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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?

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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.”

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

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.”

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

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