My Father’s DNA
I just received my Ancestry.com results. It was a Mother’s Day gift. Not being one to follow directions, I spit into the tube shortly after eating breakfast, only to notice immediately thereafter that I was supposed to wait at least 30 minutes after eating to do the sample. I was afraid I might come back related to Trader Joe, a blueberry, a Greek yogurt farmer and a fine Columbian coffee plant.
Fortunately, that was not the case. Nor was I surprised by the results. My DNA reinforced what I had always been told and what I already knew about my heritage. From my mom, the top percentages were Irish, Swedish/Danish. I’ve always heard that we’re related to Edgar Allan Poe on her side and, sure enough, Poe was one of the top three names on the close relatives list.
Since it’s almost Father’s Day, though, I’ll focus on my dad, Daniel Selakovich. My grandfather, Mark Selakovich, left Croatia when he was 18. Like many Eastern Europeans, the hope of a better life in America drew him away. He boarded a train, waved to his parents – and never saw them again. My grandmother’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from the same village as my grandfather. They settled in Leadville, CO, where her father worked in the mines. My grandmother was born in Leadville where she met my grandfather. My grandmother used to tell me stories about seeing Molly Brown parading around town in her fur coats. Leadville was a town of indescribable wealth for some and a place where immigrant families teetered on the edge of freezing or starving – or both.
All that is to say that my Ancestry results on my father’s side were 47% Croatian and 3% Eastern European/Russian. No surprises there. Thinking of my dad today and knowing that I have that 50% Croatian DNA on every chromosome in my body makes me feel especially close to him.
His parents eventually moved from Leadville to an apple orchard at the foothills of the Rockies where they raised four children during the Depression. My dad and his brother Mark sold apples in Canyon City to make a little money for the family. My grandfather worked in the steel mill in Pueblo alongside Irish, Italian and other Eastern European immigrants like him.
Because of the prejudice against Eastern Europeans, my dad and his siblings were not allowed to speak Serbo-Croatian – only English.
My dad was able to advance because he could go to school. He went to Western State College in Gunnison on a scholarship, continued to Washington State for a master’s in political science and finished with a doctorate at the University of Colorado. In the ‘60s, my parents moved to Stillwater, where my dad landed his dream job – being a professor at a large university. He believed in public education and wanted to give back by teaching students who would become social studies teachers.
My dad taught me a lot of things – mostly by example. He taught me to question rather than accept. He taught me to figure things out on my own. When I was in fifth grade and had to write an essay, he took me to the OSU Library and led me to the stacks where I would find books on my topic. The shelves towered over me. It was evening. The building was deadly quiet. I read the titles, and when I couldn’t reach the books, my dad got them for me. We took my chosen books to a table where he showed me how to use an index. It was a revelation to me.
I couldn’t even begin to list the things I learned from my dad. I read William Faulkner because he did. I learned about having a vegetable garden. I learned that it’s ok to stand up to people who are mean and unfair to others. One day a girl in our neighborhood who was slightly intellectually disabled told my dad that a girl at the high school kept bullying her. My dad got her name and called the mean girl. He told her if she ever bullied this girl again, he would have a discussion with her parents. Our neighbor was not bothered at school after that.
One time my dad loaned a lawn mower to a kid walking down the street in front of our house. The kid said that he could make a lot of money if he could borrow that lawn mower for a day. My dad loaned it to him and never saw the mower again. He was ok with that. I think he knew that the mower would not be returned.
Some of my dad’s most important lessons weren’t truly meaningful until I got older. Life experience has a lot to do with that as those lessons steep somewhere deep in the DNA, waiting to be fully realized. Going through some odds and ends about my dad that my mom had saved, I noticed an article clipped from the Stillwater Newspress. It was a front-page story with a photo about Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher speaking to my dad’s classes. She was the University of Oklahoma Law School’s first African American student. She sued to go to OU Law School and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor. My dad was always trying to inform his students to a wider world.
My dad also consistently sent student teachers (he taught a social studies methods class, school law, etc.) to work with teacher and civil rights activist Clara Luper. Clara Luper led a sit-in with some of her Classen High School students at Katz Drug Store counter in Oklahoma City to protest segregation. It was the first organized sit-in in Oklahoma and influenced others in Oklahoma and beyond to fight racial injustice.
Clara Luper and my dad were good friends, and I’m proud to have a signed copy of her autobiography Behold the Walls. You can still get copies of this book, and I recommend it. It’s an important part of Oklahoma history that your children may not have learned.
Not too long ago, a school administrator who had been a graduate student of my dad’s told me a story. He said, “Your dad taught a night class in Gunderson (OSU building). We used to sit outside the room on chairs in the hallway until he got there to unlock the classroom door. On our final test, one of the questions was, ‘What is the name of the woman who sweeps the hall in front of the classroom while you’re waiting?’ We couldn’t answer.” The point my dad was making was that everyone is important. No one is invisible. And every employee in a school building makes that building work, knows the kids and knows the other staff and teachers.
My dad knew that there were holes in education. He spent his life trying to fill them by showing his students what needed to be taught that wasn’t being taught. He knew that Native American history was not taught accurately. He knew the reality of systemic racism. He knew something of the pain of prejudice, and he couldn’t tolerate cruelty.
Was he perfect? Absolutely not. But he tried. And he tried on the side of fairness, goodness and equity. These lessons didn’t completely make sense to me until later – for the most part, until after my dad was gone. I naively thought that most people were fair and reasonable.
Now I see cruelty and prejudice being enacted into LAWS. Laws like OK House Bill 1775 that silences real history from being taught. Oklahoma filed 40 anti-LGBTQ bills. Once something becomes a law, it’s difficult to claw back. This not only harms certain minorities, but it also harms all of us. Are we so mean-spirited, fearful, cynical and angry that we have to go back to a time when certain human beings were invisible? I read something recently that said, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.” I like that. It’s not a pie and it’s not a competition.
At times like this, I wish my dad were here to talk to. At the same time, I’m glad he doesn’t have to see his life’s work grinding backwards instead of forward. He would be shocked by State Superintendent Ryan Walters’ attempt to destroy public education, the very institution that he is supposed to be supporting. I’ll admit, I do feel discouraged at times. But thinking of my dad, I know I can honor him by trying to carry on what he taught me, and what I feel in my DNA is right.