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Vickroy: Measure of a great dad: love, respect, support and the occasional act of heroism

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Updated: July 17, 2013 6:39AM



Long before he became her hero, flying out to the desert, renting a car and picking her up at a small-town hospital after she’d suffered a serious injury, Kevin McCaffrey was his daughter Caitlin McCaffrey’s, well, hero.

“He’s always been my hero,” Caitlin said. “He’s the best.”

“I don’t like that word, ‘hero,’ ” Kevin said, somewhat embarrassed by all the fuss. “I’m not a hero; I’m a dad. Any dad would have done what I did.”

Maybe, but it was likely the lifelong series of events that led up to his heroic feat that compelled his daughter to want to tell the world about her wonderful father.

While Kevin wrestled with semantics, Caitlin stuck to her guns.

“He is a hero,” she said. “He’s always been there for me and for my brother. He’s always been kind, supportive and helpful.”

Is there a father alive who wouldn’t like to hear those same words cross the lips of his own children?

Somewhere in the recipe for raising a productive, confident, well-adjusted — shall we add grateful? — child are the words “love,” “support,” “encouragement” and “nerves of steel.”

Good parenting, as measured by happy, compassionate children, is more about the process than any one accomplishment. It is typically the culmination of many years of tending to all the seemingly little things: family dinners, bedtime snuggles, tennis games, homework help, and lots and lots of unbridled, nonjudgmental, enthusiastic support.

Indeed, when adult children look back on their formative years, it is rarely a single event that defines the relationship between parent and child. But sometimes there is a single event to illustrate their point.

Caitlin was just one week into a cross-country bicycle journey with her friend, Adam Kurstin. It was the trip of a lifetime for the 25-year-old French teacher at Richards High School in Oak Lawn. It was also a trip her father, recently retired assistant superintendent for Community High School District 218, felt a bit uncomfortable about.

He worried for her safety. Yet, being the supportive father he’d always been, he not only gave her his blessing, he went along for the first week to help the cyclists get acclimated — and “to help them get over the Sierra Nevadas,” he said.

They embarked from San Francisco, heading east, with a plan to eventually roll into Virginia Beach.

Kevin stayed with the couple, driving behind them, for three days. Then the three of them took some time off to explore Yosemite National Park. On the Sunday that Caitlin and Adam resumed their mission, Kevin drove back to San Francisco, and the following morning, flew back to Chicago.

He was back at their house in Homewood by 5 p.m. on June 3. He unpacked and took his wife, Jan Gordon, a retired English and reading teacher at Hillcrest High School, to dinner.

While they were eating, he noticed a message on his phone.

“As soon as I heard Adam’s voice on Caitlin’s phone, I knew something was wrong,” Kevin said. “Fortunately, Adam began with, ‘She’s OK.’ ”

The cyclists were 20 miles west of Tonopah, Nev., and had just chatted with a trooper who’d warned them about reckless drivers when disaster struck.

“It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. We were on the shoulder of a two-lane highway,” Caitlin said. “We were wearing construction vests. It was daylight. I wasn’t worried.”

Nevertheless, a pickup truck traveling 70 mph hit her and sent her flying.

She suffered a broken scapula and broken rib, as well as road rash, a black eye and several cuts and bruises. Later, back home, doctors would discover three cracked vertebrae.

“I was really lucky,” Caitlin said. “I never lost consciousness and several people stopped to help. They couldn’t believe I survived.”

Even the driver, who was ticketed, later stopped by the hospital to see how she was doing.

Back home, Caitlin’s parents fretted with the news.

“We decided the best thing to do was for me to fly out to Las Vegas, rent a car and pick them up at the hospital,” Kevin said, admitting that a parent’s job is never really done.

“Even with adult children, if you’re needed, you go. You go to help,” he said.

So the next morning, he headed west. And then the following morning, he boarded a plane, with Caitlin and Adam, back to Chicago.

“He took three cross-country flights in three days just to help me,” Caitlin said.

Throughout the ordeal, Caitlin said, she maintained composure.

“The only time I cried was when I knew I had to tell my parents, just knowing the emotional turmoil I was going to put them through. That broke my heart,” she said.

Caitlin said her dad’s latest feat of heroism — Kevin might prefer to call it “dad-ism” — is simply the latest in a long list of loving gestures.

“He’s always been there for me,” she said. “So has my mom.”

Jan said, “Caitlin and her father have a wonderful relationship. They go to White Sox games together. They have fun together.”

They made an audition tape for CBS’s “Amazing Race” but weren’t chosen for the show. Most recently, they competed in the Tough Mudder games in Seneca, during which they ran, rolled, climbed and conquered all kinds of obstacles.

As appreciative as Caitlin is of her father’s extraordinary efforts to bring her home after the accident, she says that was just a snippet of the many selfless things both her parents have done for her over the years.

The fact that their daughter recognizes their efforts and the love that went into them is just icing on the cake, Jan said.

“We are fortunate. We have wonderful children,” she said.

Caitlin’s older brother Corey, a patent lawyer who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children, also sings the praises of his father.

“Dad is not just a great father, he’s a grandfather to our daughter Ayelet and son Yakir,” Corey said. “He shows us with every visit, every call and every picture, that he has a big heart for his growing family and unlimited enthusiasm and energy for loving all of us. The example he set for me inspires me to be the best father I can be, too.”

Kevin McCaffrey retreats from the attention he receives for doing what he considers to be a labor of love.

And he is likely not alone in that discomfort. Today is a day for celebrating all that dads do, great and small.



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