We all learn life lessons from our parents. Some stick, some don’t. Here’s one I learned from my father that stuck with me.
It was the early sixties. We lived on Willow Street in a middle class neighborhood of two and three-family houses. My dad was a funeral director. When my Irish ancestors arrived in New York harbor in 1865, I guess they decided a recession-proof business was the way to go. My dad had a Harvard MBA but when his dad got sick, responsibility roared and he came back home to run the family business. He did it every day until he died at age 55 of a heart attack, when I was 14.
The biggest lesson I learned from him though came one day as we were walking to early Sunday mass. Just the two of us. He wore a dark blue Chesterfield and grey Fedora and I wore my parochial school uniform – green blazer, white shirt, grey pants.
I felt like a big deal walking down the street with my old man. He was a big man at 6’2″ and knew everyone in town. He had buried most of their family members. I was proud and thought he was the best dad on the planet.
He would stop and talk to people, including an old bent-over Italian guy named Joe, who was the street-sweeper. Joe was from the old country and spoke broken English. They would talk about the weather, his family back in Italy, anything.
One time I said, “Dad, why did you talk to him? He’s the street-sweeper.”
He looked at me for a second and then put two fingers on the back of my neck – the Irish version of the Vulcan Death Grip. I knew a lesson was coming. He said, “Why? Do you think we’re better than him?” Stupidly, I said “Yeah, aren’t we?”
He started all his lessons with “listen”. He said, “Listen, we may be better off than he is, but we’re not better than he is. Get it?” I didn’t really, but I said yes anyway.
It wasn’t until years later after he died that I really “got it”. I realized that since he saw people at the end of life, he was in a position to understand that to God we are all the same. Judge and laborer or doctor and bum all present the same in a casket.
That is when I learned the lesson of respect. Based on that, This I Believe.
If we are to succeed in this life and beyond, we must try (emphasis on try) to respect everyone we meet at every stage and station in life.
In a 28-year career on Wall Street, I have leaned many lessons but nothing I learned on Wall Street has ever matched that one simple lesson my dad taught me on Willow Street.