Many men dream of having sons.
And if a man should have the honor and the privilege of being a father to a son, ushering that son into manhood is a feat that ranks higher than any other achievement that man could hope to claim.
At least, it is that way for Nathaniel Harper, Jr. and his only son, Nathaniel “Tres” Harper, III.
A 20-year veteran of the West Columbia Fire Department, Harper, Jr., names his proudest moment as the evening in May when he received a text message from Tres, 18, a rising-sophomore with wrestling and academic scholarships at The Citadel.
“It just said, ‘Dad, you did a pretty good job. You’re a good dad.’ ” recalled Harper, Jr., 48.
“It just let me know that I had done a good job, that he was proud of me,” the notion bringing tears to the eyes of the 2010 Fireman of the Year.
It is what he thought about when he first accepted a position at the firehouse, when he was a newlywed with a newborn son. Sure, he knew his little boy would like the big red fire truck, the uniform and the firefighting gear. But most important to Harper was that Tres would “always be able to look up and see that his dad was doing something good.”
But he knew that what he did best, the vocation that would matter most, was to be a dad to Tres.
With his high school sweetheart and wife, Mavis Harper, Harper, Jr., decided to forego a part-time job in favor of spending his days off with his son.
He coached Tres in football and baseball almost until high school.
At Columbia High, getting cut from the basketball team pushed Tres into wrestling — a sport with which his father was unfamiliar.
“I started to see him as an independent guy, and it was enjoyable. I had almost always been his coach, but just watching him, I was able to see how talented he really was,” Harper, Jr., said.
Tres won region titles all four years of high school, and was state runner-up twice. In 2012, he won the Class 2A state championship in the 145-pound weight division.
But he did not have to wait until then for his father’s approval.
“He tells me all the time, he always has. I could have been coloring and he’d tell me he was proud of me,” Tres said.
As he has gotten older, Tres has come to think more and more of his father.
Somewhere around his junior year at Columbia, he went from hoping his dad would not embarrass him around his friends, to being glad that his father was such a big part of his life.
“When I started to see how some of the guys were growing up, you know, not having a dad or a father figure in their lives, I started to think more and more how glad I was that my dad was there,” Tres said. “A boy needs a man, to be taught how to be a man.”
And now this boy who was the answer to so many of his father’s prayers, had returned home from college as a man.
As a youngster, Tres wanted to be a fireman like his dad.
“I always wanted to do, really, whatever he was doing,” Tres said.
Now, that legacy continues. Because more than winning wrestling titles at The Citadel or earning his degree in Sports and Business Administration, Tres’s greatest aspiration is to be the kind of man and father that Nathaniel Harper, Jr., is.
“Just being a family man, loving his family. That’s what I want to be someday,” Tres said.
And that is the greatest accolade Nathaniel Harper, Jr., could receive.