Yellowstone Valley's Super Dads
Raising their kids in their own unique ways
When it comes to dads these days, all that some are missing is the super hero’s cape. If you look at the statistics today, the role of the father has significantly evolved over the last few decades. Did you know according to Pew Research, roughly 2 million men are “stay-at-home” dads, opting to leave the workforce behind to be the primary parent at home? And dads are not only visible in traditional roles like serving as “coach” for their kids’ sports, but are more involved now than ever before in their kids’ day-to-day lives. Times are changing and the Yellowstone Valley is no exception. Just look at the dads we found, who are jumping in and conquering the demands of fatherhood in their own unique ways.
Since 2013, more dads are tackling the grocery store runs, increasing their number of purchases by 62%.
BREAKING THE MOLD
When John Amundson became a dad twice through the gift of adoption, he knew he wanted to break the mold. He and his wife, Bree, are the proud parents of John Jr. (J.J.) and Langston, both 4 years old. “When I was little, my dad traveled a lot. He was a very loving dad. I have great memories of my childhood. I hope my boys remember their early years that way, with great memories. However, I didn’t want a job where I would have to travel. I want to be home to put the boys to bed every night and be a part of their consistent daily routine.” As a teacher, John has the advantage of seeing kids and parents of every stripe. It allowed him to cultivate and define the kind of father he wanted to be very clearly. “I hope my boys say I did my best and sacrificed time for them. They love riding bikes, playing in the yard, and music. I want to be there for all that.”
GOING IT SOLO
Ernie Mezich knows first-hand being a single parent is a tough job. As a dad to Serina, 17, and Aragorn, 14, he made the move five years ago from Seattle to Billings to make sure his kids were raised in a great community. He says, “I was nervous at first, but within a couple of months we settled in and I knew I had made the right decision.”
It’s still a juggling act to give his kids a life he wants them to have, one that isn’t lived in front of the TV or with the help of video games. As a 23-year employee of Costco, he’s learned how to juggle his work schedule knowing it’s “a great company with the benefits that I need as a single dad.” While finances seem to always be at the forefront of concerns, Ernie says his biggest challenge and joy is discovering what his kids want to do and support them in it every step of the way. Both children have inherited Ernie’s creative gene, applying that to metalworking, origami, gardening, and cooking.
Moving away from family has been a challenge but the sacrifice and hard work of moving have paid off in spades, giving the family a lifestyle that allows the children thrive. “I want to see my kids succeed in being able to judge and do the right thing. I don’t want them to see money as their ultimate drive in life. We are more about helping and using money wisely to lift other people up. We are stewards of the arts and need to be there for each other.”
A FATHER FOR MANY, A DAD OF 5
As a teenager, Father Bart Stevens felt the pull to serve the Church. His journey of faith took him on an atypical route, serving as an Episcopal priest before converting to Catholicism. What’s unusual about Stevens’ story is the fact that he’s married with five children in a faith that calls for priests to take the vow of celibacy. He serves as pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish in Laurel with his wife, Becky, and their children, Sydney, 15, Charles, 13, Virginia, 11, Soren, 8, and Zelie, 6, at his side.
The parish schedule can be consuming, but Fr. Bart and his wife make it work by homeschooling their children. “When public schools are out, Easter, Christmas, etc., I am at my busiest with the Church. Being a married priest with children means juggling the demands of the church and home all day, every day.” “However,” Fr. Bart says, “At my ordination to the priesthood, the Bishop said, ‘Remember, your first vocation is to your wife and family.’ This helps me prioritize my life. If there is ever a choice to be made, I must err on the side of family.” Fr. Bart says homeschooling allows the family to shape their school year in creative ways. “We arrange our schedule so we can hike, fish, camp, read and enjoy each other when I am not needed at the church.” Of their daily schedule, he says, “We are at our best when we are sitting around the table talking, answering their questions about life, faith, and church.”
Fr. Bart had a wonderful role model in his own dad, beloved, retired Pediatrician Dr. Richard Stevens. “When my dad was home, he was very, very present to us,” he says. “There were times when he may have seemed a little distracted by work, but you always knew he was there for you. I want to be that present to my children.”
Denny Kroft of Laurel is a dad of four and husband of 58 years who has never been one to sit around. That’s obvious when you look back on his busy career of serving others. Early on, both he and his wife, Martha, knew it was important to be able to live on one income so Martha could be home with the kids. Kroft worked as a firefighter for the Billings Fire Department, retiring as an inspector for the Fire Prevention Bureau in 1989. With farming and ranching in his blood, he earned a little extra running livestock before eventually buying a small ranch in Laurel. “I loved my work but I was gone a lot,” Denny says. “My kids have done a much better job at being involved with their children in activities.”
If you ask his kids, JoLynn Brown of Kenai, Alaska, Todd Kroft and Kim Vopel of Billings, and Michael Kroft of Laurel, are all quick to compliment their dad’s tireless work ethic. They all cite it as a source of inspiration in their own lives.
Since Denny isn’t as busy as he was when his children were young, he and Martha have the opportunity to invest in their 14 grand- and 4 great-grandkids. “If I knew grandkids were this much fun, I would have started there.”
DID YOU KNOW? Children with involved fathers tend to have fewer behavioral problems, symptoms of depression and lower rates of teen pregnancy.
Denny and Martha’s youngest son, Michael, followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as a firefighter for the past 24 years with the Billings Fire Department. He is now a Captain. Michael and his wife, Nicole, have a son, Hunter, 18 years old, and a daughter, Taylor, 17. Built like his father, Michael works secondary jobs on his days off. He has worked alongside his dad on their ranch, framed houses, built cabinets, installed spray foam insulation and even worked with cutter bees. “I don’t regret working hard. I wanted that ethic to be installed in my kids.”
“When Hunter was born, I was 30. I realized that was how old my dad was when I was born. I wanted to have as good of a relationship with my son as I did with my dad.” He works hard to be involved with the kids in spite of a challenging work schedule. The fire department schedule works 24-hour shifts, but Michael lauds the opportunity of having many days off in a row as a benefit of the job. The family has to be flexible with holidays and celebrations, but the ability to be completely focused on his family when he is off shift is a definite “perk” of the job.
CARING FOR HIS ‘LADIES’
Having been raised by his grandmother, Michael Ruiz knew when he had children, he would give them a life he never had, one with a dad. He’s the father of four girls, Camryn, 15, Asher, 12, Alyvia, 10, and Ysabelle, 7. As a young father, Michael left a lucrative career with a company called Medi-dyn, where he was successfully climbing the corporate ladder in the medical environmental services field. “I was leaving before the girls were awake, working all day, coming home to eat and going back to work. I wanted the girls to know who their father was, so I hung up the suits,” Michael says today.
Michael and his wife, Janae, started Heritage Professional Services Group, which includes a janitorial service, medical cleaning company, and a consulting business. The job gives them complete flexibility as parents. “I haven’t missed a basketball or softball game. I have coached many of their sports. We know what is going on in school and if the school calls and needs something, we can be there.” Michael laughingly adds, “They don’t always like how involved we are!” Even though the jobs occasionally leaves them working late hours cleaning, the sacrifice has been worth it. “It was the best decision we ever made.”