What does it take to be a great dad? There might be quite a few different opinions on this, but one thing all dads seem to agree on is it’s all about the kids.
We put together a group of some of the Bay Area’s most successful dads to find out what makes them tick. There’s Nathan Ballard of Kentfield, who has two daughters and two sons: Georgia (12), Hank (11), Olivia (3), and Rhys (19 months). There’s Geoff Callan, who has two daughters, Tali (16) and Siena (14), and also lives in Kentfield. There’s Tom Shepard who has a 16-year-old son named Stone, works in marketing, and lives in Mill Valley. And there’s Pete Searson, who is the co-founder of a local jeans company and a cool, laid-back dad from Southern California, with two daughters, Luella (13) and Charlotte (11).
We asked each of these super dads to offer advice on how to be a great father, what their favorite activities were with their kids over the summer, and what they do to give back to other families that are less fortunate.
“I believe I was put on earth to be a dad,” Nathan says. “Every day, my heart is bursting with love for these kids.”
Nathan has two daughters and two sons. The former communications director for Gavin Newsom and founder of the PR agency The Press Shop lives with his family in Kentfield. “It’s a special place for my wife Mara and me,” he says. “We met there at a Christmas dinner at Jennifer and Gavin’s home. Olivia and Rhys were born a stone’s throw away, at Marin General.”
The family has lived in Marin County for 15 years, mostly in Mill Valley, with the exception of a year spent in San Francisco’s Marina District. “I’m deeply involved in civic life in San Francisco, so I basically have dual citizenship,” Nathan says. “Mara’s parents and her two sisters all live in Marin County. So my kids are part of a supergroup of eight cousins who live nearby. It’s mayhem when they are all together.”
Nathan’s advice to other dads is to be a good role model. “They are more likely to mimic your behavior than to blindly follow your rules,” he explains. “It’s crucial to avoid falling into over-parenting. Not every minute has to be scheduled and supervised. Not every minor infraction deserves a long lecture. It’s our job to raise independent, resilient problem-solvers who will make the word a better place. That means they need to make some mistakes and experience the natural consequences. I aim to be more like a trusted advisor to them instead. When they are grappling with a decision, I like to ask Socratic questions to help them reach a conclusion on their own.”
“My kids know that I expect them to do their best in music, sports, and academics,” Nathan continues. “But they also know they are entitled to make their own choices within those areas. Georgia, a soprano in the Marin Girls’ Chorus, loves singing and piano with all her heart. But Hank had to try piano and guitar first before he finally clicked with the saxophone. When it feels right, I like to participate alongside my kids. It was a great pleasure of my life to coach Hank’s baseball teams for five years. And last Christmas, I even picked up my violin and played a song with Georgia and the Marin Girls’ Chorus.”
Summer in Kentfield is a great time for the Ballard family. “We love our neighborhood,” Nathan says. “You can walk or bike everywhere. Kids are always playing basketball on the street. The little ones, Olivia and Rhys, love to scooter on the sidewalk and go to the playground at Bacich Elementary. Georgia and Hank are free to roam the neighborhood with friends. On a weekly basis, the whole neighborhood shuts down for a block party called ‘Flamingo Fridays.’ We also like to jump on our bikes and go to the Bay Club pool when it’s hot.”
The Ballards love participating in classic Marin County summertime traditions. “We’ll go to the Mountain Play to see Grease,” Nathan says. “We’ll take the ferry to a Giants game. We’ll spend the day at Stinson Beach and have cheeseburgers from Parkside Cafe. I like to run the Dipsea and the Double Dipsea, and next year Hank wants to do it with me.”
The family also takes trips during the summer. “Every year, a highlight of our summer is going to Bruin Woods, the UCLA family camp at Lake Arrowhead,” Nathan explains. “We also like to go to the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, but we need to work on our timing: last year Hank had to stay behind when he got called up to the all-star team in baseball.”
Giving back is also an important part of the family’s activities. “My kids jump at the chance to do hands-on work helping people who need it,” Nathan says. “Every summer we volunteer at Operation Provider, preparing and serving food for less fortunate families, when we are at Bruin Woods. Georgia constantly volunteers to do service projects with the Girl Scouts. Both Hank and Georgia have volunteered at the Redwoods, and I know Olivia and Rhys will do the same when they are old enough.
When we commit to help with fundraising, we like to get the kids involved so they will remember it. Once, as a benefit for the Redwoods, we put a giant movie screen in the backyard and screened the original Star Wars. There was also a costume contest, with “Best Luke” and “Best Leia.” The kids will never forget that party, and the reason we held it.”
Tom resides in Mill Valley. After a long career as EVP of global merchant partnerships and sponsorship at Visa International, he became the CEO of the Festival Network, and is currently CMO and a partner of 21 Marketing, a small strategic marketing agency specializing in marketing strategies and mega events such as the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, and the 250th anniversary of the country — the Semiquincentennial/America 250. He is an avid fly-fisherman and plays soccer, and can usually be found watching his son’s lacrosse games.
Tom is father to 16-year-old Stone. His advice for dads? “Well, it’s been said ad nauseam, but it’s true … make the time to be there for your kids, whether it’s for their performances, school functions, or games, because you don’t get it back. We’ve also found as parents that giving experiences are more important and long lasting than presents for birthdays and other holidays.”
In the summer, Tom’s son spends most of his time playing lacrosse. “Much of the summer is consumed by traveling to lacrosse tournaments, but one of the other really cool things we do, driven by him, is scuba diving. He got certified young (at 13) and it has provided a focal point for vacations in great places and shared experiences for us. This, in conjunction with a couple of family visits and a college prospect, camp will consume the summer. We need to remember to have some ‘chill’ time!”
To give back, Tom and his son are both involved in charity projects. “I am very fortunate to be a part of the EACH Foundation, created by Lionel Shaw, and it is comprised of approximately 30 philanthropic advisors who identify and give to local charities in the Bay Area. My son does community service projects through his school at the Marine Mammal Center, and this summer will be on a conservation crew working to restore trail systems and habitats.”
Geoff is a 5th generation San Franciscan who married a 4th generation San Franciscan, Hilary Newsom. “Seven years ago we uprooted our family to “greener pastures” in Kentfield, California,” he explains. “My wife, Hilary, her brother Gavin and mother, Tessa, grew up in Marin. Our transition was an easy one, mainly because life in Marin has been so welcoming. The great weather, wonderful community, and living outdoors helped facilitate our transition.”
He is the father of Tali, who will be a junior at Redwood High School next year, and Siena, who will be a freshman at Marin Catholic. “There’s nothing better than my two kids constantly competing against my alma mater St. Ignatius!” he exclaims.
Geoff is a filmmaker and actor and his wife is the president of the PlumpJack Group. He most recently directed and produced an award-winning documentary titled The Push. “I am currently in preproduction on a new feature film, which I will not only produce, but be one of the main actors,” he explains. “My kids are both super talented actors also (but they will have to audition).”
Despite his busy work life, Geoff puts his girls first. “My kids take precedence over everything I do, regardless of my film projects,” he says. “I believe that I was meant to be a dad, and this is probably directly related to how I was raised and how my parents and extended family were a constant presence in my life. I actually plan my work around my children’s schedules! I can and will always work in my industry, but my kids are on a predetermined and set time frame … grade school, high school, college etc … so I try and be as present as I possibly can. I’m saddened when I can’t chaperone a field trip or am unable to coach a team.”
Geoff also credits his wife with helping him be a good parent. “I couldn’t do anything without my wife, Hilary,” he says. “Together we make a perfect team and, to date, the kids still think we are fun. My advice is to be flexible and willing to be spontaneous — sometimes plans are easy to break, but coming up with an idea at the last minute is half the fun.”
In the summer, Geoff and his family get up to all sorts of activities. They travel, camp, golf, and barbecue pool-side with friends and family. “When our pool is full of laughing kids and the music is on, I am at my most relaxed. We also like fishing and hiking and heading to Lake Tahoe. Although our hearts are still in San Francisco, Marin is the home we love … everyday seems like a summer vacation!”
To give back, the family does a lot of fundraising for the Holy Family Day Home, the Bay Area’s oldest preschool, whose goal is to provide affordable early childhood education, helping break the cycle of poverty. “My wife sits on the board and throughout the year we participate in wonderful activities, including providing the students and faculty with a festive Thanksgiving lunch,” Geoff explains. “Our kids volunteer at the HFDH and help with gardening, restocking the family pantry, and other wonderful work. I am equally proud of the PlumpJack/LINK Golf Classic, an event my wife and I started 20 years ago. We have raised over $6 million dollars for cancer research and education supporting organizations like the UCSF’s San Francisco Cancer initiative through the PlumpJack Foundation.”
Pete is the co-founder of Tellason Denim Co, a Sausalito-based apparel company. He has been living in Mill Valley since 1995 with his wife, Susannah, and is the father of two girls: Luella (13), a softball player and part-time poet who loves Japan, and Charlotte (11), who loves theater more than chocolate (especially at the Throckmorton Theatre).
“I grew up in Southern California in the 1970s long before technology and land development stepped in,” he says. “I rode skateboards and bikes everywhere and was lucky enough to have grown up with bands like The Clash, Ramones, and Blondie. I am an analog guy by nature. I grew up a latchkey kid left to my own devices. I ate Kraft Marshmallow Whip out of the jar after school and spent 100 percent of the rest of my time outside making skateboard ramps, obstacle courses, and jumping the neighborhood kids on my BMX bike until my mom pulled up in the driveway in our 1972 Pinto station wagon.”
This way of life has influenced his parenting. “I suppose my advice would be to find a way to make an unobstructed life for your kids in the outdoors,” he says. “This does not come without its dangerous moments, but hopefully good judgement prevails and future hospital visits remain few and far between.”
In the summer months, Peter says, it’s all about sleeping in. “As the father of two girls, I say let them sleep. Other than that, get on an airplane and explore places where they do not speak English. For us, we love Japan and everything it represents on a cultural, culinary, and artistic level.”
Peter gives back through his work as president of Mill Valley Girls Softball. “It has always given me great pleasure to offer scholarships to play our fine sport for those families who need it,” he says. “There is nothing easy about softball and the courage it takes to get out there to play is incredible. To see girls on the field from all walks of life, coming together trying their best as teammates is a big deal. We can all learn how to do a better job supporting each other after watching a bunch of 5th grade softball kids do their thing. It will make you rethink the importance of playing a sport altogether.”
Susan B. Noyes is the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the Founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards.
A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry Foundation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red Cross, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Annenberg Challenge, Chicago Public Education Fund, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.