By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008
With baseball season winding down and a summer of swim meets ahead, Jonathan Myrick, a single father of two, considers the evening's balancing act as he walks in the door from work.
Zachary, 11, needs a ride to batting practice. Dylan, 9, is due at the neighborhood pool. Phone messages are stacked up on the answering machine. Dinner is not made. Mercifully, his sons have no homework, and Myrick, a corporate controller for a government contracting firm, is home from the office earlier than usual.
For Myrick, this is an easy evening.
As he approaches another Father's Day, Myrick, 44, sees himself as just another dad who is lucky enough to live in the tight-knit Vienna neighborhood of Shouse Village, where helping another family with a couple of hours of child care or a ride to a ballgame is the norm.
But neighbors and friends see more. They say it is not just that Myrick has forged on with his sons after his wife died five years ago. It is that he has taken on so many other children, too, having coached more than 35 sports teams in the past six years.
He has done this as he has juggled his sons' needs and a full-time job, all the while maintaining a presence in his community -- volunteering at the neighborhood pool, chaperoning field trips, hosting a monthly dads' poker night.
"He's so on top of it," said Carey Hitchcock, who lives down the street. "He makes all of us stay-home moms look bad."
Said his next-door neighbor, Judy Laufman: "He's just been a great, engaged Mr. Mom/Mr. Dad, and they are both great kids -- and to have two sons have that as the father role model is just terrific."
The way Myrick sees it, his neighborhood has made his life as a single father far more manageable.
Not far from the lush, rolling landscape of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, this was the place where he and his wife, Cathy, bought a home when their boys were young. They liked the pool and play area, the little lake and woods, the way it seemed that kids could run down the block and play outside.
But in 2003, Cathy grew ill with a genetic disorder of the blood vessels, which ultimately required a liver transplant. The surgery did not go well. A day before Mother's Day, she died. She was 40; the boys were 6 and 4.
Myrick had no idea how to start life as a single parent. He just did. Thinking back, he said: "You just focus on the kids and go from there."
In the aftermath of Cathy's death, the community rallied, bringing meals and offers of help. But friends such as Sharon Saile, who lives two doors away, say that over time it has been easy to forget Myrick is a single dad because he manages so well.
"If you didn't know, you wouldn't know," said Saile, whose husband, George, coaches soccer with Myrick. "You would have no idea. None."
This has been true on the sports field, where Myrick has spent many weekends and evenings coaching baseball, soccer and basketball. Because most teams are formed anew every season, that means perhaps 250 boys or more, on more than 35 teams.
His family life, in the peak of the sports season, is just as striking. A not-atypical night for Myrick might be coming home from his job in Alexandria, picking up his boys in Vienna, getting to Dylan's soccer practice, dropping him off, then taking Zachary to his batting practice, returning to coach soccer, and then swinging back for Zachary. Some days Myrick might go on to coach Dylan's two-hour baseball game before the night ends with showers and bedtime.
Mark Bennett, who coached McLean Little League with Myrick for four seasons, said Myrick brought a fatherly touch to the game, along with a love of the sport. His philosophy is that practices are for hard work and learning; game days are for fun.
When a child struck out in a game, he said, Myrick was consoling: "Hey, it's okay. You went down swinging. You did the best you could."
"He is ultimately committed not only to his own sons but to all of his surrogate sons on the team," Bennett said.
Parent Lisa McColgan, whose 12-year-old son, Luke, played baseball under Myrick for the first time this spring, recalled how he had just the right way of helping him fit in, even though he was a little older and bigger than his teammates.
He made the older boy captain, the team leader.
Throughout the season, she said, Myrick's patience and skill were so impressive that recently she nominated him to be coach of the year. "I just thought it was so important that he could be part of their formative years," she said.
In addition to all of that, Myrick has often given her son rides to practices and games, never mentioning his own time pressures as a single dad.
Like others in the community, Myrick sometimes asks neighbors to watch one of his sons or, if he's running late from work, pick them up at the after-school care program at Colvin Run Elementary. But residents of Shouse Village say that's all part of the community ethic and name -- to pitch in with each other's kids, in the it-takes-a-village spirit.
One recent day, Carey Hitchcock picked up the Myrick boys from school. Another day it was Sharon Saile. One recent weekend, Myrick dropped by the home of Dana Hecht, asking for her son, who plays on a different baseball team. "Hey, I'm taking some kids out to hit some balls. Does Johnny want to come?" he asked.
The help goes around and around.
"It's not unusual to see dads involved," Hecht said. "What's unusual is that he's doing it alone." Hecht rattles off the events where she sees him: back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences, field trips. She recalls the birthday parties he has thrown. How he networks to learn more about teachers and school programs.
Myrick also advocates for the needs of his younger son, who is deaf and has a cochlear implant to help with hearing.
"The guy doesn't slack off a bit," said Chris Nielsen, a neighbor and fellow coach. "Honestly, I don't know how he's done it."
For his part, Myrick is uncomfortable with such praise. When a visitor suggests he must be highly organized, he laughs and gestures around his house, with its cluttered garage and games and toys stacked in little piles. "See my house -- do I look organized?" he says.
His work as a coach was not something he set out to do but rather something he "fell into" in spring 2002, he said, after a request for volunteers. The same need for parents to step up led him to coach basketball and soccer.
The recent baseball season had its challenges, when his 9-year-old son's team had a mid-season losing streak. At several points, recalled assistant coach Jeff Goettman, Myrick and his fellow dad-coaches debated: "Okay, what can we do better so that our kids have a better experience?"
Said Goettman: "He is very positive with the kids, but he also has a high standard at which he wants them to perform, and I think at the end of the day he really wants them to learn what's right about sports -- which is to enjoy the competition and have fun."
Both of Myrick's sons say they like that their dad is so involved.
"He's a really good coach," Zachary says. "He's not one of those coaches who only cares about winning."
Dylan chimes in: "He yells at us sometimes, but whenever he yells at us, it makes us win for some reason."
His older brother interrupts. "Dylan, he only yelled at you twice the whole season," he says.
Myrick overhears and laughs.
"That's why we lost so much," he jokes.
When Myrick thinks about how he has managed to coach so much as a single father, he says it has helped to have flexibility in his work schedule and neighbors to depend on if child-care gaps arise. His sister-in-law still comes to help once every week or so.
He ponders. "I'm a glutton for punishment? No personal life?"
In a sense, he adds, coaching has made life easier because he can set his sons' practice times and minimize schedule conflicts. It has gotten harder, he said, as his older son has moved on to other teams.
One sport that Myrick does not coach is swimming, but the pool is clearly part of his family's life and part of what makes Shouse Village, with about 260 houses, so connected. Both Myrick boys are part of the Shouse Sharks swim team.
Like swim parents everywhere, Myrick is on deck for all of the meets. "He's there, grilling the burgers and doing the timing on the Saturday meets," said Glenn Harris, who is president of the homeowners association. "You'd think as a single parent he would say, 'I can't help, there's only one of me,' but he's always involved."