldest daughter had just been married the week before and his message for the pictures was, “She captured my heart the day she was born”.
I met my friend and colleague Dr. Alan Heisterkamp almost 25 years ago. I was a social worker, he was a high school guidance counselor. We had mutual friends, all social workers or educators who played occasionally in a band. He had a quiet way about him that didn’t always advertise his brilliant mind. But if you got to know him well enough, that mind, his wit, and his humor came through loud and clear. He took his work seriously, but didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and I liked that about him. He was and is both a gentleman, and a gentle man.
We reconnected in 2000. By then, I was at the Waitt Foundation and he was an assistant principal at West High School in Sioux City. My colleague and I asked him to do something quite experimental for that time. We asked if he would be interested in testing Jackson Katz’s violence prevention program, “Mentors in Violence Prevention”. There were only a few high schools in America who had done that. Violence and bullying prevention wasn’t the hot button issue it is today, and he could have told us no. He didn’t. He not only started the program, he spread it to all high schools here and kept it going over time, to bring the largest and most sustained concentration of MVP in the country. He also did the first preliminary research on Futures without Violence’s “Coaching Boys into Men”, guided Lee Hirsch and Cynthia Lowen in the filming of the documentary “Bully”, and has trained hundreds, if not thousands, of kids and adults.
He also didn’t have to come with us at Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention when we asked, but he did, leaving a solid 20 year career in education. That was a risk for him, and for his family, but he did it. He was passionate about education and still is, but he’s passionate about making this a world free from violence as well.
Like Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Don McPherson, Jeff O’Brien and many other men I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years, he was a pioneer. “Engaging Men and Boys” was a quiet strategy then. Not many men were talking about violence against women, and the social norms that allow that violence. Alan threw himself into the work, finding kindred souls and fellow pioneers along the way. Alan could tie his work into his feelings for his mother, his sisters, his amazing wife Pat, and his three daughters, as well as his son. I used to tease him about how physically beautiful his family was, and is, and how smart they all are. I called the daughters “PhD supermodels”. Keeping the old joke in mind, he sent me pictures of his daughter Rachael’s wedding, saying, “Thought you’d want to see how the PhD supermodels are doing”. That’s when I found my story.
The story was in a series of pictures taken of Alan and his daughter before the wedding. They capture that moment when a father first realizes that his daughter is all grown up, and wonders where the last 26 years went, as he said in another message. Seeing the beauty and radiance of the bride for the first time, Alan was clearly welling up with tears and letting that feeling happen, and letting it happen for the camera. Like many things he does as a parent, educator, and advocate, it’s a teachable moment. It says to me, “It’s alright for men to feel, it’s okay to cry, you can be vulnerable, and it’s more than okay to be open about it.” He knows that teaching boys to be able to feel is part of a path to healthy manhood. It’s a simple lesson, but a powerful one.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Alan as a man, a father and husband, an activist, and a friend. He’s just one of the gentle men, who are also fierce in their passion to change things for the better. There are so many good men, who’ve joined with women to work to end violence, and I meet new ones who are joining all the time. But Alan holds a special place for me as a man who not only talks the talk, but lives it.
On this Father’s Day, as a colleague and friend, and on behalf of daughters everywhere, I thank you, Alan, and all the men like you, who have the courage, the heart, and the strength to be a gentle man. Happy Fathers Day.