A father can play a vital role in the life of his child. And though they might not achieve all of their biggest goals, the way that they choose to handle their failures and move forward influences how their children face similar situations later in life.
The Lost Punch
Until the day he died, Don Fullmer harbored one major regret: “Life may have been different if I had just landed that punch with a little more zing.”
The 1968 rematch in Italy between Don Fullmer and Nino Benvenuti would determine who was the middleweight world boxing champion and although Don had been suffering from the effects of the flu all week, he decided not to call off the contest. After all, the folks back at home had already planned the victory parade. The 15-round boxing match eventually went to Benvenuti in a unanimous decision by the officials, and Fullmer returned home disappointed, feeling that he had let down his family, his hometown, and even his church. His success could have provided a different financial future for his family, provided additional exposure for the Church, or could have given him more opportunities to speak at firesides and share his testimony of the gospel—something he relished doing. Instead, Fullmer returned to his job as a bricklayer and firefighter. His greatest “failure” still stung until the day he died.
Yet, Don Fullmer’s family isn’t convinced that it was a failure at all. “He was always active in the Church, a good priesthood holder, and a good example to his family,” says Don’s son, Larry. “My dad would get up early every morning and jog. That was long before running was a popular thing. Rain, snow, or shine, he got up and ran. Then he’d go to work and lay brick for eight hours, and then go to the gym and spar for several hours. That hard work and dedication was a great example to me.” And by working hard after his failure, Fullmer still managed to do many of the things he thought only his triumph in that match would bring.
“Dad would get asked to speak a lot at firesides and youth discussions. His main theme was the importance of being a good example and keeping the Word of Wisdom. Everywhere he went, he looked up the missionaries, and he had the missionaries working in his corner.”
During one match in South Africa, Fullmer asked the missionaries to serve as his seconds, and work his corner at the match wearing T-shirts that promoted family home evening. Press members were invited to Church firesides. Interpreters were asked to communicate his beliefs to opponents, and on at least one occasion, Fullmer was asked to baptize an investigator who had heard him speak at a fireside the year before.
Later in his life, Fullmer and his brothers, Gene and Jay, got involved in training youth in the essentials of boxing, as a way to keep them off the streets and out of gangs. They never charged any fees for their services.
To this day, the Fullmer family continues to support and organize youth boxing. The annual Golden Gloves Tournament they help sponsor draws kids from every large inner city in the United States. The coaches come because they love the kids and the sport. Even the officials come on their own dime. It’s a huge volunteer event.
“I felt bad for my dad when he lost the championship fight, knowing how much he wanted that. He’d worked a lot of years and put a lot of effort into that. He wanted to be number one. But he was a loving and caring father,” Larry said. “I grew up with Mom and Dad as my best friends.”
The weekend Larry lost an important match of his own (the 1980 Golden Gloves Championship), he received a letter from his father, assuring him that the family was proud of him and of his effort. “If I had had as much determination as you did,” Fullmer wrote, “I would have been the World Champion.”
“I still have that letter,” says Larry.
A Master’s Degree and No Job
Benson E. Misalucha also knew what it felt like to fail. After earning a master’s degree in the United States, he returned to his native Philippines to continue his career. But even with an advanced education, a job didn’t come easily. Then a son developed tuberculosis, and the medical bills mounted. “I remember looking in my wallet, and there was no money,” he said. “My wife asked me how we would be able to feed the children . . . My brother and his wife helped us financially, and I finally found a job. It was barely enough, and it paid less than what I had earned before I left for school. I felt I was a failure.”
But Misalucha’s own father’s struggle with joblessness brought him hope. His father became interested in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he saw a sign that said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” He was baptized, and then, when the pharmaceutical company he worked for increased his responsibilities, requiring travel that took him away from home for all but a few days each month, he decided it was time to resign. In family council, he shared the reason with his young family: “I never would like a time to come when you would tell me, ‘Where were you when we needed you?’” The family tightened their belts and waited while their father looked for work.
This example helped carry Benson and his family during their own time of unemployment and struggle, and when a job finally came, and life improved, Benson was able to see how the experience had helped shape him, particularly when he was asked to serve as a bishop. “I could not have had . . . compassion if I had not gone through similar things myself,” he wrote.
His father’s example of humility also helped Benson make a similar decision at a critical moment:
“I had just been hired by a consulting company, and they flew six of us employees from the Philippines to Sydney, Australia, to join with 400 managers from all over the world for training. We flew first class. A limousine picked us up at the airport and whisked us away to a five-star hotel, where each room had a big basket of goodies.” After the first day’s meetings were over, the participants gathered for a gala dinner, where Brother Misalucha had the opportunity to hear company executives talk about their career successes closing multimillion dollar deals. He was impressed until someone at the table asked these executives how they managed all of the time away from home. One of the partners responded, “I was just divorced two years ago.” Another admitted, “I’ve been divorced for five years.”
Brother Misalucha writes, “I remember my thoughts: ‘These are not the men I want to be.’” He decided to follow his father’s example of putting family first and searched for another job that allowed him to be a father. In 2007, he was sustained as an Area Seventy, and part of his profession has included serving as the Philippines director for Humanitarian Services for the Church.
His own father’s determination to protect his family helped Elder Misalucha weather the storms of unemployment and then helped him find a healthy balance between work and family responsibilities.
A Lost Dream As a Fighter Pilot
Trained as a fighter pilot, Frank Kirkland had looked forward to serving his country by gloriously shooting down enemy planes and notching kills. He had prepared for months, and just when it looked as if his dream was going to become a reality, he was reassigned as a bomber pilot instead. This decision by his superior officers was a crushing blow to Kirkland. He had dreamed of being a fighter pilot for most of his life. Not only was the work of a bomber pilot less glamorous, it was also more deadly—a bomber pilot’s chances of completing his tour of duty and returning home alive were less than 25 percent. Duty-bound, however, Kirkland continued his service, guiding his heavy, bomb-laden B-17 Flying Fortress deep into enemy territory. More than once his crew narrowly escaped tragedy, including one crash landing onto a small airstrip in France.
Once, in a raid on a German railroad yard in northern Italy, German fighter planes attacked the squadron, destroying Kirkland’s plane. The crew had to bail out, and Kirkland parachuted to the ground as German soldiers, only miles away, tracked his location. After a harrowing rescue by two young women brandishing machine guns, he was moved from house to house by Yugoslavian resistance fighters known as “Partisans,” and eventually reunited with his surviving crew members, who were then sent stateside for the duration of the war. His hopes of eventually becoming a fighter pilot and valiantly saving his countrymen were destroyed. He never got over the fact that his dream had shattered despite all of his hard work and returned to his home in Arizona feeling like a failure.
These painful stories are a testament to the fact that each of us has dreams for ourselves, and expectations to live up to. Sometimes we succeed, but often we do not. And when we fail, we sometimes have difficulty letting go of the heartache. Disappointed hopes, broken dreams, and shattered expectations remained with each of these men.
But here’s where the stories take a turn. If you ask members of the next generation, you’ll discover that these “catastrophic failures” actually honed these men into better fathers, better husbands, and better human beings. In fact, their children would agree that they were better fathers precisely because they had failed at the things that mattered most to them.
As children hear stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles, they start to understand their own ability to be survivors.
“I didn’t think much of [my Dad’s] war stories [when I was younger], writes Ron White, son of Kirkland. “I knew he was a pilot in WWII. The wheres and hows of it had been a mystery to me. And since I didn’t know much about his life before or during the war, I didn’t really know him, or therefore, understand him” (Ron White, Headlong into Fury: A WWII Pilot’s Riveting Story of Rescue and Redemption, 3).
That all changed when Ron began asking about a foot locker full of war memorabilia in the attic. Father and stepson had never had much in common to talk about until Kirkland started sharing his stories. Night after night, the two of them enjoyed long distance phone conversations while Kirkland shared his stories: crash landings into the center of a minefield; the day he was rescued by two 20-year-old girls wielding machine guns; and his escape from Nazi U-boat operators in the Adriatic Sea by hiding under a layer of fish. Ron ultimately wrote and published a book about his father’s harrowing experiences—stories he didn’t hear until he was a grandfather himself.
Still, Kirkland’s supposed “failure” loomed large.
“He’s still lamenting this one thing—the day he got yanked out of flying fighter planes,” mused Ron. “And yet the thing that he has instilled in me, and all my brothers, and my sister, is a spirit of optimism and hope. There’s nothing we’ll experience we can’t overcome. When you have the perspective of growing up in the Great Depression, and people shooting at you when you are 22 years old, trying to knock you out of the sky, there’s not a whole lot of earth life and everyday challenges that faze him. He’s taught us that even our greatest challenges will sometimes end.”
For Fullmer, Misalucha, and Kirkland, there was a time when all seemed black. For them, the doubts and disappointments may linger, but for a generation of children who have followed, those “failures” have proved to be a catalyst to success—a more optimistic world view and great admiration for men who struggled with disappointment without letting it derail their future.