The Woman Who Invented Father’s Day

One soft spring morning in 1909, Sonora Louise Dodd celebrates her first Mother’s Day with her infant son in her arms in the Central United Methodist Church in Spokane, Washington.  The fragrance of lilacs drifts with the breeze through the open windows and mingles with the church’s comforting smells of lemon oil and ancient hymnals. Sonora’s baby is sleeping peacefully and Sonora gives her full attention to Reverend Dr. Henry Rasmussen as he delivers a beautiful and inspiring sermon on the theme of motherhood.

Sonora was sixteen when her own mother died, and though she is saddened by the memory, her heart, as she listens to the Reverend’s sermon, fills with love and admiration for her father. In the nearly 10 years since her mother died, Sonora’s father has been both mother and father to Sonora and her five brothers. His selfless and courageous sacrifices and abiding love for his children are, in his daughter’s eyes, heroic. My father, she thought, and all good fathers like him, should be honored with a special day for fathers.

The Reverend Rasmussen concludes his sermon, the organist strikes the first joyous chords of All Things Bright and Beautiful, and Sonora stands with her husband to sing, her strong spirit swelling with the certain knowledge that she has at last discovered the finest possible way of expressing her gratitude to her father for his devotion to his children.

In the following year, Sonora petitions the Spokane Ministerial Alliance for a Father’s Day service to be held on her father’s birthday, June 5. The churchmen are willing, but do not feel they have enough time to prepare the sermons for a June 5th observance. They schedule the first father’s day event for June 19.

The man who inspired “Father’s Day” was William Jackson Smart. He was born in Arkansas on June 5, 1842. When the Civil War started in 1861, 19-year-old William Jackson Smart enlisted in the Union Army in the 1st Arkansas Light Artillery.

1st Arkansas Light Artillery, 1863

William Jackson survived the war to die, at the age of 77, in his daughter’s home and in the comforting presence of all his children.

William Jackson Smart, 1842-1919

Five years later, Father’s Day was recognized by the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, as an observance that should be kept on June 19 of every year in every state of the Union as an event “…calculated to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and also to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.”

It was not until 1972, however, that the observance of Father’s Day, annually on the third Sunday in June, was decreed by law and by proclamation of Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, to be a national holiday.

Sonora’s enduring tribute to her father, inspired on a spring morning in 1909, would endure with ceremonies, monuments and flags flying from every government building in the United States on the month of William Jackson Smart’s birth for as long as the Union for which he fought stands.

Happy Father’s Day…

…to the men who bring us up, and never let us down.


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