June 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Father's Day tribute: Dad's work ethic showed Lions coach Jim Caldwell the way

The Caldwell family: From top left, Lions coach Jim, his dad Willie, his son James II; from bottom left, grandsons Trey and Joshua. (Special to Detroit News)

Willie Caldwell never missed a day of work in 35 years with General Motors.

Caldwell, 80, the father of Lions coach Jim Caldwell, set the bar high for his two sons and his daughter, letting them know from an early age about responsibility and work ethic.

“People have to look outside their home to find a hero or a role model,” Jim Caldwell said. “Mine was right there within the confines of our home.

“I thought he was the strongest guy in the world. I thought he was the fastest man in the world. I thought he was the smartest man in the world. I idolized him, and for good reason. He was dependable, he was an excellent family man, and he worked extremely hard.”

Caldwell stressed how important it was to grow up with a father in the home. He can’t remember a time his father missed any important moments in his children’s lives. He also can’t remember a time his father wasn’t working two jobs to provide for his family.

“He had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit,” Caldwell said, smiling. “He would work for a stretch there for General Motors in the evening, he had a night shift, but during the day, he ran his own little tire company. Also at one point in time, he and his friends owned a small resort in Lake Ivanhoe, Wis., just outside of Lake Geneva.

“He always had something else going. He provided for us in a tremendous way. Although we were certainly a blue-collar family, we had everything we needed.”

When Willie Caldwell was a youngster in Mississippi, he had a job delivering fresh bottled milk, jumping on and off the truck. He told his son he’d worry so much about being late, during the summer he would take his blanket and sleep on the ground beside the truck.

“He knew the truck wouldn’t leave him,” Caldwell said, laughing as he told the story. “Worst-case scenario, he’d hear the truck start up and he’d be able to jump off the ground.”

The Caldwells ran a strict, disciplined household.

“One that required we do things the right way, the honest way,” Caldwell said. “It was a fundamental Christian home, so we couldn’t always do everything everyone else did, which taught me a lot of different lessons.

“It taught me, No. 1, how to be different. I’m not afraid to be different. Never have been. The other thing that my mom (Mary) and dad instilled in us, I’ve always felt I could do anything, absolutely anything. I didn’t think there were ever any limits.”

Willie Caldwell was strict, but he also learned from his experiences growing up and applied that to the upbringing of his children.

“He wouldn’t allow us to work during the school year, only during the summer,” Jim Caldwell said. “He wanted to make sure that we lived a bit different life than he did.”

The Caldwell family will be together Sunday, Father’s Day, to celebrate the wedding of Jim’s daughter, Natalie, in North Carolina.

Caldwell is grateful his parents, both 80, are able to travel and will attend Lions games this season.

Jim Caldwell knows that while he is established in the world of coaching and has enjoyed numerous successes, it still means everything to make his parents proud.

“All of us, to a certain degree, want to please our parents, no matter how old we get,” he said. “We don’t ever want to embarrass them. We want to live our lives in a way in which it represents the family well. They would expect that.

“That’s the great part of winning in our profession. When you’re at the pinnacle and you win it all, it’s not necessarily the elation you feel for yourself, for the team, the players, the other coaches, and to me, it’s seeing it on the face of your loved ones.”

Caldwell was a member of the Colts when they beat the Bears to win Super Bowl XLI. The game was played in rainy conditions in Miami.

“My father was the happiest wet 73 year old I’ve ever seen,” Caldwell said, laughing.

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

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