Nature vs. Nurture: a Journey that Began Before I Took my 1st Breath (A Tribute to my Father, Thomas A. O’Dowd)

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

~ Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Was I born with this Wanderlust? There’s plenty of Psychological research, and a Neurobiological study or two, into the origins of our most routine behaviors, our unique personalities, our likes and dislikes, and everything from speech patterns to choice of profession.

Whether a lust for travel and adventure is in my blood, or was taught to me during my youngest and most impressionable years, I get it from my father.




Dad traveled the world during my childhood, working as an export manager for Quaker Oats. (Note: We grew up eating a lot of oatmeal – my sister can’t eat it, to this day, because she ate so much of it as a child; I go through phases of eating it 3 – 4 time a week.) Dad was with Quaker more than 20 years, and benefitted from the company paying the bill, sending him on one adventure after another.

His travels took him from the gentle trade-winds and bright sunshine of Bermuda to the imperial palaces, shrines and temples of Japan. He immersed himself in the culture, wherever he went. He spend a great deal of time in Central America, returning again and again to inspect company sites, becoming familiar with the flavorful food, the entertainment, the vibrant art and the rich history of the countries he visited.

There was a routine, a sort of a ritual that surrounded Dad’s trips. Flights were often early – 6 or 7 am – and Mom would load my sister and I into the car, to take him to the airport; we were still half asleep. I don’t remember knowing where he was off to, but I did know where we were headed, once his flight took off, and we left the airport. It was time for pancakes, at IHOP.



Of course we missed him when he was away. I believe now that the promise of pancake syrup helped me look forward to his travels. We’d return to the routine of school, schoolwork, and after-school activities. Mom would return to work, and keeping two young children entertained. We’d later share stories of our week’s adventures and he’d share stories of his.

A side trip to Ireland, while visiting England on business, allowed Dad to really explore his family’s heritage. I’m sure this included some Guinness or Jameson Irish Whiskey. The culture he’d read about, dreamed about, and heard family members tell stories about came to life for him, for a short period.

His adventures were carried back to my sister and I, in the form of a collection of dolls, one from each country he visited, dressed in the traditional attire of the country. The doll from Ireland had a mini, cream-colored Aran Irish Knit Sweater, buttoned up over a white linen blouse. A trip to Arizona resulted in a Kachina doll, carved from cottonwood root, dressed in the costume of a Hopi spirit. It was painted in colors with directional meaning, symbolizing North, South, East, West and the Underworld.

These dolls were symbols of places I had not been, but would dream of going one day.


On our family travels around the U.S. there were lots of roadside stops, where Dad would pick up the local newspaper, to see what was going on in the small towns we passed through. Highway rest stops resulted in a stack of brochures, which Dad would sort through, back at the hotel, to be sure that we didn’t miss out on any local attractions. Most trips were by car, and included our turtle rooftop cargo carrier. We camped our way across the country.

I’m often questioned about where I’ve been, and what my future travel plans are: “Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park?” I give a quick reply: “No, but I’d love to go, and am considering planning a trip there in the fall.” If my father were within earshot, I’d be quickly interrupted, stopped in my tracks from explaining how wonderful and meaningful it will be for me to visit Yellowstone for the first time. Apparently I was there as a child, too young to remember.

But thank goodness for the many trips I can’t remember!

It does no good to keep a child at home, with no adventure, no exposure to other cultures and ways of life, with plans to expose them to new experiences when they are old enough to remember every detail. Those early, formative experiences are what make it likely that they will venture out into the world as an adult, killing prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness along the way.



I can’t know for certain whether my love of travel is in my DNA, or the result of constant exposure to travel adventures, large and small, across space and time.  At just 9 years old, my niece has already been exposed to my father’s spirit of curiosity, love of stories, and willingness to take on adventure. I hope I can help keep that alive in her.

In 1978 Dad’s work took us to Disney World, the Happiest Place on Earth; it was the first (and last) time during his tenure that Quaker management was able to bring their families along on a trip. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what must have gone wrong, to keep the wives and children from tagging along on the next big trip.

The men played golf, where my Dad was awarded trophies for the highest score. The kids must have given their mothers a run for their money, between Disney character sightings, dropped ice cream cones, and pleas for another turn on It’s a Small World.

A lifetime isn’t long enough to see it all! My father knew that, but it was fun to dream about the next adventure, the next chance to explore a new corner of the world. As soon as I’m home from a trip, I’m itching to head out on the next one. That’s Wanderlust personified, and I thank my father for giving me that gift.

[After a lifetime of travel and exploration, Thomas A. O’Dowd passed away peacefully on July 14th 2018. He is remembered for his passion for diverse cultures and new experiences, his love of family (especially that granddaughter of his), and his many years dedicated to teaching  elementary school, in the Archdiocese of Chicago. A link to details of his funeral services can be found below.]



Join me on my next adventure – I’ll be bringing my Dad along in spirit,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Obituary, Thomas A. O’Dowd:


  1. Beautiful tribute. Although I’m sure DNA played some role, I think your good memories & experiences with your Dad did much more to plant that wanderlust seed.


  2. My heart is broken, but you have begun a healing process with this beautiful tribute. You are so much like him it makes me smile these difficult days. Continue his adventure!
    BLOG ON!


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