Karen Ehrle earned her doctorate in education at UWM because she wanted answers to the question that kept her up at night: exactly why do some teens thrive in the classroom and others find school so confusing and alienating?
At UWM she discovered some parenting theory studies that seemed to provide a partial explanation. Upon completion of her dissertation, a friend told her about the single father of a family at her school in a poor, crime-ridden urban Milwaukee neighborhood:
“He has no money, he has no car, he lives in an apartment. And he has these perfect, fabulous children.”
So Ehrle went to interview him. “Fifteen seconds into my talking to him, I knew he was channeling all those (education and child rearing) theories perfectly. Even though he didn’t know any of the theories, he was the poster child for the research.”
Out of that interview grew her recently published book, “Good Dad: The Story of an African American Father,” which tells the story in his own words, written in a down-to-earth style at the fourth grade reading level to be accessible to children, families and low level readers.
For Ehrle, the journey to her doctorate and to publication of the book was a long one. She talks of the several “electric moments” that propelled her.
The first was when she was teaching in a program at Waukesha North High School for students at high risk of dropping out of school. A young man she’d been working with looked at a happy picture of her four daughters on her desk.
“He picked it up and he said, ‘if I had been born in your house, I would have turned out like these girls.’ He was a wonderful young man who had figured that out about his life. That’s why I say my work started with a broken heart.”
Determined to help, Ehrle came to UWM, asking if she could work toward a doctorate, and do research, even though she didn’t have a master’s and had been out of school for many years. Eventually UWM said yes.
After finishing her degree, her advisor got her involved in writing some articles for an encyclopedia on business and industry for high school students. “In that work I trained myself as a writer.”
That was the point where she met the man who became the subject of “Good Dad.”
“When I finished transcribing the interview, there was never any doubt that the book would be exactly his words. Those words are still so true and honest, that to this day, they jump off the page for me.”
Of course, the process was neither obvious nor easy and took years. She had envisioned a pretty book with numerous photos of the father and his children. But, although the father was fine with book and his children loved it, he did not want to be identified or have his pictures used.
That put the project on hold for awhile until Ehrle discovered the possibility of using stock photos. “I looked on the internet and discovered I could buy pictures. When I realized I could use all different fathers throughout the book, that was another electric moment.”
After printing out a few books on Shutterfly, she found a local printing company that was very interested in the book and willing to publish it. “I found it was easier to do this privately than to get an actual publisher.”
Ehrle jokes that building a website and getting the book on Amazon was even harder than writing the book, but that has been accomplished. It’s essentially a nonprofit enterprise, she says, adding it was more important to get the story out than to make money. The father who inspired the book receives part of all the proceeds.
She’s received some objections to the work. Some people question the idea of a white woman telling black families how to raise children. Ehrle answers that although she is the writer, she’s not offering advice; she’s simply telling one father’s story. Other people ask why use African American to identify the father? Couldn’t he instead be just plain father? To this Ehrle responds that the book is a pushback against an entrenched stereotype of African American fathers.
“This is a celebration of a very good dad, and the fact he’s African American is just fine.”
Quote from the book
“When you have children, it’s not about you any more. It’s about them. I have dedicated my life to my children. My fear is failing them as a parent, and I am not a man who fears many things.”
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