Three years ago, John Francis had a low-key party to christen his newly built garage — a few guys, some cigars and beer, a couple of bags of chips.
Since then, his men’s-only bash has mushroomed into an annual event that fills Francis’ three-car garage in St. Paul. More than 100 guy guests test their skills at back-yard games, major league grilling and, uh, talking.
The event, dubbed Father’s Eve because it’s held the night before Father’s Day, has become so important to Francis and his buddies that they’ve decided to take their party public.
“Somewhere along the line someone said: ‘You’ve got a great idea; what are you going to do with it?’ ” said Francis, 48, a retail franchising consultant. “I took the challenge.”
The first Father’s Eve fundraiser event will take place Saturday at O’Gara’s Bar and Grill. Francis hopes to raise at least $10,000 for charities, but he also hopes to raise the profile of fatherhood.
“We want to start a new tradition,” Francis said. “Dads don’t get the attention that moms get. But dads are important.”
True, the idea to transform Father’s Eve into more than a gathering of friends in a tricked-out man cave was hatched over adult beverages, but it has a serious mission.
Francis, who’s married and has 8- and 11-year-old daughters, is unabashed about the significance of male friendships. He still hangs out with guys from grammar school and has long relished “guy time” — hunting, fishing and snowmobiling.
But after two tragic losses — his father, Joe, died of cancer in 1994; three years later, his brother, Joey, died in a car crash — Francis realized that he needed other men not just to pal around with, but to be his support system.
“They died before I was even married,” said Francis of his father and brother. “Now 15 years later, I’ve got dad issues. I’ve learned to lean on my buddies.”
Among those buddies are Mike Traynor and Bill Clabots, who helped organize this year’s Father’s Eve fundraiser at O’Gara’s.
Traynor, a district sales manager for U.S. Foods, and Francis hung out as boys and were roommates after college. Traynor’s daughters are five and six years older than Francis’.
“He gets a head start,” Traynor joked. “He has seen what goes on with my kids.”
Clabots, who has known the Francis family since he was in high school, serves as Francis’ “fairy godfather” and as an older-brother “stand-in” since Joey’s death.
“At the end of the day, life is a team sport,” said Clabots, 54, an IT consultant. “None of us has the answer, but sometimes you need a sounding board. By the time you finish, maybe you’ve figured it out yourself. All you needed was someone to talk through things out loud.”
Coming to life
Men are notorious for being unwilling to ask for help — and not just for directions.
They’re more apt than women to deny signs of health issues, and are far more likely to keep it to themselves if they are stressed out about work, parenting or relationships.
That’s one reason Francis chose the Movember Foundation as a recipient of the Father’s Eve fundraiser. The organization, launched in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003, is best known for its global campaign to encourage men to grow facial hair during November to raise funds and awareness for prostate and testicular cancer and mental health problems.
The other charity Francis designated, St. Paul-based Serving Our Troops, focuses on active-duty military personnel and holds a steak dinner and international video linkup each year for soldiers and their families to connect.
Francis admits it will be a big step to move Father’s Eve out of his Taj Garage, a three-car brick structure with finished walls, an upstairs loft and bathroom, and extra-high ceilings.
But he and his buddies believe the event could have staying power, in part because it came together so quickly.
They started talking about the idea just this February. When they approached Dan O’Gara, he immediately donated space in his bar. Others lined up to offer prizes ranging from coolers and grills to tickets to sports events.
A $45 ticket includes dinner and entertainment, such as cigar rolling, hammerschlagen (a competition that involves driving nails into a log), beanbag tosses and “manly door prizes.”
If Saturday’s event is a success, Francis would like to go big with Father’s Eve, expanding to other cities next year. In fact, he sees potential for it to become a nationwide event, akin to National Night Out block parties.
You don’t have to be a dad to attend, he added, but the focus is on bringing men together and celebrating father figures and fatherhood.
It’s a night, said Francis, to celebrate one thing: “Dads matter.”