Editor’s note: Steve and Kathy Doocy’s brand new “The Simply Happy Cookbook,” is not only a filled with easy, delicious, stress-free recipes—it’s also a family memoir with heartwarming and sometimes hilarious stories. Here’s one of them…
When I was growing up, my parents had a standard they tried to apply to all their five kids. They wanted to treat us all equally— always. They didn’t want to give a compliment to one without complimenting all of us. This probably seemed like a thorough-enough plan to them—but a kid can never hear enough parental praise. That need for parental affirmation doesn’t end at childhood—we crave it our whole lives.
Now that my parents are both gone, I miss that a lot—although I must admit that my dad, Jim Doocy, came very close to effusive praise… once, when I was in my forties.
My mom died on Christmas morning 1997. Our whole family was a wreck for the longest time because her death was completely unexpected. I tried to comfort my father (and myself) the best I could, with phone calls to him at least once or twice a day. We’d run out of things to talk about, but it just felt good to touch base, because we both knew that someday one of us would not be around to pick up the phone.
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Kathy invited my dad to visit us in New Jersey for a week—with nothing on the agenda beyond having the chance to spend time together. We’d just drink coffee, talk about the news, and Kathy would send us both on honey-do errands for things I had put off doing because I needed a second set of hands. Dad was theoretically my helper, but in reality he took on the jobs and I was his backup man, just as it had been when he was in his thirties and I was a teenager.
One day Kathy sent us to Home Depot and the cleaners, and then we had to swing by the grocery store to pick up a few necessities. In front of the store, my dad pulled a single shopping trolley out of a long line of chrome carts— and stopped dead in his tracks.
I’d seen that look on his face before when he’d wrenched his back, and I’d figured he pulled the cart out too hard. “You OK?” I asked.
He said nothing. He swiveled his head in my direction and pointed his arm like an Irish setter toward the front of the shopping basket.
“Oh, that…” I saw what he was gesturing about and was a little embarrassed.
I hadn’t told him that featured on the front of shopping carts across the country that month was an 8×10-inch full-color advertisement featuring the “Fox & Friends” crew. He stared at me with the biggest grin and rhymed “Stephen, you’re the host… with the toast!”
Yes, in the photo I was hoisting toward the camera a piece of cinnamon-raisin swirl toast.
I was a bit uncomfortable; I may have a 6 to 9 a.m. job as a TV broadcaster, but when I’m out in the real world, such as at the grocery store, I like to be a bit anonymous. But Dad was about to make that impossible, because his father brag gene kicked in and he spent the next ten minutes doing grinning double-takes at me and the cart, trying to get random shoppers to notice that his son was starring on the front grill of every cart in the store.
Think about it—if you noticed an ad on a shopping cart, would you even look closely enough to realize that a person in the ad was pushing the cart? Of course not.
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In the express checkout lane, I quickly placed my items on the belt, the clerk announced the purchase amount, and I scribbled out a check and handed it to him.
“May I have your check cashing card?” I nodded and pulled out my car keys, which had the store card on the ring. But I’d grabbed Kathy’s keys by mistake. “I got my wife’s keys,” I said, waving them in his direction. “Lemme give you our phone number . . .”
“Sorry, sir, you have to see the manager in the convenience booth,” he said, pointing at the other end of the store.
Embarrassed that this was happening in front of my father, who’d thought I was a big star just forty-five seconds ago, the following words left my lips for the very first time: “Don’t you know who I am?” We locked eyes and he waited for me to say something, so I did. “I’ve been in this store every week for the last five years.”
“I’m new,” he said as somebody queued up their cart behind us. Because it was New Jersey, I knew they were thinking, What the hell is taking so long? Come on, chop chop!
Then, out of nowhere, my father spoke directly to the clerk: “Son, cut my boy some slack, he works here.”
“Since when? I’ve never seen him.”
“If he doesn’t work here,” Dad started, “then why is he on your cart?” He pulled the cart back so the cashier could look at me—then the cart. Me—then the cart. Yep, it was me. He was speechless.
Then, much like a Vegas hypnotist, Jim Doocy instructed him, “Now you’re going to take his check and we’re going to leave.”
I scribbled our phone number on the check and paid. As we walked out to the parking lot, Dad pried the “Fox & Friends” ad off the fronts of three carts.
I could tell he was proud . . . but he didn’t say it out loud. Dammit!
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Fifteen years later, Kathy and I were in a Topeka, Kansas, ballroom where I was being recognized as the Distinguished Kansan of the Year. My dad and sisters were there with us.
“It’s official,” I said, starting my acceptance speech, “the State of Kansas has officially run out of people to give awards to.”
I gave a good-natured retrospective of my life growing up in Kansas, talking about attending a one-room schoolhouse, and how I’d had the best job in my town for somebody who would one day make a living talking—I was a salesman at a men’s clothing store, where all day long I started conversations with total strangers.
I told the crowd, “I learned it was better to tell the truth than to make a sale. If somebody asked if they looked fat in those pants, I’d say, Yes, you look fat.’ I was seventeen. Only much later, when I got married, did I discover that I’d been answering that question wrong my whole life.”
At the end of my comments I shared with them that while this boy may have left Kansas, Kansas had never left the boy. I recited the principles I’d learned in my home state. “Always be humble; don’t brag. There are no shortcuts; do the work. Enjoy every minute. Do the right thing, not the easy thing. And always tell the truth— unless it’s about whether somebody looks fat in their pants.”
The last one was a joke, but every one of those other principles was something I had learned from my father. I looked over at him, and he had the most sincere grin on his face. I’d seen that smile before, but the tears running down his face were new.
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As they presented me with a plaque—which is hanging above my desk as I type this—a photographer asked if he could get some pictures of me with my dad. I said, “Absolutely!” I pulled Dad toward the stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the actual Kansan of the Year.” And I meant it.
After the last picture was taken, Dad leaned in close and said, with his voice cracking just a little, “Stephen, you did good… we’re all proud of you.”
Some kids wait a lifetime for that moment, and when it arrived I was so choked up the only thing I could say was “Thank you.”
The next day my family gathered for a big celebratory breakfast of chicken-fried steak and eggs, the perfect capper to a wonderful weekend. As we got into our car to go to the airport, I gave my dad a hug and told him I loved him, then Kathy and I flew back to New York.
That was the last time I would ever see him alive.
Two days later my sister called me from the emergency room. Our dad was in excruciating pain, and they had no idea what was causing it—he hadn’t even been sick. Scans soon showed he had a bursting abdominal aortic aneurysm, which ultimately killed him.
One year later my sister Lisa sent me some of my father’s personal effects, including a scrapbook I’d never seen. The paper was yellowed and the edges were curled from being opened and closed so many times. It was full of newspaper clippings he’d saved over my entire thirtysome-year TV career.
Looking at it was like a time capsule, bringing up many memories of long-ago assignments. I turned to the last page—and it took my breath away. Taped on the page was one of the “Fox & Friends” advertisements that he’d proudly pried off a New Jersey grocery store cart.
It was a fond memory of his son—the host with the toast.
Adapted from Steve & Kathy’s “The Simply Happy Cookbook.” Click here to order your copy. Used with permission of William Murrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. All rights reserved.
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