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Dads and Divorce // The children come first

When Tom Tucker got married in 1982, he straightened his tie, laced up his Rockports and kicked his pursuit of the American dream into overdrive. He threw himself into his job as a mortgage broker; it wasn't unusual for him to put in as much as 90 hours a week at the office.

As a result, the inevitable happened. His marriage started to suffer. He and his wife, Linda, sought counseling. But there were signs even that wouldn't help.

"I remember thinking to myself, "Here I am paying $400 a month for counseling, and there's nothing wrong with me. It must be her,' Tucker said. "I wasn't listening to her, which I didn't realize at the time. I was really unhappy with myself and my job.

"And we grew apart."

The Tuckers decided to separate. They owned two houses in St. Petersburg, so Linda and the couple's two young sons remained in one, and Tom moved into the other.

The couple divorced in 1990 and tried to reconcile a year later. But too much had happened, too much had changed, and they split for good.

The Tuckers resolved that they would make their children's welfare their top priority.

"We decided to put the kids first," Tucker said; "to use them as a focal point rather than a bargaining chip."

Tom Tucker made another decision based on the bond he had forged with his children, on his sense of responsibility and, in no small part, on the way he was treated as a child by his own father.

Tucker and his wife would have joint custody of their children, and the kids would remain the center of his life.

He quit the mortage business, got his teaching certificate and landed a job at Bay Point Middle School, next door to the school his sons attend.

Tom has the boys, who are now 8 and 11, every other weekend, on holidays and on alternate weeks during the summer.

In fact, there's hardly a day when he doesn't see his sons. He takes them to school every morning, coaches his younger son's soccer team and takes the boys camping, to hockey games, Arena football games, the movies and on vacations. This summer, the three of them are going to pack up the Pontiac and drive to Altanta to watch the Olympic Games.

Tucker is the oldest of three brothers. Their parents divorced when he was 5. His father, who died several years ago, was a lawyer who, according to Tom, "didn't really like kids.

"I was only around him once a week on Sunday afternoons," Tucker said. "He got remarried, and my stepmom had her own children, so going over to their house with my brothers was like going over to this new family.

"My main focus was my mom. I didn't think about my dad not being around. I played sports since I was 8, but the very first game my father attended was when I was in 12th grade at St. Pete High.

"Because my father was never around, I made a concerted effort to be with my sons. It's like that Harry Chapin song about the cat in the cradle. The father never has time for his son, and then the son never has time for his son.

"My kids are in their formative years. It's a small sacrifice to focus on them when I have them."

Tucker, 38, has turned down job offers that might have taken him away from the area, and he goes on dates only when he doesn't have his sons. As for the boys, Tucker said they have adjusted well.

"Even their teachers tell me they don't observe any of the insecurities of a typical kid from a divorced family.

"I guess I'm trying to make up for lost time when I was working in the mortage business. I was becoming very much like my father.

"But hey, the BMWs and fancy houses are only worth so much. I drive an old Pontiac, but it's paid for. And the kids don't seem to mind."

"Before I know it," he added after a moment, "the boys will be in their teens and I'll only be a sounding board. So I'm very comfortable caring for them when they're fighting with each other or throwing up in the middle of the night.

"It doesn't bother me in the least."