What did you learn about your mom after your father left?
Her name was Erma and she was amazing. I’ve since done a lot of research on early childhood attachment and protective versus risk factors and I can say with certainty that mother was an unbelievably strong and positive protective factor in my life. If it weren’t for her, I probably would have been on the other side of the prison system, meaning an inmate instead of a warden. I don’t know how she did all that she did.
Did she have a deep faith?
Oh yes. When she married my father, he was a Catholic and she was a Presbyterian. She later converted to Catholicism and it meant a lot to her. When she was working as a nurse, we used to go to 5:45 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph because she had to get to work on Sunday. Catholicism was always very important to her. She was very faithful and so it meant a lot to me, too.
Was there a time when the faith really became your own?
Our oldest son Christopher was diagnosed at 18 months with rhabdomyosarcoma, which is an extremely aggressive cancer that eats away your bladder, bowels and prostate. They said he wouldn’t live to be 2 years old. When that happened, I went to our local church, and sat near the sacristy and had a conversation with God. I said, “Lord help me. I don’t know if my son is going to live or not, and I’m not going to ask you to make him healthy. I’m going to ask you to give me the strength to be able to deal with anything that happens. Just give me the strength to get through that and be a good parent and husband.” I swear after that I heard him talk to me. He said simply, “I’ll give you all the strength you need to deal with it.” It’s the only time in my life that I’ve experienced something like this. It was as if he was right there with me. It helped solidify my faith. Now Christopher is 47, and there have been challenges, but he got me through.
You mentioned that your first career was your most important. Can you tell me about that?
The most important thing in my world, my first career was marrying the love of my life, Sue. What’s amazing is that I didn’t have a father, so I was apprehensive to start down that road but her dad and I became very close. We had a good time together. He was a good dad, too, and initially he was concerned about me because he knew the history I’d had with my father leaving. He went to my grade school basketball coach to ask what kind of man I was and checked me out. Then he said, “You know, we’d love to have you marry our daughter.” We were married at St. Joseph’s Church in 1968 on June 15. It was the best decision I ever made. I would be nothing without her.
How did you and your wife come to adopt both of your sons?
We wanted children and Sue wasn’t able to have them and so it was our only option. There was a surplus of Catholic baby boys at the time. They came from the birth hospital right to us. My mom had come to visit in Eau Claire. I told my mom we had to go run to K-Mart to get something and we came back to the park with our son. She said, “Where did you get that?” I said, “they’re having a flashing blue light special.” It was really something. She was so happy.
You taught CCD to 10th graders for 23 years. Why was that important to you?
It was important to me to try to help those 10th graders realize that their relationship with God is the most important thing. I think that’s what I got from the Jesuits in terms of a living faith. I tried to take a different perspective with those kids than was typically the focus of CCD classes. When they walked in that first day I’d always say, “If anybody can tell me what CCD means, you’re immediately excused from the class.” In 23 years, no one knew.
How did you come to develop the St. Croix Correctional Center?
I realized that there was something missing in the system. We had inmates going into prison, and then getting out and getting dumped on the streets totally unprepared. I developed the center and was appointed as the superintendent. We worked with inmates to try to transition them back into the community. We had reunions every year and they still do. We developed the challenge incarceration program, which was a program that focused on criminal thinking errors, finishing education, and chemical dependency issues.
When did you begin your research on attachment in early childhood development?
During the graduations for the incarceration programs I’d jokingly ask the brother or sister, “What went right” and most of the times they’d say, “I had this aunt or uncle or cousin who really cared about me and loved me unconditionally but expected great things from me.” I began looking at what made him different from his brother and really got interested in it. I got a fairly large research grant and I spent a lot of time studying early childhood attachment disorders. I looked at 8,100 research couples spanning three states and what I found is that overwhelmingly the single greatest factor is the protective factor of at least one person in their early years.
Can you tell me how you came to speak at the 18th Annual International Conference on Attachment and Early Childhood Development in Ulm, Germany?
I’ve done gobs of training at both the state and local level, and I’ve been all over the country talking at various conferences and workshops talking about early childhood attachment. I got a call one day from the head of the committee on early childhood attachment and he asked me to be the keynote speaker at their 18th annual international conference on early childhood attachment in Alm, Germany. I tried to talk not only about theory but how to facilitate it in practice.