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Council of Dads video
Council of Dads video: A behind-the-scenes look at the USA WEEKEND photo shoot with best-selling author Bruce Feiler and his Council of Dads.
L-R, Top to Bottom: Max Stier, Ben Sherwood, Jeff Shumlin, Joshua Ramo, Ben Edwards, David Black, Bruce Feller, and his twin daughters / David Yellen for USA WEEKEND, Grooming by Bryan Ly

Start your own Council

Find out more about how you can start your own Council — regardless of your age, health status or gender — at Councilofdads.com. The site, created by Feiler, features a tool kit, forums, blogs and links.

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On July 2, 2008, best-selling author Bruce Feiler was walking the streets of Manhattan when he got a phone call from his doctor’s office. After a routine checkup, a growth had been found in his left leg. Tests were run. Now, it was time for the news:
“The growth in your leg,” he was told, “is not consistent with a benign tumor.”

Which meant Feiler, now 45, had cancer, with a 7-inch tumor in his femur now spreading.

A flood of questions overwhelmed him:

Why me? Why now?

He quickly comforted himself. “I realized I had lived a full, good life,” says Feiler, author of Walking the Bible. “If I were to die, I’d have no regrets.”

What will happen to my wife, Linda?

Again, there was reassurance. “I knew that she’d take care of herself and continue to live with passion,” Feiler says.

Then, a question with no quick answer:

How will my little girls get by without me?

Seeking a solution for his twin daughters has resulted in an ongoing journey, a deep exploration of his past to create the kind of future he wants for Eden and Tybee, who will turn 5 on Thursday. He has taken an inventory of his entire existence to come up with a list of six close male friends. Each friend conveys a part of Feiler that he wants to pass on. He has written a letter to each man, asking him to be there for the twins if he succumbs to the cancer. This effort has been documented in Feiler’s new book, The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness and the Men Who Could Be Me (William Morrow, $22.99), in stores April 27.

Feiler has been cancer-free since he underwent a 15-hour surgery on Dec. 23, 2008. Regardless of his health, the Council of Dads always will be a part of his girls’ lives.
“My daughters will always know how important they are to me,” Feiler says. “Through these men, they’ll always hear my voice.”
Indeed, it’s clear that each father represents an essential building block to becoming a great parent. Here, in an exclusive for USA WEEKEND Magazine, they tell us in their own words what they have to share — and what we can learn from them.

(Page 2 of 5)

Feiler has been cancer-free since he underwent a 15-hour surgery on Dec. 23, 2008. Regardless of his health, the Council of Dads always will be a part of his girls’ lives.
“My daughters will always know how important they are to me,” Feiler says. “Through these men, they’ll always hear my voice.”

Indeed, it’s clear that each father represents an essential building block to becoming a great parent. Here, in an exclusive for USA WEEKEND Magazine, they tell us in their own words what they have to share — and what we can learn from them.

Keep your 'inner kid' going strong

Dr. Ben Edwards, 44, of Savannah, Ga.

“Bruce and I grew up together in Savannah, and have been best friends since childhood. We fished for tadpoles in a creek behind his house. We worked on the yearbook together in high school. And even though he’s moved on to New York, we still spend summer vacations together at our respective family beach houses on Tybee Island.

“He’s a guy who needed to leave home and see the world. I’m a homeboy who always wanted to stay. He’s a globe-trotting writer now. I’m a bone radiologist. But the core quality of our relationship that started in kindergarten hasn’t changed. We talk about anything now, just like we did then.

“Parents need to know that it’s not just about staying friends with someone you’ve known all of your life. It’s about encouraging your kids to always keep a part of their childhood with them. When you grow up, and you get so busy chasing success and raising a family, you can lose track of the innocent pleasures that defined your upbringing. Staying in touch with Bruce provides that level of comfort to the both of us. It takes us back to the days when all we cared about was catching tadpoles, and watch them turn into frogs.

How to live

Max Stier, 45, of Washington

I was Bruce’s roommate at Yale. We clicked immediately because we shared similar family histories. Bruce’s grandfather killed himself after he was diagnosed with dementia. My dad also committed suicide. We both realized that we should not deny this part of our past. It’s better to try to understand what happened and why, to gain a greater appreciation of life.

(Page 3 of 5)

“Bruce knows how to live. He has a relentless passion for exploration. He lives in the present. I’ll seek to pass this on to his girls. One of my favorite expressions is, ‘Always pack your flip flops.’ In life, we spend so much time being scheduled for one ‘necessary’ thing or another. Bruce has research to conduct and book executives to meet. I run a non-profit, the Partnership for Public Service. As parents, we need to teach our children that you need to have time to take off the ‘serious’ clothes and shoes and put on our flip flops, to enjoy quiet moments and the people who matter to us.

These are the kinds of times when my own young children ask me wonderful questions: ‘Why is snow white?’ ‘How do cranes get to construction sites?’ ‘How does soap kill germs?’

Such moments won’t last forever. They’re times when parents need to take a step back, put on their flip flops and look for these answers with their kids.

How to dream

David Black, 51, of New York

We’re often encouraged to overcome walls that stand in the way of our goals. Being a classic, full-throttle New Yorker type, I like to go one-better: I plow through these walls as if they never existed.

I was overweight when I was younger and then I didn’t want to be anymore. I knew running was a great way to shred pounds. But I didn’t just run. I ran marathons. Then, just this past September, I was running in New York and got hit by a car. I broke a leg and a thumb. I worked like hell to recover and get back into shape. At first, I went on the stationary bike. Then, seven weeks after my accident, I ran my first mile outside my home. I went to the scene of my accident, spit on the street there, and went home.

“We need to get our children to believe that nothing is impossible. Today, I’m Bruce’s book agent. But I started out in the talent agency business as a mailroom clerk. I had a college degree, but I started out at the bottom. Now, through hard work, I own my own agency.

There may be agents out there who are smarter than me. But not many who combine my passion and willingness to do whatever it takes for my clients. Take Bruce, who has had struggles in his career. For one of his books, Dreaming Out Loud, we both met with difficult challenges. As Bruce was hitting a wall during the writing process, I flew across the country to Nashville where he was staying, and slept on his couch to help get him through it. The book wasn’t a big seller. But my devotion and belief in Bruce helped enrich our partnership. He stuck with me even when a writer may have been tempted to explore other options. His next book, Walking the Bible, was a homerun for both of us. These are the kinds of tests that life throws at us — all of us. The best we can do is use them as testimony for the young people in our lives, to demonstrate how they can be used as learning experiences. There is always something good to extract from a bad situation. As long as we believe this, our kids will too.

(Page 4 of 5)

Harvest everyday miracles

Joshua Cooper Ramo, 41, of Beijing, China

“When I heard the news about Bruce, I was in New York and went to go see him. I met him 10 years ago through his wife, Linda, who runs a non-profit. I run the China-based operations for Kissinger Associates, an international investment consulting firm founded by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The three of us first made acquaintance when Linda and I took part in a global leadership conference, and the friendship grew from there.

When I visited Bruce after his diagnosis, I convinced him to drop everything and come with me to the Lama Foundation retreat in San Cristobal, New Mexico. It’s a beautiful place where a intense afternoon thundershower will be followed by a gorgeous sunset and you can just smell the wonderful scent of wet sage all around you. Then, you light a campfire and prepare to sleep under the stars.

There are so many lessons that nature teaches you out there, about how many everyday miracles exist all around us, and all we have to do is take the time to pay them proper attention. You need to get off the daily train of world when it’s going full-tilt to fully appreciate these things.

The problem is that we condition our children for a day-to-day pacing that never lets up. We schedule our lives, and theirs, to the point where there is no time to step away. Parents need to lead by example here, to make time for a walk in the woods or a hike up a mountain. When I’m struggling with a challenge at work or home, I often figure out a solution more easily after I’ve taken this kind of time for myself. You actually find that you get more done when you take a chance to slow down.”

Challenge assumptions and 'live the questions'

Ben Sherwood, 46, of Los Angeles

I’m a recovering TV news guy. I left my job as the executive producer of Good Morning America in 2006 to write a non-fiction book, The Survivors Club. Before that, I left as the #2 producer for NBC Nightly News to write a novel, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud. I guess I would have had a more stable, secure career had I stayed in TV news, but I was eager for other challenges that I couldn’t pursue for a network. So off I went.

(Page 5 of 5)

Bruce and I met 15 years ago in Manhattan, hanging out in bar gatherings for budding writers. We met our wives and got engaged at about the same time, toasted each other at our weddings, and then had our kids during the same period. We’ve raised our children to experience everything in the world around them, and never stop exploring intellectually.

As a dad, I’m happy that my 5-year-old son, Will, is also insatiably curious. He’s a great questioner of what most people accept as given truth. He’ll hear someone say, ‘Oh my God!’ and then ask ‘Why do they say ‘God?’ Who is God? Is he a man or a woman? Is heaven above us or below us?’ I pity the grownup who tries to give him any quick answers, thinking that will suffice.

And I’ll often tell him that you don’t always get the answer that you were looking for. That’s what I mean when I encourage him to ‘live the questions.’ As it has worked out for Bruce and me, having questions to pursue may take you halfway around the world, to exotic lands you’d never travel otherwise. If you never find the answer, that’s fine. Because the journey was worth the price of never getting to the destination.

Be a traveler, not a tourist

Jeff Shumlin, 49, of Putney, Vt.

My family’s travel agency, Putney Student Travel, has been around for 60 years. My brother and I have run the business for the last 30. For all of these decades, we’ve always stressed that it’s important to encourage young people to be travelers, not tourists.

What’s the difference? It’s that you really must experience a foreign place — the heart and soul of the landscapes and the essence of the people there. It’s not about getting to every museum on a bus-tour schedule. It’s about connecting. When Bruce was a young man under my wing, I took him and his fellow student to an out-of-the-way cafe in Paris, so they could have nice conversations with the locals there. We’d have bonfires on the local beaches, and run in the tunnels under the Paris Opera House, pretending to chase the phantoms there.

As parents, we should always be looking to take our kids off the well-taken paths when we travel. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to the Carolina coast, the Sierra mountains, South America or overseas. Head outside the dense, urban centers and hike the mountains, swim the lakes and savor the unique foods of the local population. That’s the real way to get the genuine ‘flavor’ of a place. That’s how to become a real traveler.

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