Fathers play a unique role in everyone’s lives. Most people overall recognize the special role that good fathers play in guiding the lives of their children, working hard to provide for their families, and as a source of strength in difficult times. Father’s Day was established to honor the work of admirable family men. And the day exists largely through the efforts of one Arkansas native.
Sonora Smart was born in the small farming community of Jenny Lind, not far from Fort Smith in Sebastian County, in February 1882. Her father, William Jackson Smart, was a hard-working and devoted man. He was also a veteran, having served in the Arkansas First Light Artillery with the Union Army during the Civil War.
While she was still young, the family moved to an East Arkansas farm near Marion in Crittenden County. In 1887, the family moved across the country to the Pacific Northwest. The growing family settled on a farm in eastern Washington. Two years later, they moved to nearby Spokane. In 1898, tragedy struck the family when her mother, Ellen, died after giving birth to her sixth child.
The tradition of setting aside a day to honor fathers goes back well into the past. The Roman Catholic Church named St. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, as the patron saint of fathers. He was set praised as an example of the sacrifice and devotion to family that fathers traditionally perform for their children. During the Middle Ages, March 19 began being set aside across Europe as a day to honor St. Joseph and all fathers. St. Joseph’s Day was officially set as March 19 in 1479 by the Roman Catholic Church.
Setting aside a day to honor fathers had not gained much support outside the Roman Catholic community in the United States up until the twentieth century. The nation was still mostly Protestant at that time. In July 1908, Grace Clayton organized a special service to honor fathers at a Methodist church in Fairmont, West Virginia, to honor the fathers who had died in a mining accident several months earlier. The event, however, was not repeated.
Sonora Smart Dodd had always loved and respected her own father. After her mother’s death, he held the family together. He did not abandon his family or try to shift the responsibility to someone else. He did the job that any dedicated, loving father would do and raised his children. She married Jack Dodd in 1899, and the couple had a son in 1909. While she was attending Central Methodist Church one Sunday, she heard a sermon praising the efforts to create Mother’s Day. Seeing the impact that having a child had on her husband and remembering what her father had done for her and her brothers, Dodd quickly asked to create a day to honor fathers.
She spoke with the Spokane Minister’s Alliance, which agreed to set a citywide Father’s Day for the third Sunday in June in 1910. It was quite popular at first, spreading to other cities in Washington. President Woodrow Wilson addressed a Spokane Father’s Day service in 1916.
In the meantime, Mother’s Day was quickly gaining popularity in the United States. While Congress passed a law declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1914, it was much slower with recognition for fathers. Politicians, still almost all men and fathers themselves, were reluctant to make a holiday honoring fatherhood. Merchants were supportive of the idea as a means to create more sales, and many opposed the day so it would not be just another occasion for a sale.
Nevertheless, Sonora Dodd continued to promote Father’s Day. Her father was touched by her efforts, and she took in her father when his health began to fail. After a lengthy illness, William Smart died in Spokane in December 1919 at age 77.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation honoring America’s fathers and named the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon followed up by approving a law permanently marking the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day.
Dodd came to be honored as the founder of Father’s Day in Washington. When Seattle hosted the World’s Fair in 1974, organizers made a special effort to recognize her efforts in popularizing the holiday. She died in 1978. There are now plaques across Spokane honoring Dodd’s role.
Today, most nations around the world set aside a day to honor fathers. Dates will vary from one country to another, falling anywhere between March and December. Eighty-four nations now set aside the third Sunday in June as Father’s Day, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Many nations, such as Italy, Angola, Bolivia, Honduras, Portugal, and Spain still mark March 19 as Father’s Day.