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The forging of a father – how a son’s journey taught his dad life lessons he never knew he needed to learn

The forging of a father – how a son’s journey taught his dad life lessons he never knew he needed to learn

By Kevin Flanagan

BSD Senior Staff Writer

It was a little over 20 years ago when I learned that I would be having a son. Having been blessed with a beautiful little girl four years before, finding out that I was going to have a boy was the completion of everything I had dreamt of when it came to having a family of my own. I was going to be the father of a girl and a boy, and I had a wife whom I didn’t always deserve. All that was missing was the dog and the white picket fence.

Much like many expectant dads who thought about having a boy of their own, I dreamed of how I would teach him all the things that I didn’t know growing up. And as the stereotypical, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal that I have been my entire lifewho’s interests revolve almost entirely around sports and the History ChannelI was going to turn him into the athlete that I wished I had been, whether he liked it or not.

I was going to teach him to hit the curve ball that I swung and missed on for the last out of my first All-Star game, with the tying run on third base at Brockton High as an 11-year old in 1978. I was going to make sure he knew when to close his five-hole, something I leave open to this day too often. And I was going to be the proud dadchest stuck out for everyone to seecheering in the stands when he hit the game-winning home run run in the biggest game of the season.

Or, so I imagined.

My dad, the original Robert Leo Flanagan.

My dad, the original Robert Leo Flanagan.

When my son was born on August 28th, 1997, my wife Nancy gave me the honor of naming him after my father, Robert Leo Flanagan. My dad was an extraordinary man, perhaps the strongest willed person I have ever met. He contracted polio as a young boy in the 1920’s – a disease that carried a stigma along with itand even his mother didn’t think he would live a normal life, due to his awful affliction.

However, he had different ideas. Through sheer will, he worked his way through Bentley College, earning a degree in accounting. He also married the sweetest woman God ever created; my mother, Marjorie Donadini. Together, they fought and scraped to raise a family; five boys and one girl, with me being the last of the brood.

For some reason, they thought it was a good idea to have another child when my father was 48, and my mother was 44 – although, I have always believed that I was the result of one too many Manhattans, during their weekly Saturday night dinner date at the Tip Top Restaurant in Brocktonand hence, I am here to tell the story of me and my son.

My father was very ill at the time of Robbie’s birthsuffering from the results of post-polio syndrome, which ultimately left him in a coma for almost two years before he diedand though I brought his namesake to visit him at the Braemoor Nursing home where he was at the time, I don’t think he ever knew we were there. He would pass away the following January, and, even though he likely never knew he met his grandson; I would like to think that he now knows his name is living on in a way, he never could have imagined.

Even as an infant, it was clear to see that I had the mini-me I had always dreamed of; when it came to looks, at least. He had my face, my eyes, the trademark Flanagan ears; but his mind most certainly came from his mother. As he grew, I started to carry out my plan. Almost immediately, it was clear to see his future wouldn’t be found on the ice. After only a couple of trips to the rink on double-runners, he made it very easy to see that he wanted no part of becoming the next Gerry Cheevers.

So, we took to the diamondthe very same diamond where I learned the game, and spent every summer day on I could as a kidat Brookfield School in Brockton. As fate would have it, the first year of T-ball began with blustery cold temperatures, and the cackling kids were more concerned with staying warm than warming up to play.

Once the weather changed, it was clear to see that instead of blossoming into the next Fred Lynn, Robbie was in line to becoming the world’s best butterfly hunter instead. When we moved to Raynham shortly thereafter, he would continue his brief baseball career. However, when an errant line drive off his coach’s bat hit him right between the eyes during practice when he was on the pitcher’s mound, any desire he had to learn a game that his heart wasn’t in, rapidly faded away.

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Robbie in his Red Sox uniform, May 2004.

Nevertheless, I give his time in uniform a bit of credit for the Red Sox breaking the 86-year curse in 2004. That winter when the “draft” was held for his coach pitch team, Robbie was going to be part of the Mets. About a week after the teams were selected; I received a call from the coach of the Red Sox, informing me that he had been “traded” to the club. Given the fact that his grandfather was the most ardent baseball fan I’d ever metmy dad was buried with a Sox cap alongside him in his casketI have always believed that the fates aligned that winter day in ’04, and my father and son had a small part in putting the baseball fans of Boston on a path to ecstasy.

It didn’t take long for Robbie’s true talentand immense passionto show through. When our kids were younger, my brother Mikealong with his wife Nancy, and sons Eddie and Shawnand my sister Maureenalong with her then husband Jeff, and kids Breanne and Nickwould vacation together every 4th of July week, along with other families, in various campgrounds in Maine.

One of the first trips we took was to Dale Arnold’s favorite spot in his home state, Papoose Pond. We hadn’t yet bought a camper, so most of the families rented ahutnick,which is essentially a one-room cabin with a small front porch, and not much else.

We had only been there a day or so, when a massive thunderstormwhich seemed to last foreverswept through the campground. The dirt streets quickly became running streams, and the group of families were forced to gather on the hutnick porches, the adultswith some beverages, of courseon one, and the kids on another. Being only feet away from each other, it allowed the kids to have their fun while the parents had theirs.

What we didn’t know at the time, was that the kids had convinced Robbie to become the night’s entertainment, which was never hard to do. Equipped with a boom box and a cooler for a stage, my 3-year-old star in the making, started along the path that he pursues to this day.  He danced to his and our delight, coxed on by his cousins and further induced by the response he received from the adults across the stream/street.

And, thus, the legend of the cooler-boy was born.

So charged up from the rousing response he received from that small audience in the rain, he set his mind to entering the talent show at the camp later that week. He, along with the kids who conspired to arrange the first night’s performance, put together a dance programit was more like a lot of jumping and wiggling and the gig was on.

I can’t remember where he finished, but I know he got a ribbon for his efforts; one that likely still resides in one of his desk draws. I am convinced, to this day, that it was that week in Maine that helped propel him to become who he is today.

The irony of what I thought my son would be and who he was becoming was quickly

Robbie and Katie in 2016.

Robbie and Katie in 2016.

apparent. Inspired by his performance during our jaunt up north, my wife enrolled him in the same dance school that she had attended as youngster/teenagerShirley Matta’s in Brocktonalong with my daughter Katie, who was already a student there.

The verification that he was in his element there, was almost instantaneous. He was quickly featured in shows, and he was good at it. As one of only a few male dancers, he was used in a variety of roles, and seemed to relish each one. It was easy to see that he thrived on the stage.

The dreams I had of early-morning trips to the rink and spring evenings at the diamond, quickly switched to picking him up after dance class and attending more recitals than I could count. The funny thing was, the most time I did spend at the field watching one of my kids play ball, was with Katie.

She was blessed with the sweetest of left handed swings I have ever seen. At an early age,

Me and Katie on Easter late 1990's.

Me and Katie on Easter late 1990’s.

she hit line drives with ease. I remember being approached by the high school softball coach of Taunton High School when we were in the batting cages one Sunday morning before the season started. He had just watched her smack ball after ball with authority, and wanted to know where we lived. When I told him, we were from Raynham, the disappointment he expressed made my chest swell with pride.

It seems I had the wrong child pegged to be the athlete of the family, after all.

Katie’s softball career ended in her early teens, when there were no leagues for kids her age in town. She easily could have played in high school, but she played the game to be with her friends, and none of them continued to pursue the sport.

However, the recitals continued, and Robbie soon had another stage that was calling his name; the theatre. He started with small roles in elementary school, and quickly began getting bigger ones. It was funny to watch some of the early plays he was in, as he studied his roles and portrayed them like he was on Broadway, while a lot of his classmates looked as if they wanted to be anywhere but where they were.

By the time Robbie enrolled in high school at Bridgewater/Raynham, it was clear that the stage would be a big part of his life. It was also about the time that my burgeoning teenager and I began to bang heads.

I will be the first to admit that I wasn’t the easiest parent to grow up with. I am quick-tempered by nature, and I was often times strict. My daughter had it a bit easier, although I’m sure she could tell you some stories, as well. For example, she will never let me forget the time we were camping down the Cape, and I threatened to ground her until she was 42 if she didn’t answer me on the walkie/talkie we used to keep track of our kids. As I screamed and threatened, she broke into tears because her walkie/talkie wouldn’t work.

However, I think, deep down she always knew that as daddy’s little girl, she could melt my heart with a smile or a tear. She still does and always will.

Nevertheless, when it came to Robbie, I was often times severe. The few times he got into any trouble, I would ground him for a couple of weeks, until my wife Nancy stepped in as his advocate and got the sentence reduced. For as much as my daughter is my little girl for life, so is my son my wife’s little boy for eternity.

Nancy and Robbie are almost identical when it comes their personality, tastes in music,

Rob and Nancy, June 2017.

Rob and Nancy, June 2015.

clothes and art; and you have never met two people who work as hard as they do. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank God that my kids take more after their mother than they do from me.

And that was precisely the problem when it came to my relationship with Robbie during his years at B/R. You see, before he was born, I was hoping he would be just like me.  Now that he was beginning high school; I was terrified, he actually would be.

Much like Robbie, I found schoolother than algebraeasy, and I was almost always a teacher’s pet. I unfailingly wear a wry smile when I think about how many times I would have one of my teachers tell me how much “potential” I had. Along with the compliments, I would often times get a loose leash in school, and I quickly learned to stretch it to its last link.

Instead of putting in the work I needed to in order to tap that potential, I would instead take advantage of the situation and get by with the least amount of effort. Even so, my grades remained good and my ego remained immense. And though I never really wanted to be on stage – although, there was that Tony Award level performance as Don Meredith in Campaign Madness at North Junior High in 1980, that I slayedI liked being in the limelight anytime I could.

It was because of this foolish fear that I would act irrationally when it came to Robbie. It’s not like we had a bad relationship, we didn’t. I just knew there were times that he would be walking on pins and needles around me in certain situations. Any uneasiness was a direct result of me expecting him to be perfect.

It’s funny looking back now, given how many doors his time at BR opened for him, considering that he actually didn’t want to go there. He fought me and my wife hard to go to Bristol Plymouth, a vocational school that would have made for a rough fit. The only thing other than my looks Robbie inherited from me, is the inability to do anything above rudimentary work with tools. He had friends at the time that were going to BP, and I think he was a little intimidated about having to make a whole new circle of buddies.

As it would turn out, his time at BR would place him firmly on the road he was clearly born

Katie and Rob after his final performance for Raynwater.

Katie and Rob after his final performance for Raynwater, June 2015.

to travel.

Before we moved to Raynham 14 years ago, Nancy and I were warned about the school system. The sharing of the two towns of that system often caused funding issues, and the high school faced being discredited. After seeing both my children graduate from BR and go on to college, however, I would say moving to this beautiful little town was the best decision we ever made.

It was probably around this timehis freshman year in high schoolthat me and Nancy realized that Robbie was gay. And frankly, it wasn’t anything that we spent a lot of time talking about; it was just another part of who he was. Just like the Flanagan ears, the multi-colored hair-do’s, the shorts in the winter and the pants in the summer; and yes, the ability to lay waste to a pound of cheese in less than two days, it was just who he was.

For whatever reason, we never talked to him about it. In retrospect, I wish we did. I think he probably worried about how we would reactespecially his stereotypical sports-centric father, who I’m sure he thought would disapproveand that almost certainly caused some undue anxiety, that I wish we could have had him avoid.

As it turned out, Robbie and BR were a perfect fit, largely due to the existence of The Raynwater Players and the weekly drama club the school offered. Almost instantaneously, his fear was replaced with excitement, and I think even he could see that he belonged there.


Robbie as Lord Farquaad, fall 2014.

During his four years in high school, Robbie would spend countless hours with three people I could never thank enough for their influence on him; Lisa White, Kyle Rego and Kelley Baran. Through their guidance, mentorship, and ultimately their friendship; they unlocked things in my son that I could never have coaxed out, no matter how many hours we spent at the rink or baseball diamond.

And although I continued to keep my foot to the floor in an unfair way throughout his high school career, the blossoming of my boy was something to behold.

As college grew near, and as the campus visits began, I once again grew fearful. He had his heart set on going to school in New York City, and I worried that the big city would chew up my former little boy, and spit him out. However, he had agreed to visit a school in BostonEmerson Collegeand during his junior year, and we booked an introductory tour.

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Emerson, I wanted to write in the worst way (And there are folks who, to this day, would agree I do!). But, coming from the humble roots I did, and lacking the work ethic at the time to succeed; it remained just that, a dream.

When we walked the campus, and visited the classrooms and theatres, I knew right away that the fit was nearly perfect. The setting, the encouragement to create, was everything my son was about. To me, the place screamed “Robbie Flanagan!” but, at that time, if I said the sky was blue, he would tell me it was green, so I bit my tongue just a bit.

Ultimately, to Nancy and my delight, Emerson emerged as his choice. Yet, unfortunately, I still had the idiotic thought that something could happen to keep him from attending in the fall.

It was late in his senior year, when I went upstairs one morning before hitting the road for work, and I saw his bedroom door closed. I walked down the hall, opened the door, and woke him up to ask why he wasn’t in school. When he told me, he was exhausted, and needed a rest, I hit the roof.

I screamed at him to get up, that he had 10 minutes to get ready before I drove him to school. As I went back downstairs fuming, my phone rang. It was my wife on the line, telling me she told me she gave him permission to stay home, and to back off. I didn’t listen.

When I made my way back upstairs, Robbie was waiting for me in the hallway. Before I had the chance to say anything again, for the first time in his life he got in my face and yelled, “You know why I can’t wait to go to school? YOU! I WANT TO GET AWAY FROM YOU!” Of course, I got in the last word, got into my car, and didn’t make it to the stop sign some 150 yards away when I realized he was right.

As I was in the middle of my initial tirade, he was trying to explain to me that he worked in the school office and knew how many days he could miss before graduation, but I was too worked up to listen. All I could see when I opened that door and saw him sleeping, was the 18-year-old me, who had the world in the palm of his hand and was too lazy to grasp it.

It was that moment when I was sitting in my car, that I realized my son was becoming his own man. The little boy who used to run from clowns, was on the verge of running full force into the future, whether I liked it or not. It was then that I knew my fears were wildly misplaced.

When the time came that August to move into his dorm, I think I was more nervous than him. It is funny how fathers and sons can look so much alike, but think so differently. If I had my choice, I would live on a horse farm, miles away from my closest neighbor, with only the beautiful beasts and my family as company.

In Robbie’s case, he has become a city boy, through and through. And while I find nothing more fun to do than watch a baseball game on a Saturday afternoon on my deck, heI firmly believecould not exist without the hustle and bustle of the theatre life.

As he entered college, Robbie had yet to tell us he was gay directly. However, it was the worst-kept secret this side of the Mississippi, as he had told his cousins and friends. After we finished moving him into his dorm, me, Nancy and Robbie headed down to the Rock Bottom restaurant for lunch. As we made our way down the sidewalk, a camera crew and host from the Emerson Channel, basically ambushed him.

With the microphone in his face, and a camera pointed directly at him, the shock-jock like

Robbie's interview on move in day, August 2015.

Robbie’s interview on move in day, August 2015.

hostwho was roaming the campus looking for fresh, freshman meat to roastasked a couple of ridiculously over-the-top questions, one of which dealt with Robbie’s sexuality. Thinking we were out of earshot, he gave some ambiguous answer, and off we went to lunch.

It was on the drive home that me and Nancy first spoke about telling him we knew he was gay. And later that week, when she was running an errand with him somewhere; she simply said, “Your father and I know that you are gay.” He quickly responded, “You do?” and then texted a friend from high school happily with the news.  Her reply was priceless, “No kidding? Is the sky blue?”

Since Robbie left for school, there have been subtle changes to our relationship as father and son. No longer do I badger him relentlessly about the things he does, and no longer does he feel the need to hide a large part of his life from me.  And the dinners we have shared before I have gone into the TD Garden to cover a Bruins game, have been some of the best in my life.

When I look back on those thoughts I had 20 years ago, I can’t help but laugh out-loud realizing what a meathead I was. Like many fathers with their newborn sons, I thought I could correct the errors of my past by turning my boy into a better version of me.

As I look at my life this Father’s Day, I realize just how lucky I am. I live in a nice little town in a quiet neighborhood. I have a decent job that provides me with a good living, and most of the things I often complain about are trivial. And I have been given a chance to do what I love to do mostwrite about sportswith this spot on Boston Sports Desk, as well.

And, as much as I probably don’t deserve it, I have been gifted by God with the best family any man could ask for. I often tell my wife Nancy, that I have married my mother, which is the highest compliment I could give her. And my daughter Katie, is the sweetest, most thoughtful person, you will ever meet.

It’s kind of funny, my son Robbie has taught me every lesson I thought I would teach him. He is full of pride, conviction, drive, and determination. In many ways, the way he has chased his dreamand continues to do sohas inspired me, at the tender age of 50, to continue to chase my dream of becoming the best writer I can be.

Twenty years ago, I foolishly thought I could somehow live vicariously through my newborn boy. Today, I am proud to say, I am the father of a son who is undoubtedly his own man.  Never could I have envisioned all those years ago, having a son who so steadfastly sticks to his own road though life, no matter what anyone else thinks of the route he is taking.

When I think of that day some two decades ago when Nancy told me that I could name my only son after my dad, I think of what pride I had knowing that his name would live on with my boy.  And now that I see the young man he has become, there is no doubt in my mind that my father would be just as proud as I am – if not prouder – that his namesake is following his dream, no matter where it takes him.

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