The Ties That Bind: Part II

Two local dads offer inspiring real-life lessons in fatherhood.

There’s an old saying that you don’t pick your family, it picks you—unless, of course, you remarry. In honor of Father’s Day, we offer two very different, yet equally happy and successful, parenting scenarios that give great dads their just due.

Step Saga
For most stepparents and kids, acclimating to one another isn’t easy. It can take years before mutual trust is established and resentments dissipate. Landing in a place where everyone feels a sense of family takes commitment and some pretty thick skin. If you’ve been there, you know.

Jeffersonville’s Nikki and Shannon Saldutti first met their mom Sam’s new boyfriend, Chris Clement, during an outing to Merrymead Farm in Montgomery County. Things went well, but when the girls’ father heard about the “date,” his anger put a negative spin on things. Strike one for Chris.

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Every time Chris phoned Sam, Nikki, the eldest and now 18, would start to cry. Chris refers to subsequent outings as “a lot of fun,” with a heavy dose of sarcasm, and Nikki remained cool for a long time. But whenever he saw a crack in her armor, he’d try to find a way in.

Having a daughter of his own gave Chris an advantage over other men. He was crazy about Sam and had no intention of letting her daughters scare him away.

Then came a major turning point—a period when Nikki “was trying to be nice,” Chris recalls. He was taking the girls to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and as they were heading out the door, the family dog, Jewel, ran out of the house and into the street, where she was hit by a car. As they were lifting Jewel into the car to take her to the vet, Nikki turned to Chris. “Don’t touch her. I want Chris to hold her,” Nikki snapped.

Jewel had to be put down, but the tragedy brought them all closer together. For starters, they spent the afternoon after the accident huddled around a new PlayStation Chris bought. Little by little, he was able to talk to Nikki about her dad (Sam had a volatile relationship with her ex) and about his relationship with her mom. A few months later, Chris moved in.

In April 2006, Chris and Sam married in Las Vegas with the girls at their side. They’d weathered a tough eight years; Chris even moved out at one point. Before he proposed, he took the girls aside and asked, “Do you like me … love me?”

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Shannon replied, “Love? I like you.”

Now 14, Shannon can’t imagine what her life would be like without Chris. Over the past few years, the two have had plenty of one-on-one time. They’ve had a pretty good run of “Nikki-free” Sundays during soccer season, and Shannon’s older sister has fallen victim to their numerous pranks.

And while he clashes with Shannon over homework, grades and chores, Chris has had it easier with her than Nikki. “Nikki was put in the middle of her mom and dad,” he says. “She really internalized things.”

Now that Nikki lives with mom full time, her relationship with Chris is on solid ground. “Chris is the total opposite of my dad,” she says. “My dad would say he’d do stuff, but he wouldn’t follow through. Chris always follows through on promises. He’s really committed to my mom and us.”

Where Nikki once viewed Chris solely as a friend, she’s now come to appreciate him as a father—and to respect his rules and expectations. Nothing gets past him, and Chris has taught her that you have to work for what you get and not to take anything for granted.

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Chris has learned a similar lesson. “Being with Sam and the girls has taught me to care about more than just myself,” he says. “I have more to lose by making fast, stupid decisions.”

John Wright and his son, Jonathan

Perfect Pair
The wisdom of age and the energy of youth are a winning combination for John and Jonathan Wright, the father-son team behind the Wright Agency in Downingtown. John, 65, and Jonathan, 26, have worked together in the insurance business since 2006. And aside from college, there’s only been one five- or six-month stretch when Jonathan wasn’t living at home or seeing his dad almost every day.

Certainly, it’s not unusual for a man’s only son to step into his father’s shoes. But it’s less likely you’d hear him refer to his dad as his best friend.

“We’ve always been close,” says Jonathan. “Some of my favorite memories are of us playing basketball in the driveway. Really, playing all sorts of different sports/games with my dad was always the most fun thing ever growing up.”

His father’s favorite memories are of family vacations and Saturday afternoon drives “looking at cars in the various dealerships.” (Jonathan’s grandfather was a General Motors dealer.) John and his son made a recent trip to Palm Beach, Fla., to attend the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction.

An appreciation for cars, devotion to their Presbyterian faith and the unfaltering conviction that family comes first have helped the Wrights in their relationship. “The amount of respect I have for my dad, and how much I admire him and all that he’s done, makes our relationship strong,” says Jonathan. “In turn, he respects me for all that I’ve done, and for how I’ve tried to follow his advice and follow in his footsteps.”

Adds the senior Wright, “I don’t think any man wouldn’t be happy having a son. There were plenty of times when I found myself saying, ‘That darn kid.’ But we always got through the rough spots without resorting to a shouting match.”

In one such “darn kid” moment, Jonathan got ticketed for going 101 mph in a 55-mph zone—one of many speeding violations—on the day of his prom. “Needless to say, he didn’t go,” says John, who also has two daughters.

Still, Jonathan has always liked driving more than drinking—a noteworthy quality since he now drives a Porsche. “He’s definitely a weekend warrior,” says John. “He spends more than he has, but most young men do.”

At this, Jonathan laughs. “Probably the best advice my dad ever gave me was talking me out of a Ferrari—and into buying a house,” he says.

Even during his years as a baseball and basketball coach, John kept a level head, never pushing his son too hard or berating his performance. It’s a tactic he employs daily now that Jonathan has become his business partner. “When he came to me for a job, I told him, ‘Try this for three years. If you think you want to continue, then we’ll enter into an agreement,’” says John. “He’s been here two years now, and most of the time he’s trying to accomplish what it took me 31 years to do. Of course, I did the same thing to my father.”

“I admit it,” says Jonathan. “I want to expand everything. And a lot of the time, I feel like I’ve been doing this forever—like I’m an expert. I want to add multiple locations, increase the number of employees …”

Aside from arguing (gently) about the direction of the business and car purchases—John likes American cars; Jonathan, European—there isn’t a whole lot of discord between the two. And when there is friction, finding the courage to apologize, or to admit to being wrong, has been their safety net.

“Lots of men are too proud to admit these things and get into arguments and hold grudges because of it,” says Jonathan. “We always try to maintain a healthy relationship with each other.”

John admires his son’s problem-solving skills. “I have a lot of respect for his networking agility with all types and age groups,” John says. “He’s helped me to be patient with customers and to keep a good sense of humor. I’d advise other father-son teams to be patient with each other, too.”

Jonathan is in awe of his dad’s work ethic. “He’s worked extremely hard to get to where he is today, so I hope to be able to work half as hard as he did in my lifetime,” says Jonathan. “He’s also taught me balance. Don’t put too much into your work and let your personal life suffer; don’t put too much into your personal life and let your work suffer. If you think about it, that applies to almost every aspect of life.”

Each summer, all the Wrights spend two weeks at the Shore, and the guys try to get in a few rounds of golf every once in a while. The family also attends church together regularly—although Jonathan, the youngest, admits to missing a week here and there.

“But for a 26-year-old guy who’s always on the go, I think I do pretty well,” he says. “I’d like to think I’m as devout in my faith as my father, but I guess he is more open with it—and he’s had more time to practice than I have.”

For his part, John confesses that he used to be a “type-A, my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy.”

“But learning to put the Lord first and myself second— actually third, after the Lord and my family—has made me less harsh,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s helped me be a better husband and father.”

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