Remembering Dad on Father’s Day

by Jim Longworth

This time last year I was in Hollywood moderating a salute to nine iconic TV dads and interviewing them about the relationships they had with their own, real-life fathers. Participants included Dick Van Dyke, Bill Paxton (“Big Love”), Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men”), Michael

Gross (“Family Ties”) and others. But it was a comment by “7th Heaven”’s Stephen Collins that has special meaning to me for Father’s Day, 2010. Collins said of his dad, “He was a principled man, who was never afraid to speak his mind.” That description also fit my dad, James Lephoe Longworth Sr., who passed away on Saturday at the age of 90.

Like Van Dyke, my dad grew up during tough economic times, and he laughed when Dick quipped to me, “I was a kid in the Great Depression, and I lost everything.” And like Van Dyke, my father never lost his sense of humor, his free spirit or his knack for getting into devilment. As a student at Reynolds High School in 1936, Dad once set off cherry bombs in the boys’ bathroom toilets. Thirtysix years later when I entered RJR, I discovered that several of my teachers had also taught Dad, and they were all highly suspicious of me since I carried his namesake. Guilt by association I suppose. Or perhaps I was just a victim of familial profiling.

Back in those days, you could graduate Winston-Salem schools in the 11 th grade, so as soon as my mom matriculated (she is four years younger than Dad), she and Dad escaped to South Carolina to be married. That was August 1941, and today nothing much has changed in the Palmetto State where, I believe, you can still get married at age 9.

In those days dad was an athlete, an entertainer and an adventurer. He was a pilot, a tournament-level tennis player, frequent emcee for variety stage shows and could reportedly swim a mile out to sea and back without getting winded. Later on, he spent most of his adult career as an illustrator, then supervisor at Western Electric. But he was best known for his avocations, among them painting, raising award-winning roses, drawing hilarious (and sometimes dirty) cartoons and writing provocative letters to the editor. One of his most famous paintings was of a nude woman holding nothing but a pallet and brushes. I recall the time when a rather puritanical couple spotted the nude, and asked who the model was. Dad looked at my mom and said, “My wife, Charlotte.” He never let truth get in the way of a good story.

Dad was also known as a tireless volunteer, and was particularly proud of his service to Crisis Control Ministries where he helped countless thousands of people receive food, shelter and medicine. Dad even let CCM publish one of his Old Salem paintings into holiday cards, the sale of which raised money for the organization.

Earlier I alluded to Dad speaking his mind, and politics gave him a platform for that. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s he was a leading figure in Republican Party politics, having served as chairman of the Forsyth County GOP, and as a North Carolina campaign director for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

Dad was a Republican, but also a fierce supporter of civil rights. A full decade before the Greensboro Four staged their famous sit-in at Woolworth’s, Dad forced a lunch-counter attendant to serve my sister and a little African American girl standing next to her. As far as I’m concerned, his portrait deserves to hang in a civil rights museum.

Speaking of which, the only rights Dad ever trampled on were mine. At age 4 I once tried to replicate his painting skills by drawing nude pictures all over the living room wall. I was punished and my art was censored. I have yet to reconcile the hypocrisy of that action.

As I think about it now, my father would have made a terrific TV dad himself. He was funny like Rob Petrie, stern like Ward Cleaver and folksy wise like Andy Taylor. And, like Fred Sanford, you never really knew how tall my dad’s tales were.

This will be the first Father’s Day I’ve spent in 56 years without my dad. Life will never be the same without him. But like all great TV dads, James Longworth will live on forever as I re-run memorable moments from his life in my mind. In fact, I’m tuned in right now.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).