37 years after contest win, Bellingham man says dad is still Father of the Year



John Sylvester, 45, listens as his father Bickford, 87, talks about Ernest Hemingway at his father's home on Friday, June 14, 2013 in Bellingham. John and Bickford Sylvester are seen in a Bellingham Herald newspaper clipping from 1976 when John, then 8, nominated his dad for Father of the Year, which he won.


In 1976, John Sylvester knew with all his heart that his dad was the best. He'd take his son fishing, help him with soccer and patiently answer his endless stream of questions.

So when his mom told the then 8-year-old that The Bellingham Herald was having a Father of the Year contest for Father's Day, he wrote a letter to the paper to enter his dad, Bickford Sylvester, into the competition.

"I said, 'My dad's a father of the year, so I should write something,'" John Sylvester said. "It seemed perfectly clear to me. It's funny looking back on it now."

The Herald agreed with young Sylvester, and his father won the contest.

"He was a pretty happy father on that day," Bickford's wife, Barbara Sylvester, said. "That was truly special."

Now 45, John Sylvester is sending his father another letter, letting him know that he's still father of the year in his eyes. His father is 87 now, and Sylvester wanted to make sure his dad realized what he's meant to him over the years.

"As you get older, you just realize you have fewer and fewer opportunities to say how much you care, how much you love someone," Sylvester said. "I felt like this was a really good time to seize the moment and tell him how proud I am of him."

As he started writing, he found himself thinking about that Father of the Year contest in 1976, and he realized that the amazing things about his dad hadn't changed over the years.

"We would just talk about a lot of things," Sylvester said of his childhood. "I'd ask how things work. Most parents would kind of roll their eyes eventually, because I ask a lot of questions. My dad would actually take real time to answer questions like that, go over things with me, get into how things might work. He felt like a real friend."

That kind of genuine engagement continued well into his adulthood, and he said he's still learning from both of his parents.

"If I had a paper in college I was writing when I was 20 and I'd want to talk about it, it wouldn't be unusual for us to be on the phone talking about it for a couple hours," he said of his father, who was an English professor and Ernest Hemingway specialist.

Thirty-seven years after winning Father of the Year, Bickford Sylvester still remembers how good he felt on that Father's Day.

"I was pleased, very pleased," he said. "All of us have some things in life we cherish. This is one of mine."


&$149; Here is the letter an 8-year-old John Sylvester wrote to enter his dad in The Bellingham Herald's Father of the Year contest in 1976:

"I'm not about to say that my dad's the best dad but to me he's something special. He doesn't break his promises unless something's very special. He's not lazy and I'm glad he doesn't let me go out without my coat on and he raises me nicely and teaches me slowly so I won't get mad. And that's all I can say because there's so many other special things he does."

• Here is the letter that John Sylvester wrote to his father, Bickford Sylvester, 37 years later, in honor of Father's Day this year:

Dear Dad,

I am writing to you a second time in an attempt to finish the sentiments in the letter I began as a young boy in 1976. The letter I wrote that year helped make you the Bellingham Herald's "Father of the Year." Now, thirty-seven years further down the road, there are a couple more things I need to thank you for. If I boiled them down to two words, they would be commitment and purpose.

Commitment is something you began to demonstrate long before that eight year old boy sent his letter, proud of his dad who, as he wrote, "teaches me slow so I won't get mad." Commitment meant that your loving, caring, and attention to your obligations and to your family was unwavering, and that you stuck to the promise of putting your family first and taking every opportunity to mentor, listen, assist and pass on wisdom. Because of that gift from you, your advice is etched in me, on the inside.

Purpose is the other word you brought to life for me. As a kid I could not fully understand, but you both taught and showed me through your passion for life that there is a reason for all the things out there in this big, complicated world. As part of the "Greatest Generation," you and many fine people like you believed in hard work, education, achievement, pride, courage, grace and dignity. On top of that you honored your word. You believe there are only two ways to do things: the right way and the long way! You showed me that there is a lesson in life at every turn and that magic exists around every corner - not the David Copperfield type, but the rich, textured synchronicity of our place and purpose in this world type. You were always a teacher - a professor of English. You believe one of the great gifts in life may be found in imparting the best of your spirit and mind to others. You studied the greatest literary minds of twentieth century and passed on what you learned. As you know, I find joy in assisting the mentally ill folks that I counsel professionally, and in coaching soccer to so many kids and young people. You helped me to be a teacher in my own way. Additionally, you showed me how to believe in "belief" itself. We are all part of a larger design and you understand this in your bones, whether it may be seen in the connection and conviction of a tearful or joyful person in church, or an exhausted old man in a small wooden boat fighting to catch a marlin. Whether a deeply religious family attending communion, a young woman celebrating her bat mitzvah or John Walton looking at the hill behind his house and calling it his family's mountain, we are all connected and we all have deep purpose - if we look and if we love. You showed me how and why to do that.

Despite your lessons, I am far from a perfect person. We must all grow and struggle, no matter how good our teachers. Also, as I said in the first letter, I know that there are many sons and daughters who deservedly feel as proud as I do of their own parents. You are not alone, but you stand alone in my heart because, over so much time and with intense purpose, you have been the best of fathers. Thank you, Dad, for you, for your wife, for your parenting, for your lessons, and for sharing your extraordinary life. I deeply appreciate the honor of being able to say and mean, as a grown man, that you will always be my Father of the Year.



Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com. Read her School Days blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/schools or follow her on Twitter at @bhamschools.

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