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 New Jersey 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.
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.” 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,
“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.””
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