Mario Williams got the shock of his life when he heard that his incarcerated ex-girlfriend was in labor with their child.
At 41, he had five adult children from prior relationships, but he'd never been a hands-on Father of the Year type. His oldest children had grown up without knowing him. And here he was, about to become a father for the sixth time.
Without a wife or a girlfriend to help, Williams wasn't sure if he was up to caring for an infant. But he couldn't ignore the late-night call from prison authorities to pick up his baby.
"I knew nothing about fatherhood, because my father walked out of my life when I was a kid and I left home when I was 12. … I had a ninth-grade education," Williams said. "I thought just taking money home and giving it to the kids was being a father."
Well, I can report that Williams appears to have figured it out.
Today, he's the sole caregiver for his 8-year-old daughter, Mariah. The two of them live simply in what he considers a "shabby" house in North Philly. They don't have a lot of money. Williams works as a community service representative for the Center City District. But what the father-daughter duo lack in material things, they make up for with love. That they have in abundance.
On Wednesday night, Williams was among those honored at the 20th annual Fatherhood Awards and Reception put on by the Father's Day Rally Committee. The theme was "Celebrating the Power of Fathers." Williams was nominated by a committee member who had spotted him interacting with his daughter on public transportation and had been impressed.
"We get the bad rap, as you know, but there are a lot of guys out there who are doing the right thing," said Bilal Qayyum, the Father's Day Rally Committee founder and leader. "There are also a lot of single fathers raising their kids by themselves."
At first, Williams tried hiring babysitters and taking Mariah to work with him when he was a cook at the Drake Tavern in Jenkintown. But he found that his late-night hours weren't conducive to being a single father. He would feel guilty about picking up a toddler at 1 a.m. night after night.
"I said, 'I'm not going to cook no more, because it's not fair to my baby,' " recalled Williams, who got by on unemployment for a time afterward. "So I prayed, and God blessed me with a job working at the Center City District. And the hours were from 8 to 4 and it fit right in with my schedule."
It also allowed him to enroll Mariah in the Harold O. Davis Christian School and Development Center in the 4500 block of North 10th Street in Logan. He drops her off weekday mornings around 7 before heading to work.
"Mariah has been at our school now for three years. Every year, she's been an A student," said Dorsey Mitchell, an assistant principal. "He stays on top of her. … He's at everything. He's at every Black History [event]. He's at every teacher's conference."
Williams, who never got beyond ninth grade, is determined that his daughter's life will be better than his, which included run-ins with the law and bouts of homelessness.
"All I pray and ask God is allow me to see her go through college and be on her own," he told me. "Because all she has is me."