[Life Back West] December 2013 – What Would Agnes Do?

She has been dead for over a decade and I still remember the first time we met as if it was yesterday.

Italianate Victorian Painted Lady in San Franc...Over 70, she summoned me from across Liberty Street with a wave of her hand as I wondered what a stranger was doing motioning to me. Newly moved from Chicago, it was definitely not something that would happen in the Windy City unless the person was psychotic.

Come with me,” she said. “The burglar alarm is going off” referring to the screaming sound coming from the large Italianate house, originally built by Judge Daniel J. “John” Murphy in 1878, that stood next-door to my apartment building.

She had a presence that you did not deny. At 6′ 5″, I obediently followed her 5′ 7″ frame. She pulled out a thick key ring that looked like it held the keys to all the houses (and many apartments) on the block.

Go in first” she directed: “It might be dangerous.

While the very impressive house – owners gone for the weekend – was fine, what impressed me most was Agnes.

It turned out she ran the block like Mayor Willie Brown (and now Mayor Ed Lee) handled San Francisco; good things got done.

She had lived on the block forever and had an agenda of the type that builds community; don’t block people’s driveways, pick up your own trash, participate in the yearly block yard sale and help out when you can.

She also believed in keeping private affairs private – whether it was yours or hers – and the only gossip from Agnes was the sort of stuff you would find already published on the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

I have a hunch that Agnes had more than her share of chicken soup runs for sick neighbors, cups of borrowed sugar requests, and an arranged ride or two to the hospital or airport for people on the block.

This week a couple of parents from my son’s school cohort hosted a short-notice going-away coffee with over 100 invitees for one of the families after news broke that their kid would be leaving school to spend next term with another program.

The two busy moms hosting the coffee didn’t have to scramble to sponsor the event – it’s not exactly in their job description – during a really hectic time of the year. But it was a nice gesture for a family that the cohort will miss. Agnes would have approved.

This is the time of year when one standard is “What will Santa say?”

There’s a another standard in my mind at a time when words can be cheap and easy and what really counts is what you do and the actions you do or don’t take. That standard is “What would Agnes do?

So if you haven’t settled on your new year resolutions, here’s one to consider. Be like Agnes; do what she would do. It’s going to be a terrific year!


 Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.

Photo credit: Wikipedia. Italianate Victorian Painted Lady in San Francisco, California.

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