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Detroit — Robert Laster knows what it's like to be a father, but also, as he put it on Sunday in a room crowded with men like him, a dad.

"I not only have a son, I aided in raising four more," Laster said. "So I'm not only a father. I'm a Dad. To be a Dad does not mean a baby of your birth, but you did the same thing that a father did."

Laster, 70, who is in a wheelchair, spoke as his "adopted" son, Willie Barksdale, 49, listened along with scores of others at the first annual Father's Day ceremony and dinner at the Mission Point Nursing and Physical Rehabilitation Center of Detroit.

Old men with surnames like O'Neal, Johnson and Baumgarth, who lived interesting lives and now were weakened by age and infirmities, had powerful stories about fatherhood. That led Tracey Jones, the activities director at the center, to come up with the idea to do a Father's Day celebration on Sunday. Close to 50 men mingled with their dads, ate from a buffet and received awards.

Jones invited former state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. to be the keynote speaker. Durhal implored the fathers to keep living life and mentoring others. Some of the men read bible scriptures, watched inspirational videos and spoke about their fathers and the role they played raising children.

The men seemed forgotten in a rehabilitation facility, said Jones, who started a men's club at the 59-bed facility near downtown.

"Now they express themselves and share their feelings," she said.

So with Father's Day approaching on Sunday, Jones knew that "half of them can't get out" and came up with the idea to celebrate the day. 

Barksdale said sharing Father's Day with Laster "means a lot to me." Barksdale met Laster when he was 12 and the two have been close ever since, he said.

"I've never had my father," he said. "And (Laster) fulfilled that for me. I never really missed that with him coming into my life, so it meant a lot to me."

Edwin Johnson, 76, said the gathering meant a great deal to him because his son lives in Maryland and he doesn't get to see him often.

Shame on those, Johnson said, who missed out on raising their own children.

"There is joy in raising your children," he said.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

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