August 11, 2006
It is so wonderful this evening to be in the presence of a number of our college students, both undergraduate and graduate, some of you studying here in New Orleans and many of you elsewhere, a few of you heading off to college for the first time. Your mere attendance this evening is a source of uplift for us all. We know that this past year has been difficult for you. Even if you have been away from New Orleans, your focus has been on your home town and how it will recover. You’ve lost houses and friends and familiar landmarks, been constantly identified and heard, “Oh, you’re from New Orleans. I’m so sorry.” Perhaps you had a typically great year and felt guilty when thinking about home. I hope you are aware that we do not begrudge you your joy in the least. In fact the opposite, it is what we wish for you.
As most of you know, I am not an impartial observer of this process. Monday morning, bright and early, Sara and I will be heading to Texas for her sophomore year. So my challenge for this evening was to present a message that will speak to the students, the parents and all in attendance without embarrassing my daughter too much. As is often the case, my wife Lynn came to the rescue. Earlier this summer she handed me a book with those famous words: “It might be good for a sermon.”
In the spring of 2004, Tim Russert, NBC journalist, best known for his interviews on “Meet the Press”, wrote a book entitled, “Big Russ and Me.” It details his relationship with his father, a sanitation worker from Buffalo, New York. As a result of that book, he received hundreds of letters from men and women telling their stories. And so he collected them into a second volume: “Wisdom of Our Fathers- Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.” As parents we communicate what is important to our children knowingly and unknowingly, through our words and our deeds. I will share a few of these anecdotes that speak to us all and go beyond the parent/child relationship.
The first involves a young man, who unfortunately received a facial scar as the victim of a violent crime. He confided to his therapist that every time he shaved and saw that scar, it triggered painful memories. The therapist asked him to change his frame of reference and if he ever had watched his father shave. The young man smiled, then shared how as a child he would watch his Dad and occasionally his Dad would put shaving cream on his face and “shave” him. Many of us have similar memories I’m sure. The counselor urged the scarred young man to bring up that memory each time he shaved instead of how he was assaulted, to which the young man wrote: “Precious memories are made in an instant and last forever. I am so thankful that my Dad had the patience back then to let me ‘shave’.” My comment is simple enough. We never know when we make a memory. The most insignificant act can make a difference.
A second story teaches us that the behavior we model can teach more than many words. In 1990 a father and young son, both of whom were football fanatics had four tickets for the NFC Playoff Game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. They went to the game planning to sell the extra two. Arriving early, they enjoyed a tailgating experience with at least 25 people trying to buy the tickets, but his father did not sell them. The boy figured his father was holding out for a higher price closer to game time.
As they approached the gate to enter, he observed his father scanning the crowd of would-be buyers. To his amazement he witnessed his father approach another obvious father with his young son and sold those tickets at face value. Years later the son writes: “I did learn something that day- something about having principles and doing what is right. I know today that my father got more enjoyment out of seeing that father and son watch the game right next to us than if he had sold each ticket for a small fortune. In doing so, he taught me a lesson I will never forget.” Indeed there are some moments that are more precious than thousands of dollars.
Of course parenting involves the mindset that there are teachable moments upon which we must seize. One Sunday morning a father and son were walking together in New York City, when they passed in front of Riverside Funeral Home, one of the major Jewish funeral homes in the City. They stopped for a moment, interrupted what they had been talking about and the father asked his son what time it was and what did he see? “It’s 10:30 and I see lots of people walking into the building.” They continued their conversation, but the boy realized they had not moved. A little later, his father again asked the same questions. “What time is it and what do you see?” He responded, “10:50 and I see people leaving the building.”
The boy was confused as his father explained, when someone dies, there is a funeral which lasts 20 minutes, to which the boy asked, “Why are you telling me this, I am only 11?” The father responded, “Because I hope you will live a long and productive life, that you will be aware of your surroundings, that you will stay out of trouble, and that you will be thoughtful and cautious. And above all, that you will always know in the back of your mind that someday your entire life will be summed up in twenty minutes.” We each need a measure of humility as we approach life. We are all part of a much bigger picture and contribute our part to the world.
We can choose how to approach life and its challenges. The final story is illustrative of this point. An 85 year old man was stricken with cancer. He instructed his doctors that he wanted to do all that was possible to fight the disease. One day while sitting at the hospital with his daughter waiting for some blood work, he turned to her and said: “You know, I’ve had a very good life. True I was in a concentration camp for five years and lost my first wife and child, but all in all, I’ve had a very happy life.” To which his daughter wrote: “What could I say? He did have a happy life, because he believed he did. I put my hand on his and we waited quietly together.”
It was the Jewish psychologist, Viktor Frankel, a survivor himself, who wrote about how it is up to us to deal with adversity. Horrible moments may come into our lives, but it is our choice as to how we will deal with them. Certainly that is a precious insight for us all.
One last word… In the introduction to this book, Tim Russert speaks of his own son, who is heading off to college for the first time. His words could be our words to you our students and to all of us. “Study hard. Laugh often. Keep your honor.”