Rebel Hero: A Captain’s Tale

5 Nov
Phillips with wife,Andrea, meeting Pres. Obama (May 2009)

Phillips and wife, Andrea, meet Pres. Obama (May 2009)

Is Captain Richard Phillips an intrepid and courageous American, as proclaimed by President Obama in 2009? Or is he a reckless and irresponsible mariner, as many of his crew allege?  And, can these questions be addressed by looking at his early life?

When I called Mrs. Virginia Phillips at her home in Florida earlier this year, she was tentative, but soon warmed up to talking about her son.  Captain Phillips is back in the spotlight because renowned thespian Tom Hanks produced and starred in the title role of the movie, Captain Phillips.  As you may already know, Phillips captained the MV Maersk Alabama when it was overtaken by pirates on April 8th, 2009 in the Gulf of Aden.  Using cunning and ingenuity, the captain and his crew took back their ship.  Phillips was captured and held on a lifeboat anchored a hundred yards from his mothership.  A stand-off ensued; and when he attempted to escape, the pirates almost fatally shot him.  Through incredible perseverance, he survived until he was rescued by the U.S. Navy on day five of his ordeal.  Richard Phillips became a hero.  President Obama echoed this sentiment, “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew…His courage is a model for all.”

Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips in "Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips in “Captain Phillips” (2013)

Mrs. Phillips enthusiastically described the movie as “a high adventure,” but it has its share of controversy.  First is the lack of recognition for the Navy commander of the rescue team:  A double minority, Michelle Howard would be a compelling heroine in any story, but was ignored in both Phillips’ memoir and the movie.  The larger dispute has to do with nine crew members’ contention that Phillips exposed them to danger, which he vehemently denies.  According to their lawsuit against his employer, Maersk Line and Waterman Steamship Corp, Phillips deliberately ignored several pirate warnings.  NJ Newsday informs us the suit charges that, as Maersk and Waterman’s agent, Phillips was negligent: They “’had begged Phillips not to go so close,’ ‘He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast’.”  In a statement to ABC News, crewman Sagba asserts that at only 240 miles out, instead of the recommended 600 miles, “Phillips did not follow orders, the ship was attacked and he was responsible.”  Indeed, Chief Engineer Mike Perry says, “He’s not a hero — he’s a villain.”

Phillips’ mother dismissed these accusations against her son as pure “jealousy and greed.” However, she deferred praise for having raised a hero, saying it was all his father’s influence: “Rich emulated his father.  James was strong, intense and believed in hard work.” Yet in A Captain’s Duty, Richard extols his mom as “the proverbial glue that kept the family together…she kept the family balanced.”  I asked Virginia what life was like in their house on Wilson Street in Winchester, MA.  She painted a picture of a modest household with shared chores and a strict father.  “He was tough on the kids,” she said ruefully, “but that was just the way it was back then.”  Richard himself remembers his father as a person who “didn’t smother you with affection.”  He jokes that living with James was “like growing up with Vince Lombardi in a bad mood.”

Rich Phillips yearbook (1973)

Rich Phillips Winchester High School yearbook (1973)

The Phillipses had eight children, divided equally by gender. Both taught; she, grade school, and he the local high school Rich attended — Business and Math while coaching basketball and football.  Rich, an indifferent student, “[lurked] at the bottom of the class.”  But the family’s codes of hard work and education were etched into the children from early on.  Fights between the boys were resolved by their father, while Rich turned to his mom when he needed help with a problem or a warm hug.  She taught them to love reading; his father taught them to “Do it right, do it once or not do it at all.”  Though his father never coached him, sports were “the biggest thing” to him growing up.  He gave up football to play the saxophone, (his mom proudly confirms he still plays) because he resented the discipline required.  In spite of this, Phillips attributes sports to how he turned out, “I learned about life, about leaders and followers, by playing sports.  Hell, I learned everything by playing sports.”  Fiercely competitive, he and his brothers were always challenging each other. “I wanted to beat them at games just as much as they wanted to beat me.  You competed among your friends, your street competed against the next street, and your school lived or died by who won the game.”

Captain Richard Phillips (April 2010)

Captain Richard Phillips (April 2010)

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Irish neighborhoods in Boston had a reputation for teenage brawling, where boys (especially) were constantly challenged to be rough and tough.  Richard and his brothers were no exception.  Their mom recalls an easy, independent infant, who “did his own thing in his own laidback way;” growing into an adventurous, strong-minded teen.  Accordingly, Richard admits he was something of a rambunctious wise-guy, prone to rebellion.  Most evenings ended with him and his friends in fights or being thrown out of bars for carousing.

Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Buzzards Bay, MA

Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Buzzards Bay, MA

Richard’s boisterous lifestyle resulted in his dropping out of college.  He spent a few months driving a cab until two chance encounters with merchant marines, plus a recommendation from his brother, Michael, propelled him toward the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.  He describes “a year of constant hazing” in an institution where discipline and regimentation were required at all times.  Richard remembers “It’s a true blue military school, where they broke you down before they build you into a merchant marine.”  Of the 350 entrants who started with Phillips, only 180 men graduated.  He succeeded because, “I was tough, I was a hard worker, and I knew how to learn.” Mrs. Phillips concedes that he came into his own at the MMA.  He was ready – for life as an adult, and for life on the high seas.

Family After Rescue (Virginia Phillips at far left) April 2009

Family After Rescue (Virginia Phillips at far left) April 2009

Before she signed off, I asked Mrs. Phillips how she coped during his capture:  She told me all she had were her faith, prayers and her belief that if anyone could emerge from this, it would be Rich.  It was her confidence in her son’s character and training that kept her hopeful.  According to The Guardian, she was “…sure it’s going to be OK. I know my son. He’s a survivor.”  He himself said in his book’s introduction:  “I should have told the pirates:  I’m too stubborn to die that easily. You’re going to have to try harder.”  Satisfied that she’d shared just enough with me, Mrs. Phillips had a smile in her voice as she said goodbye.

Alas, I was left with still more questions than answers.  My conversations with Mrs. Phillips were shorter than my usual interviews, so I have drawn much of my material from Captain Phillip’s memoir; which confirmed Mrs. Phillips anecdotal musings, but also illuminates a more complicated persona. Flouting authority appears to be an innate part of Richard’s personality:  He “was known for being someone who didn’t back down from a fight;” and seems to think “The need to wander [as a mariner] and the need to rebel go hand in hand.”   In the book, Phillips come across as oft time confrontational, always pig-headed, inherently defiant, intensely competitive:  Similarly, crew members separately describe him as arrogantnegligentstubborn and difficult.

MV Maersk Alabama

MV Maersk Alabama (April 2009)

It may be that Phillip’s primary learning environments helped to produce the Captain Phillips these sailors describe:  We know his dad never verbalized his love for him; we know he grew up in a neighborhood that spurs competitiveness; and we know his coming of age involved uncompromising militaristic training.  Could these factors, coupled with an already intense personality, have sharpened his caustic independence to a perversely dangerous point?  Many could argue that such dysfunctional conditions precipitated Phillips’ fateful pirate encounter.

On the other hand, one could also make a strong case that these very same circumstances fostered a hard worker with determination, leadership skills, a strong personality, self-confidence, and fearlessness. These, too, are all qualities for which Richard is known — he is “meticulous and highly competent,” as The New York Times learned.  One does not, after all, become captain of a 17,000-ton cargo ship without having proved one’s mettle. Shashank Bengali of Mcclatchy Newspapers reported at the time, “Phillips wasn’t the easiest man to work for; “He’s in charge, and he wants you to know he’s in charge,” said Ken Quinn, a crew member. His weekly, taskmaster-style drills, however, probably saved them all.”

Personally, it is hard not to see Captain Phillips as a hero. He did survive five harrowing days as a captive.  And it was under his shrewd command that the crew reclaimed the Alabama.  (This is probably the only such successful case in modern history.)  Things could have ended tragically different had Phillips not exercised his take-charge, fight-back attitude.  What do you think?  Is Captain Phillips a hero or a villain?  And how do you think his upbringing figures into this?

Gold Olympian, Ashton Eaton: Failure Is My Friend

17 Apr
eaton with gold

Olympian! (August 2012)

Which mother’s proudest moment is when her son fails?  Who would proclaim losing a high point in our children’s life?  What type of parent thinks that?

A parent like Roz Eaton:  a beautiful, independent, strong, genuine, Olympic Mom; Ashton Eaton’s mom.  Roz was describing Ashton’s struggle at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Athletics, where Aston failed to win first place.  She says,

“The proudest I’ve been of Ashton as an athlete was in Daegu, South Korea when he was struggling. I saw that he was disappointed in his early performance but he fought through it and earned a silver medal. To me, that moment signified a benchmark in his life as a person and an athlete. I was proud of the young man he had become.” http://www.examiner.com/article/olympic-hopeful-ashton-eaton-reflects-on-his-mom-s-influence-and-rising-career

For Roz to see that as a positive moment, a defining moment, in her son’s life, speaks volumes to the woman she is, and the mother she has always been to the world’s greatest athlete.

Baby Ash (7 Months Old)

Ashton grew up in the Portland, OR area, spending his early childhood in La Pine, then moving for high school to Bend, OR.  His dad was an athlete and his maternal grandfather also played college football.  But no one forced or encouraged a career in athletics, according to Roz, “Track chose Ashton”, and she simply facilitated his efforts.   As a young boy, Ash, as Roz calls him, was already showing a real penchant for physical activity.  He was climbing, running, setting up long-jump in the back yard, and generally exerting real energy toward all things athletic.  Roz enrolled him in Ty Kwon Do and by 13 Years old he had earned his black belt.  By then, he was also running track.

Roz admits to having a hard time as a single mom – keeping a roof over his head, food in the cupboards, and clothes on his back meant working several jobs at the same time.  She did a little bit of everything, and those years are but a blur as she tries to recall what she did when.  The actual jobs were “unimportant” she says.  Her parents would surely have come to her aid, but she’s not that kind of person.  On the other hand, she couldn’t feasibly hold down three jobs while getting Ashton to his busy afterschool schedule.  It is here that Roz relied on everyone else to help out.  Family, coaches, parents, friends, they all made sure Ash didn’t miss a practice, a meet, a tournament or a heat.

Young Ash (circa 1996)

She remembers rushing from work and showing up late for some meets, and seeing Ash’s relief as he acknowledged her presence.  Sometimes she didn’t even have the funds to go see him compete.  In our conversation, she tears up as she remembers the one time the other parents, the coaches and some friends put up the fare for her to get to a meet.  Roz, a proud and independent person, didn’t hesitate to take help when it was for her son:

“I had to rely a lot on Ashton’s coaches,” Roslyn says. “I was straightforward with them that I was a single mom who had to entrust them with my son. I knew Ashton wanted to accomplish something and it was my job to support his dream.”  http://www.parents.com/parenting/celebrity-parents/moms-dads/olympic-athletes-ashton-eaton-diana-lopez-sarah-robles/

By high school, Ashton had already come to the attention of area Colleges.  It didn’t take long for him to decide on the University of Oregon where he trained under Dan Steele and then Harry Marra.  But it was his high school coach, Tate Metcalf, who is most credited with leading Ashton toward a career in the most demanding competition in the Olympics.  Metcalf recognized Ashton’s multi-lateral talents:  his athletic aptitude was noticeably superior and Metcalf honed his skills to a fine art; and then encouraged him to attend a college with a solid decathlon program.  More than that, Metcalf recognized Ashton’s character: in a world of testosterone-driven competition, Easton, is a nicer, gentler, decenter athlete.

According to espn.go.com,

“Coaches had to sit him down and tell him it was OK to max out during workouts, that beating his teammates badly didn’t mean he was humiliating them. But Eaton didn’t start soaring until he started racing against time, distance and himself rather than the person beside him. “

Today, in spite of his winning the Olympic gold medal for his outstanding prowess in ten grueling sports events, Eaton is still gravely under-recognized.  Yet in this world of mega-stardom for lesser athletes, his performance speaks for itself.  His record-breaking feats exceed your time and my space here, but can be easily found at Wikipedia.  Meanwhile, his home-town continues to laud him, naming a highway in his honor and having a huge Olympic parade upon his return from the UK.  And, in the sports world, he has accrued an amazing number of tributes, awards, trophies and salutes.

And he could not have done it without his mom.  In response to a question from Ilyssa Panitz at Divinecaroline.com, this was his response:

Roz and Ashton (2012)

“…My mom and I have been through a lot. But when you think about it, whose life is perfect? It is just really good because we did this together. I had a dream, my dream came true and my mom was there for me every step of the way. We didn’t do this for any other reason. I am so happy she is here to experience this with me. This would not be the same if she were not by my side.”

I first realized how unassuming and gracious Ashton is when I watched the David Letterman show right after the Olympics.  Ashton’s humility is obvious:  he defers the attention, and always recognizes his mom, grandparents, his coaches and the battalion of people who helped him along the way.  I knew I wanted to feature them on my blog. I reached out to Roz via Facebook and was utterly incredulous when she replied with a thoughtful and authentic response.

“… [T]hank you for your kind words regarding Ashton! The truth is, I need to really think about my answer deeply before I respond. Using an analogy that Ashton has used before when describing his competitions; I think while you are in the middle of it–(in this case raising a young man in today’s world) you are so deeply in-trenched IN it, that you don’t see what is happening from the outside view-much like driving a car-it is easier to see what the ‘car’ is doing when you are outside of it looking at it, rather than on the inside of it at the steering-wheel…In any case [one] should go into it with a clear goal–when Ashton has a goal, he writes it in big letters and puts it somewhere he will see it every day.”

I contacted her again a few months later, and she was genial and generous with her time.  We spoke for over an hour and I liked her even more after our phone call.  It was clear she had sacrificed to make Ashton the best he could be.  She said to me, when dinner was meat and potatoes, she ate the potatoes.  Besides working several jobs, she moved when she felt he needed a better environment, and moved again, when her commute precluded her seeing him compete.  She bought him the expensive gear he needed, and surrounded him with strong role models to emulate. He didn’t have “chores”, but he knew he had to help out around the house.  And Roz made sure he didn’t neglect his school work for the sake of his sports.  She wanted him to have better opportunities, and a four-year college was part of that plan.  Ashton’s fiancée, Brianne Theisen perhaps says it best, in the Bend Bulletin:

“Ashton and Roz definitely didn’t have the easiest life while Ashton was growing up, and they had to work for everything they got. Roz is a fighter, though. She wanted Ashton to have all the things that the other kids his age had, and more. She worked her butt off so that he could do all the sports he wanted, and she helped him in any way she could — financially, mentally.

Ashton in Suit

Mr. Eaton (2011)

“But the most important thing is that she taught him how to be a good person. She’d discipline him if he ever treated anyone with disrespect, but she also taught him how to be a tough person and to stand up for himself and others. Anyone that knows Ashton or meets him for the first time is always shocked at how well-spoken and friendly he is. People aren’t just blessed with this type of personality; it needs to be taught. And he’s only lived with his mom growing up, so you know where he learned it from.”

And, even more importantly, while Ashton has triumphed most of the time, she didn’t coddle and protect him from failure.  She made it clear that he has to give his all in everything he undertakes.  During a recent interview  for the Bowerman Awards, Ashton had this to say when asked “what’s next?”

Failure is my friend; when you win you don’t change anything, because you’re winning.  When you don’t win you tend to change stuff.  In this position I still feel I want to change things.  Not necessarily recreate stuff, but kinda just keep the learning curve going…”

Roz Eaton defied the odds to raise a sports phenomenon who remains humble, grateful and  gracious.   I eagerly look forward to seeing this remarkable young man in Moscow for the World Championships this year and at the 2016 Rio’s Olympics.  Below is some basic information about him:

DOB:  January 21, 1988

Place of Birth:  Portland, OR

Complications at birth: none

Birth:  natural, 5 hours labor

Birthweight:  6lbs 12 oz

Breast or bottle:  breast

Talked when: approx 6 mo

Walked when:  approx 8 months

Potty trained when: approx 2-4 yrs

Siblings:  2 brothers and one sister on the paternal side

Birth order:  first born

Raised in: LaPine and Bend, OR

Race: Mixed, Caucasian and African American

Looks:  Takes after his mother

Religion:  Christian

College:  University of Oregon

Early Emotional Intelligence with Yale’s New Prez Salovey

19 Feb
salovey - yale pr headshot

Yale University PR Headshot

The truth is I hadn’t meant to write about Salovey specifically.  I just wanted to see what kind of upbringing resulted in someone becoming president of a renowned university.  It turned out to be a harder assignment than one would imagine, given the format of this blog.

See, most people who attain such stature are generally older.  To put it another way, most of the current leaders of the Ivy Leagues are about sixty years old.  I mean, would you want an unseasoned president running your esteemed institute?  So I was at a loss.  Stumped for someone to interview — given that so few sixty-year olds still have living parents.

Thus it was serendipitous that Yale’s 65 year old President Levin was retiring, allowing for a younger, fresher subject, whose parents would likely be equally younger, fresher and still in possession of their faculties.  Peter Salovey, a life-long intellectual and beloved professor, is poised to become the next president in July 2013 after a 3-month vetting of over 100 candidates. I don’t need to emphasize how prestigious an appointment this is.

But the zenith of Dr. Salovey’s achievements is not his steady advancement into the annals of Yale’s leadership.  A renowned psychologist, his pioneering study with colleague John D. Meyer on Emotional Intelligence, and its speedy assimilation into the psychology of education, business and family dynamics, make for a great story.  I could not have asked a better confluence of circumstances for a new blogject – blog subject.  (Heeey! Did I just coin a word?)

Salovey w/ Infamous Moustache (Circa 2008)

Salovey is hailed by Yale students as a brilliant, accessible, well-liked professor, as this light-hearted piece at the Yale Daily News  on his now-shorn, oft-caricatured mustache demonstrates.  The reason for his heinous ‘stache betrayal?

“Although I loved my mustache, it was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. In these times of economic constraint, I have to find ways of cutting costs. I hope to regrow the mustache in Fiscal Year 2012, following significant financial recovery.”

Errmm, oh-kaaay!!  Not your usual pedagogue…

After joining Yale faculty in 1986, Salovey consistently moved up the ranks, most recently as University provost.  Yale’s Website  lauds their president-elect who has:

  • Been appointed:
    • -Secondary faculty in the Schools of Management and Public Health and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies
    • -Chair of the Department of Psychology in 2000
    • -Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2003, and Dean of Yale College in 2004.
  • Authored or edited 13 books translated into 11 languages and published over 350 journal articles and essays.
  • Won the William Clyde DeVane Medal for Distinguished Scholarship and The Teaching in Yale College and the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences.
  • Received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Such is Salovey’s impressive Yale tenure.  And most would surmise he is following his father’s footsteps as an academic.  The elder Salovey is a well-respected university chemistry researcher with several patents in the field.

But it seems there’s more to the younger Salovey than dry bookishness:

salovey - hippie

Stanford Yearbook

In 1990, Salovey and Meyer inserted “Emotional Intelligence” (EI) into modern psychology to address the importance of emotional maturity in overall cognitive prowess.  Emotional Intelligence is defined, on page 31 of their eponymous work, as “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to pro­mote emotional and intellectual growth.”  Salovey and Meyer propounded that individuals are altogether improved if they tap into their Emotional Intelligence to help with interpersonal relations in every aspect of life.  EI took off as a separate area of study and is now widely used for training in forums as discrete as kindergartens and boardrooms.  (Read a layman’s explanation of EI here).

EI struck me as a sophisticated, complex hypothesis that had to have sprouted from personal experiences.  I sought to uncover what triggered Salovey’s initial interest in emotion, its relation to cognition, and what got him on his path to excellence.

Recently, I chatted with his mother (coincidentally on the day her first great grandchild was born).  And while she requested anonymity, she recalls family plays, where Peter, his brother and sister enacted different scenes from popular literature.  She “always tried to develop their imagination.”  They listened to music, sang and played musical instruments; the family always had a piano, and she played the accordion.  Peter himself reminisces,

“As a kid in the 1960s, I listened to a lot of folk music because my parents – from Brooklyn and the Bronx – were really into the New York City wing of the folk revival and exposed us from a young age to the music of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Hoyt Axton, and many others.”

salovey - double-bass

‘Stache and Double-bass

This was his preface to explaining his interest, and avid participation in, bluegrass music.  Dr. Salovey, you see, is founding member and double bass player of the Professors of Bluegrass Band.  He is also on the board of the International Bluegrass Music Museum.  And apparently, Salovey is one heck of a bluegrass bass player!  (Coverage here).  Not at all what one would expect of a crusty professor, but clearly Salovey is not of the stereotypical mold.

His mother paints a picture of a typical middle-class family.  She was a nurse for fifty years while Dad was a professor.  She couldn’t help but laugh when I asked if they had a maid.  No, she said, she worked because they needed the money to ensure good colleges for the children and because she enjoyed nursing. Taking care of and helping people was rewarding — she was immensely proud of her career.  So the kids had to pitch in; she feels “guilty” now for being “so hard on the boys”, but she “needed the help”.  Laundry, yard work, cleaning, putting their stuff away – everything.  If their toys weren’t neat, she confiscated them.  She worked a shift that allowed her to be home with them, and she “did the best she could”.  Instilling this ethic in the children too, but also reassuring them,

“You don’t have to be perfect…your best changes from day to day.  When you go to bed at night, know that you did your best, whether in relation to people or in your work”.

Peter was always “bright”, studious, enjoyed learning, and didn’t need to be pushed to do his school work.  He was such a good student, when he had to switch high schools because the family moved, the principal of his old school offered to board him, but his mom encouraged him to stick with the family.  As usual, Peter excelled at his new school and was the top student.  At year end, however, in spite of his outstanding grades, the school didn’t want to make him valedictorian as he’d only been there for one year.  His mom intervened and advocated for him to get the honor he justly deserved.  That year, the school awarded two valedictorians.

He was an “easy baby”; later a cub-scout; and wasn’t really good at sports, though he and his brother played little league.  He was in the marching band, and he and his father participated in the Indian Guide.  Peter got along well with his siblings, and was very protective as big brother.  He was always willing to explore new things, but also followed the rules:  crossing the street one day as an infant, Peter reminded his mom to hold his hand, “Because that’s the way we do it!”  She remembers also the time she was a bit tardy getting him from day care, and he looked down at the new wristwatch his grandparents had gifted him, and admonished, “You’re late – I’m handing out the cookies!”  This was at three years old!

To help pay for college, Peter, according to Liz Oliner of the Yale Herald, “…[C]ooked in a Mexican restaurant and assisted an electrician. His most unusual job was at a bank, where he examined signatures on checks [for fraud].”

Salovey and wife, Marta Moret (undated)

Peter’s mom is quick to point out they “only had him til he was eighteen” and Peter’s wife, Marta Moret, a “wonderful woman”, helped make him the man he is. Yet I’m convinced his early family life shaped Dr. Salovey’s outlook to become such an accomplished individual.  It must have helped to be brought up by two parents, both clearly fulfilled in their respective occupations.  Who spent quality time with their children, performing plays, enjoying music, and having fun, even while teaching the value of collaboration and hard work.  All this had to have contributed to his interest in the role of emotions and empathy on cognitive enhancement.

In a nutshell, while his father’s profession must have influenced young Peter, he took that, with his mother’s commitment to helping people, plus his inherently curious and expansive nature, to create something uniquely his:  a double-bass-playing-pioneering-psychologist-sometimes-mustachioed- Ivy-League President!  What do you think?

General Stats:

DOB:  February 1958

DOB:  February 1958

Place of Birth:  Cambridge, MA

Complications at birth: four weeks premature

Birth:  natural

Birthweight:  5lb.

Breast or bottle:  breast

Talked when: late

Walked when:  late

Siblings:  1 brother and 1 sister

Birth order:  first born

Raised in: Northern New Jersey/ Upstate New York

Race: Jewish

College:  Sanford University, A.B. in Psychology and an A.M. in Sociology, with departmental honors and university distinction, 1980

Grad School:  Yale University, Ph.D. in Psychology, 1986

CHRISTIE FOR PRESIDENT! LIVINGSTON HIGH ’78, ’79, ’80

2 Oct

NJ Governor Chris Christie (undated)

I had a wonderful conversation with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s father, Mr. Wilbur (Bill) Christie.  As you may know, Chris Christie was strongly favored for Republican VP candidate until recently.  Governor Christie, by all accounts, declined the honor, saying he has his hands full meeting his commitment to his NJ constituents.  There is widespread speculation, meanwhile, that in four years he may enter the race as a presidential contender.  Moreover, he presented the keynote address at this year’s Republican National Convention on August 28th, in Tampa, Florida – a huge honor, and one many said spring-boarded President Obama’s successful campaign.  This blog, however, is NOT about politics, it’s about leaders in their own fields, and their parents’ insights into what makes them who they are today.

For a 79 year-old man, Mr. Christie, a self-described “wonk”, has an acute memory with a keen recall for dates, names and anecdotes.  An open and down-to-earth man, I can see where the Governor gets his likability.  Bill was forthcoming about everything from Christopher’s birth (natural, after seven hours labor) to his girth (Chris is otherwise healthy).

I explained the nature of my call – my exploration of how excellence is nurtured – and Bill jumped right in.  He plied me with story after story of Governor Christie’s childhood.  He’s understandably proud of his children, bragging about each of them unabashedly but attributing his wife’s efforts to how well they’ve turned out.  He credits Chris’ leadership abilities on being a first child, but won’t pin-point any one thing he thinks makes him who he is today.  Chris, he said, took the responsibility of being the big brother seriously and tried always to be a role model.  His sister, nine years younger, considers him her second father.  The Governor and his brother are close, almost best friends, and have been tight since they were small boys.

I had heard that Chris had been school president, and I asked about this:  not only had he been school president but he had been class president consecutively for years.  He was an active presence who effected policy and stood by his principles.  Bill tells of Chris getting the graduation ceremony moved to outside as he felt the auditorium was too casual and did not allow for the formal seriousness of the event.  He also recounted the story where the new school Head ended a long-standing tradition of displaying the number of graduates on the roof of the school.  The numbers were removed, but sure enough before long, they “magically” appeared again.  Eventually the tradition was allowed to stand.  Bill didn’t come right out and say it, but I got the sense Chris had something to do with those numbers reappearing!  Traditions mattered to young Chris, maybe because that was instilled at home.  For instance, the family always had dinner together when the kids were still at home, and even when Chris became US Att’y, he and his dad kept a weekly lunch date.

Bill and Sandy (as he calls his first wife, now deceased), said “No”, a lot, but said “Yes” often enough.  Here’s his take on bringing up Chris and his brother:

“The main thing about raising boys is you can scare them. I mean, you could. I could scare them both. I might get cross, and I’d be looking, and they said they could tell, my eyes started bulging, that it was time to be quiet,” Bill said. “Sandy was the same way. Sandy was tough on them, so that made it easy for us”.  http://www.amazon.com/Chris-Christie-Inside-Story-Power/dp/1250005868

Bill was a CPA who got his degree on the GI Bill and Sandy was a stay-at-home mom until Chris was in college when she returned to work to help out with tuition costs. Mr. Christie coached soft-ball, but preferred not to coach his own boys, as he didn’t want to appear biased; but I hear the pride in his voice as he remarks that both boys were good players.  Christopher was starter until a new kid moved into the neighborhood and was given that position.  Chris, while crushed, to the point where he even considered quitting the team, stuck it out and was the biggest cheerleader when they won.  Bill used this to illustrate Chris’ team spirit, and unselfish nature.  He also reflected that Chris asked for his advice but he demurred, letting Chris know it was solely his judgment call.

Star Ledger File Photo

Baby Chris, 1963

He chuckled as he remembered little Chris, whom he said was always “mature” for his age:  being the firstborn he was mostly privy to adult company and adult conversations, and as a toddler he inserted himself into that world instead of hanging with kids his age.  Bill also fondly remembers Chris’ bedtime.  Like most five year olds, he liked being read to, but in addition to the usual fairytales, one of Chris’ favorites was a biography of Thomas Edison, which Bill read almost nightly for young Chris.

Respect, it seems, is a recurring theme in the family.  On reflecting on that, the older Christie suspects this comes from Chris’ exposure to the Italian side of his family, his mother’s side, who would tell family tales of Sicilian respect and principles.  In fact, I quoted him an excerpt I’d read about Chris and his mother and he confirmed this was a conversation they had regularly.  Bill remembered the quote and even the source (“As long as you get respect from people, everything else follows.” http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/278597/christie-s-father-i-think-he-would-beat-obama-robert-costa) and I was again impressed by his memory.

One thing I didn’t know about Governor Christie was his long-time friendship with one of my favorite authors, Harlan Coben, a liberal who grew up in the same neighborhood at the same time as Christopher.  Bill drew my attention to this New York Times op-ed, wherein Mr. Coben recounts his first day on the team, when Chris was the first to walk over, greet him and introduce himself.  They remained lifelong friends, in spite of the different trajectories of their lives and their polemic political positions.

I was particularly touched by two reminiscences Bill shared with me.  One I can relate fully, the other he asked for my discretion in repeating:  Even a few years after his wife (and his children’s mom) died, Bill still felt lost.  He didn’t do much and certainly didn’t think about dating.  Chris picked him up one day (maybe for one of their lunch dates) and as they’re driving, Chris says to him,

“Dad, I’ve spoken to the others, and we’re all okay if you want to date again”.

Bill choked up, as he had felt that to think about such a thing would have been a betrayal to his family.  Yet here was Chris, letting him know it was alright to get on with his life.  It was shortly after this that he met his second wife, Fran.  The other incident has more to do with Chris’ life and arose when I asked Bill if he had any regrets in the way he brought Chris up.  He describes an occasion when Chris came to him for approval for an important pending emotional decision, and according to him, his response was harsh because it came from a practical, not emotional, point of view.  Chris was hurt and it showed, but went ahead with his choice. Bill says he’s always been sorry for his gut reaction, though Chris has never held it against him.  And, Chris’ decision has held up nicely for a couple decades and continues to do so!!!

Bill’s favorite story about his eldest child occurred when Chris was in college. And while I’ve been unable to verify this myself, Bill says that Chris, upon realizing that late graduates from Uni. Of Delaware missed the June graduation ceremony, initiated a request for a second graduation, now known as the Winter Graduation.  Chris felt it was unfair for students who had worked just as hard to be omitted from this momentous rite of passage, so got the Uni. Of Delaware to approve another ceremony for these graduates.  Bill believes this example speaks to Chris’ compassion, and his desire to right any perceived wrongs.

After over an hour of chatting, my take-away from my conversation with Bill Christie was this:  Gov. Christie grew up in a middle-class home, with middle class values.  His parents were involved but knew when to keep their distance.  They instilled in their kids team spirit, loyalty, ambition, responsibility, compassion, leadership and independence.  According to Ingle and Symons, in Chris Christie:  The Inside Story of His Rise to Power, the Governor says this about his parents, and his father especially,

Star Ledger

The Christie Family (undated)

“This is what you need to understand: While my father is a wonderful guy and incredibly successful in his career, my father was merely a passenger in the automobile of life. You have a Sicilian mother, she drives the car. You’ll notice all the different bits of advice I’m giving you are coming from my mother. Not because my father didn’t give great advice, he just couldn’t get it in.””   http://www.amazon.com/Chris-Christie-Inside-Story-Power/dp/1250005868.

This formula seemed to have worked for the Christies, Bill is inordinately proud of his children and of the fact that Governor Christie believes his upbringing is what made him the man he is today.  For more scientific minds, below are some basic stats on the governor which may have contributed to his special formula:

DOB:  September 6, 1962

Place of Birth:  Newark, NJ

Complications at birth: premature, by six weeks

Birth:  natural, 7 hours labor

Birthweight:  5lb., 3oz

Breast or bottle:  bottle

Talked when: early, sang his own first happy birthday

Walked when:  16 months

Potty trained when:  late

Siblings:  1 brother and 1 (adopted) sister

Birth order:  first born

Raised in: Livingston, NJ, (moved at 5 years old)

Race: White, Scottish, Irish, and Sicilian descent

Looks:  Takes after his mother

Religion:  Catholic

College:  University of Delaware with a Bachelor of Arts in political science in 1984

Grad School:  Seton Hall University School of Law with a Juris Doctor in 1987

NY GIANTS’ NO. 92 GOES LIVE WITH KELLY AND MICHAEL!

18 Sep

Michael Strahan and Kelly Ripa, September 2012

Recently, television history was made when Michael Strahan beat out strong competition to become Kelly Ripa’s co-host, and Regis Philbin’s replacement on ABC’s nationally syndicated talk-show Live!.  Mr. Strahan is no stranger to history-making.  After fifteen years as a New York Giants’ award-winning defensive player, a Super Bowl (XXXV) Championship and a successful career as a sports commentator, Michael is obviously comfortable being at the top of his game in front of the American television-viewing public.   Indeed, Mr. Strahan is considered a shoo-in for the NFL Hall of Fame in 2013.  Live! with Kelly and Michael launched amidst much fan-fare on September 4th.

I spoke with Michael’s mother, Louise, in August, and again on the morning of Michael’s debut.  Courteous but initially cautious, she was excited and proud to see her baby boy take the spotlight in this new arena.  She was happy he had gotten what he wanted and worked so hard to accomplish.

Mike is the last of six children – two girls and four boys.  Precocious and always happy, he was doing “homework” with his older siblings, even as a toddler, and started school in First Grade, bypassing kindergarten altogether.  He was, Ms. Louise said, something of a procrastinator, but always “a great student”.  Generally described as an army brat, Michael moved from base to base, but spent his most formative years in Mannheim, West Germany.

A rambunctious lot, Miss Louise says the four boys romped and got up to all sorts of shenanigans: but when she had talked enough, to no avail, it was time to break out the strop or the switch and “Let ‘em know who’s boss”!  Nothing could dampen Michael’s irrepressible spirit, however.  She says he was always well-liked, affable and even then, charming.  And beneath all of that there was a fierce determination to succeed.  His parents made it clear that whatever he wanted, he’d have to work for it – and work he did:  Being industrious was a part of his heritage – his dad, especially, being a US Army Major, enforced this ethic; says Michael in an interview with Veterans’ Advantage,

Michael Strahan and Father, Gene (undated)

“Because of my father’s military background, I learned discipline and about hard work.  My father was and still is the biggest influence in my life,” he said.

Mike was always energetic and participated in all sports — his mom coached the basketball team and his dad was a champion Armed Services boxer.  But Gene was the primary influence in his athletic career.  It’s been reported in different sources that Mike would get up at 5:30 AM to run the 82nd Airbourne Unit’s obstacle course with his dad, going for up to five miles at a time, and this when still a youngster. And it is most likely from Gene that he gets his fierce determination to win at all cost.   In his book, Inside the Helmet: Hard Knocks, Pulling Together, and Triumph as a Sunday Afternoon Warrior, Mike describes his feelings after losing a game,

“When you lose, you feel so incredibly sick to your stomach, you want to crawl up into the fetal position and literally hide… you can’t even face the cashier at a McDonald’s drive-through window… After a loss, I feel nauseated. My insides burn. I don’t feel like eating and there is not a single thing that can help me get over it, aside from a win.”

Gene fostered young Mike’s penchant for success, and both parents assured him he could do anything and be anything – but he would have to work for it.  Take no hand-outs, work hard and practice often and keep at it until he got to be the best he could be.  Mike himself admits he hates to lose, but his biggest opponent is always his own last record — he always seeks to up his game.  On his auditions for Live!, he says,

“…after the first time, I was like, ‘I can do better’ and I wanted to do better. I’m competitive.” http://www.extratv.com/2012/09/04/kelly-ripa-on-michael-strahan-daddys-home/

And Gene says, in this New York Times article,

”I never pushed him to come along on those morning runs, that’s the thing,” Gene said. ”We’d be up in the woods trying to stay in shape for this elite outfit, and the next day, he would be right back there. I never asked him to come to the gym. Something was gnawing at him to make himself better.”

It is this phenomenal sense of greatness that makes Michael the unbeaten record holder for the most sacks in an NFL season; and the Giants’ defensive captain who led them to the 2008 Super Bowl Championship.  Mike resigned football immediately after that season and embarked on Life After The Super Bowl.  He parlayed his extraordinary NFL career into a super-successful TV personality, a sports commentator, a TV sitcom, and now his co-hosting spot with Kelly on the Emmy-winning and hugely popular Live!  Filling Regis’s shoes is no easy task, but this six-foot-five linebacker should have no trouble doing just that. In fact, according to Broadcasting and Cable Magazine, Mike’s self-described “two dearly distanced front teeth” smile has sent Live! into “ratings stratosphere”!

In one of my phone calls to Ms. Louise, as she grew more comfortable with me, her smooth, rich Texas drawl became more pronounced when she expressed how proud she was of Michael, because “he always wanted to be something”.  She further explained why she was proud of him,

“One thing I like about him is that even with all this success, it didn’t change his personality – he’s still the same Michael he always was.  Everyone says that about him”.

His parents remain his biggest fans.  I asked her does he take care of them, and she says, “Oh, yes!”, with obvious joy and pride.  Michael himself, in his book, describes how,

“Before I was in the NFL, I told my parents that if I ever made it, I would buy them a house. Ten years later, when I wanted to fulfill my promise, I didn’t put a price limit on finding their dream house. My parents didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, but I also didn’t expect it to be under $500,000.”

Which brings me to the other side of Michael Strahan:  Known to be a popular, charismatic leader, it might surprise many how much family means to him.  The word itself, family, appears thirty-five times in his book, a paperback of only 320 pages!  He goes back often to visit them, and he, his siblings and parents have always had, and maintain, a warm and close relationship.  He considers his family a “solid background that some fellows don’t have”.

Ms. Louise says Mike continues to live by the no-nonsense principles they instilled in him, hard work, earning your keep, honoring your word, finishing what you start, speaking your mind while respecting others, and saving your money for a rainy day.  (And Mike’s generosity and sense of community are well-known:  he helps out several charities, was one of the first sport stars to contribute large sums to the 9/11 fund and he is also at the forefront of the NFL speaking out about gay rights.)

In her warm, well-modulated anecdotes, the stories of Mike’s childhood are funny and spotlight many of their lifelong tenets:

Michael and his Mom, Louise, (undated)

In spite of their being comfortable, the Strahans encouraged frugality and little extravagance – Mike’s favorite meal was “whatever she put on the table!”  He had no choice in the matter.  And when adolescent Mike decided he wanted to become a professional cyclist, a la Lance Armstrong, the bike he wanted was waaaaaay outside their budget.  His parents challenged Michael to raise half the cost and they’d put up the balance.  By cutting lawns, working at the commissary, typing reports for school-mates and whatever else, it took Mike but a few months to present Gene and Louise with his share.  And it was this same frugality that insisted that Mike go to a U.S. High School for a semester so he could qualify for an athletic scholarship.  And when he did get the scholarship, but didn’t want to stay at the college after the first semester, it was the same frugal, finish-what-you-start mentality that kept him there, “My Dad was like, Son it’s free, I am not paying for you now, you are going.” http://juicychitchats.blogspot.com/

Mike’s racing bike still hangs in Ms. Louise’s garage; at least once per year she laughingly threatens to put it out with the garbage.  Mike however, holds on to that bike as one of his first symbols of what can be attained by a dream, determination, hard work, and parental support.

Here are a few basics on Michael Strahan:

DOB:  November 21, 1971

Place of Birth:  Houston, TX

Complications at birth: None

Birth:  natural

Birth weight:  big

Breast or bottle:  N/A

Talked when: normal

Walked when:  normal

Potty trained when:  normal

Siblings:  3 brothers, 2 sisters

Birth order:  last born

Raised in: Army Bases around the country and world

 Race: Black

Looks:  Takes after his mother and father

Religion:  Christian

College: Texas Southern University

AMERICAN HERO. IDEAL SON: TODD MORGAN BEAMER.

11 Sep

Todd Beamer

Todd Beamer is an American Hero.  On September 11th 2001, he, along with other passengers on United Flight 93, was able to deflect a second planned terrorist attack on Washington, DC.  They lost their lives doing so.

Todd is unique in that his last moments were recorded during his conversation with Lisa Jefferson, a random, but now historic, GTE mobile carrier operator who took his call.  Before Todd was an American Hero, he was merely a father, a brother, a husband, a son:  So said his father, David Beamer, when I caught up with him in late August this year.  Thirty-two year old Todd was a wonderful person to all who knew him, but did he show any early signs of heroism?  My call to his father was to find the answers to this, and other questions.  Who was Todd Beamer, what was he like as a child, and under what circumstances and conditions did he grow up?

I was understandably flustered when I placed the call.  That Mr. Beamer had agreed to chat didn’t make it any easier.  Here I was, about to speak to the father of a man who had sacrificed his life to save so many people.  Sensing my nerves (maybe from my babbling), Mr. Beamer immediately took control and made me comfortable,

“Let me talk for a while”, he said.  “You just listen, and if after a while you have questions from your notes, I’ll be glad to address them”.  Relieved, I settled down to hear Todd’s story.

Todd had a normal mid-west childhood and was a “blessed” child in Wheaton, Illinois.  His father was a successful, hardworking executive able to provide private school education for most of Todd’s school career.  His mother was a stay at home mom.  A middle child, bookmarked by two sisters, the young Beamer was an avid sportsman, a great team player and a good student.  According to David Beamer, Todd was a “laid-back guy with a calm demeanor, but he was a competitor”.   He was a leader who didn’t like losing, and he would likely strategize with his team to avoid failure at all cost.  Todd played soccer, basketball and baseball, the latter through college.  David Beamer considers his coaches excellent influences for Todd.

Todd and his dad, David (undated)

Todd grew up with both parents — his dad, and mom, Peggy; married for almost 50 years, they were part of, and still are, a faith-filled family.  Coming from generations of active Christians, Todd was himself a Sunday School teacher at his church in New Jersey.   They like to laugh (and it’s one of the things they still miss) and spend family time together.  His parents encouraged Christian principles and a strong value system.

Mr. Beamer believes it is Todd’s teachers, coaches, mentors, Youth Pastors, and other community role models who reinforced what he was being taught at home,  and contributed to the person Todd turned out to be.  Self-responsibility and consequences were emphasized.

I asked if Todd was different or special as a child.  Mr. Beamer said he showed no undue signs of heroism, with “no S on his chest”, and was a regular, normal kid.  “Todd was not a perfect son, but he was an ideal son”.  I asked for one story which captures who Todd was, and he chuckled as he recounts a great anecdote from Todd’s 5th Grade teacher.  At the start of the semester, as was her custom, she asked all the children in the class to submit their preferred seat-mate by secret ballot – every child in that classroom chose Todd!  He was wildly popular, well-liked and favored.  He lived a Christian and died a hero.  Won’t you want to sit beside Todd Beamer?

In truth, however, after our thirty minute conversation, I gleaned more of who Todd Beamer was, not so much from what David Beamer shared, but from whom I perceive David Beamer IS.  The elder Beamer struck me as a measured, thoughtful, man of integrity.  A displaced farm boy from Sebring, OH, he worked his way up to his current success as a leader in the tech industry and was proud to see Todd doing the same.  He thinks that the community, (teachers, coaches, churches) plays a major role in how children turn out and is grateful Todd had such outstanding influences in his life.  He expressed the hope that this blog encourages teachers and other role models to continue their good work, because they matter in our children’s future.

Panel S-68 of the National September 11 Memorial’s South Pool

He reiterated that he and Peggy consider it a blessing that Todd was on that flight and was able to change the course of history.  They consider it a blessing Lisa Jefferson could speak to their son in his last moments.  It was a blessing, he said, that Todd’s final words were recorded.  It was a blessing Todd knew what was going on – that terrorists had taken over the plane.  It was a blessing Todd could ask for divine mercy at the end, and it’s a blessing that Todd died to save thousands of lives.

blessing???!!!!  In spite of such a heartrending loss, this is his attitude – humble, Christian, and inspiring.  It is clear David Beamer is committed to the old-fashion American Ideals:  Hard work leading to success combined with a deep-seated faith in Christ, counting your blessings, having a strong camp of role models, and doing the best by your country.  By all accounts, and by his actions on 9/11, his only son reflected these same ideals.  Indeed, Mr. Beamer sent me an email this morning, in which he said,

“A major blessing for us on 9/11 was that Todd was Christian on  9/10 … ready to meet God that fateful morning. On this day, the 11th anniversary of the Islamic attack, Todd is having a much better day than I am.”

The Beamers’ formula for bringing up excellence was faith-based, and on September 11, 2001, as Lisa Jefferson recalls in her book, Todd declared he had no choice but to “go out on faith”. Todd Beamer manifested the faith formula to the very end and thus, with his last words, “Let’s Roll!” became a national hero.

Below are some basic stats on Todd Beamer’s early life:

DOB:  November 24, 1968

Place of Birth:  Flint, Michigan

Complications at birth: None

Birth:  Natural

Birth weight:  Normal

Breast or bottle:  No Comment

Talked when: Normal

Walked when:  Normal

Potty trained when:  N/A

Siblings:  2 sisters

Birth order:  middle child

Raised in:  Wheaton, IL

Race: White

Religion:  Christian

College:  Fresno State University, CA, and Wheaton College, IL

Grad School:  Master’s in business administration from DePaul University, Chicago, IL

Date of Death:  September 11, 2001

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