Father of the Year Nominee: Chris Hammes

Chris Hammes is known in his community as a fire lieutenant, volunteer, and the guy who saved a nun from a burning building. He's also known for being a great dad who truly leads by example.

Chris Hammes centers his life around helping others. He’s trained as a paramedic and is a fire lieutenant at a department in Madison, Wisconsin, where he’s worked for more than a decade. He volunteers as a ski patroller and teaches CPR classes in town. There are front-page stories about him saving elderly nuns from burning buildings, for crying out loud. In other words, Hammes is a real-deal role model, and no one knows this better than his kids. When Chris gets home at 7 a.m. from a 24-hour shift, he helps his kids — Julianna, 11, and Ethan, 9 — get ready for school, takes them skiing, coaches their soccer teams. But more importantly, he teaches them to be good people.

“This man is the most generous soul you will have ever met,” says Abby Hammes, Chris’s wife. When Abby went back to school full-time last year to get her doctorate degree in nursing, Chris took on more responsibilities at home. He has been helping with the children — driving them to school and pitching in with housework — so Abby can pursue her goal of becoming a professor, while he works as a firefighter and dabbles in property management on the side.

“It’s such [a] relief that I can always count on him,” says Abby Hammes, Chris’s wife. “And he’s always reliable and dependable and helpful. You don’t have to worry much when you know that Chris is going to be somewhere.”

Even when he’s kicking back with a day of skiing he can’t help but play the role of first responder. A few years ago, Chris and Abby were skiing with Julianna at Wisconsin’s Cascade Mountain, a ski area near their home. After they got off the lift and turned to go down the mountain, Julianna, then three years old, began hurtling toward a drop-off area guarded by a red rope. Chris quickly dashed to her, lifted her up by the coat, and then calmly pointed her in a safe direction. “She was like, ‘Whoa daddy you just saved my life!’” Abby says.

Hammes says he gets much of his parenting style and desire to help people from an incident involving his father. When he was in fourth grade, his dad got into a severe car accident while driving home from work on a two-lane highway in December. He was taking it slow, because fog covered the roads and anything more than a foot in front of the car was barely visible. At the same time, a teenager was crossing the highway in a tractor. For some reason — it may have stalled — the tractor stopped and Chris’s dad hit it head on. The teenager wasn’t hurt, but Hammes’ father had to be extricated from the car and needed surgery. He was given a five percent chance of survival.

Right before medical officials transported his father to the trauma center in the Milwaukee area, Chris remembers one offered him some reassuring words that ultimately inspired him to go into emergency services.

“I remember the paramedics pulling me aside and saying something to the tune of, ‘I know your dad doesn’t look very good right now, but we’re going to take really good care of him, and we’re going to take him for a ride and get him the help he needs,'” he says. “And that kind of just sat with me. I mean, I just remember that kind of giving me a little bit of peace of mind when they wheeled him out.”

His dad survived, but he had mobility issues after he came out of the hospital four months later. As he worked through rehab, he still managed to excel as a father. Before the car accident, he was extremely athletic. Playing sports was no longer an option, but he became engaged in his kids’ lives by coaching soccer.

“It’s a true testament to his strength and character and who he is and without question is a big part of who I have become, because of seeing him be a role model,” Chris says.

He’s carried that with him, offering up lessons everywhere he takes his kids (which is everywhere). He teaches his kids the joy of skiing on a mound of snow in their backyard (dubbed “Mount Hammes”), but he also brings them to the ski patrol room at Cascade Mountain where they get a first-hand look at what it takes to respond to injured skiers. Rather than leave them at home to play in their yard, Hammes bring them on lawn care jobs at the properties he manages, showing them the value of hard work. If being a good dad is about being there (and researchers are very much in agreement that it is), Chris is a great one.

Ever the dad to take it to the next level, Hammes was heavily involved in the birth of his kids. In 2007, when Julianna was born at a local birth center, and two years after that, when Ethan was born in their house, he was there. Thanks to his professional medical experience, Chris Hammes was able to personally assist in the births, something his wife remembers fondly. “Chris was just a rock through all of it,” Abby says. “And I really don’t think I would’ve been able to do that without him being the way he is. It’s just how much I trusted him, and I knew I would be well taken care of.”

As for what’s next in their family life, Chris and Abby think they’ll take it one step at a time. They’re trying to prepare Julianna and Ethan to face each day as it comes and give them the tools to solve problems in life. As his father did for him, Chris is making daily life a classroom for his kids with lessons on how to live for others.

“I think the best way to teach and lead is by example,” he says. “And I really try to just do the best I can with my kids with that.”