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Peg McEntee: Looking for Atticus Finch in my dad

Published June 16, 2013 12:35 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Like a lot of kids, I cried more than once when I read To Kill a Mockingbird — particularly when Atticus Finch sits beside his wounded son "and would be there when Jem waked up on the morning."

I was about 12 when I read Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the only one she wrote. Atticus was not just a man of honor and courage, but a single dad to Jem and Scout, his daughter, whom I identified with so much that I wanted to take her name.

For a while after that, I wanted Atticus, a Maycomb, Ala., lawyer who dared to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, to be my dad.

I suppose every son and daughter has had some reason to want an alternative parent, someone from a book or movie who seemed to be just perfect in a way our own couldn't possibly be.

Atticus was played by the dark-haired Gregory Peck, resplendent in his three-piece suits. His voice was deep, soothing and sometimes stern. He was a dead shot with a rifle and read to his kids. He was unfailingly kind.

From a decades-long remove, I can see how the little girl who was me would yearn for such a father.

Now, though, I think about my dad, who died in 2009. His hair was so dark it seemed black. He wasn't a snappy dresser, just a professional who polished his shoes to a high sheen. His voice wasn't deep, but it was powerful, particularly when he was angry. Dad was a dead shot with a shotgun and read to me. He was almost unfailingly kind.

He was a wanderer at heart and a salesman whose career took him around the world. He often read me his favorite poem, "Vagabond's House," a long, conversational (and a little racist, too) piece about a home filled with a worldly man's treasures. It's just a dream, though — the road beckoned and the house never materializes.

There were times when dad's temper overcame him, and he would just stop talking to me, sometimes for weeks. Then, one day, he'd look at me and say, "Let's go fishing."

Dad kept his tackle box and a little outboard motor in his trunk. We'd head for a lake, rent a little boat and putter out to where the big ones were.

He'd taught me how to rig a fishing rod, put on the bait or lure and how to cast, and every so often I'd catch one for the dinner table. (Dad always caught more.) And, inevitably, we'd stay out until it was so dark I didn't think we'd find our way to the dock, but he always got us there.

On the way home, he'd tell me stories about his travels and the wonders he'd seen. If I fell asleep, he'd carry me into the house and send me to bed.

My father wasn't a heroic attorney, but he did protect us. Once, when the humorless nuns at my sister's parochial school tormented her, dad stormed in and roared at them: "Have you no pity?"

It's the kind of thing, I believe, that Atticus would have said if someone had abused Scout. So maybe my dad and the fictional one really were alike — both would stop at nothing to keep their kids safe.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the defendant, Tom Robinson, was convicted. But the black residents of Maycomb stood when Atticus walked out of the courtroom, and one, Reverend Sykes, told Scout to stand up, too. "Your father's passin'," he said.

A year or so after our father died, we took his ashes to the Sierra Nevada and cast them into Wishon Reservoir, where I had caught my first trout standing beside him. Then we stood, silent, for a time.

So, no, my father wasn't Atticus Finch. But Atticus was no Bill McEntee, either.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.