Calif. father, Ellen DeGeneres helped man inspire dads

Keith Sharon
Orange County Register

Ladera Ranch, Calif. –

The life of dad doesn’t always work out as planned.

We had practiced in the car. My 5-year-old son was going to walk to the counter at McDonald’s in Ladera Ranch and order breakfast like a big boy. “I would like pancakes, sausage and orange juice, please” is what we had practiced saying.

When he got to the counter, Trey stepped up and looked the McDonald’s employee in the eye. She said, “What can I get you?” With all the confidence a kid can muster, Trey said, “Ice cream.”

We heard a laugh from the small crowd waiting to make orders. A man gave Trey a high five. He just had to meet the kid who wanted ice cream for breakfast.

That man’s name is Tom Riles, and the 67-year-old Ladera Ranch resident was wearing a hat that said “Life of Dad.”

Who knew the Internet phenomenon that is, with 630,000 followers on Facebook (and 30,000 on Instagram and 14,000 on Twitter) has roots in Ladera Ranch? Tom Riles is the dad who helped inspire his son, Tommy, the warmup comedian on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for the last 11 years, to create Life of Dad.

The Life of Dad blogs, podcasts, videos and hashtags reach an estimated 20 million dads each week around the world.

“It all started when my hand got tingly,” Tom Riles said. “Sometimes, if you expect miracles, you get miracles.”

Health issues lead to blog

On July 5, 2009, Tom Riles’ left hand fell asleep. Strangely, the tip of his index finger turned black and his hand swelled. For months, his condition baffled doctors until he met Dr. Vaughn Starnes, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon. Starnes figured out Riles’ ailment — a blood clot had moved from his heart into his hand.

While he was dealing with his mysterious swelling, Riles’ son, Tommy, was about to become a father. But Tommy’s wife, Lucy, during a prenatal checkup, was told their unborn baby had heart trouble. Tom Riles suggested that Tommy meet Dr. Starnes.

Tommy and Lucy’s daughter, Barbara was born on Feb. 26, 2010. Three days later, she needed open-heart surgery, and Dr. Starnes, in effect, re-wired her heart and saved her life. Today, she’s a healthy and happy 6-year-old.

Tommy Riles, who is 36, started a blog to let relatives know how Barbara was doing. And Life of Dad was born.

At first, the blog had dozens of followers. Then, after a year, the blog had a couple thousand followers, a figure that was boosted by Tommy’s appearance with Lucy and the ever-cute Barbara on the “Ellen” show. DeGeneres explained that Tommy had gone through his family’s ordeal while maintaining a cheerful demeanor.

“He manages to come to work every day with a smile on his face,” DeGeneres said.

A place for everyone

Life of Dad became a clearinghouse for stories and advice. It has features about dads who dunk basketballs wearing khaki pants. About pizza joints. About singing dads, and dancing dads, and dads who braid hair.

It features interviews with Shaquille O’Neal, Ice Cube, John Elway, Ron Darling and other athletes and entertainers about being dads.

A story about single dad Richard Johnson, who wrote a letter thanking Life of Dad for helping him cope after his wife left him, went viral last year, prompting feature stories about the website in People, Us, Time and Cosmopolitan magazines.

“We wanted to make this a destination for every dad in the world,” Tommy said.

It is a website filled with emotion. Tommy writes often about his three children — Barbara, Tommy, 4, and Katie, 9 months.

Last year, when Lucy miscarried, Tommy wrote a blog post to his unborn son.

“Dear Son,

I held you on Friday night for the first and last time ever. It was one of the saddest, proudest, most heartbreaking, and beautiful moments of my life. It was an honor to hold you.

I’m proud of you, son. Even though you only made it halfway through the pregnancy, you have left a mark on our family that will last forever. Because of you, I love my wife more than ever. Because of you, I feel a stronger connection with my kids then ever. When I hug them, I feel your presence ... ”

Tom Riles will break into tears if you ask him how proud he is of his son.

“He’s an inspiration to me as a dad,” Tom said. “He promotes good fatherhood throughout the world.”

As for himself, Tom Riles tells fathers to “Lovingly and unconditionally encourage your children to do what they want to do.”

And what’s the best advice for dads?

“Love your children’s mother,” Tom said.