[Life Back West] March 2013 – Lessons from Uncle Ben

English: 1917 Type 1 quarter obverse

It’s been a bad calendar quarter for funerals (two too many) but a good 90 days for learning.

The metaphorical coin that carries what you’d like to keep on one side has something that you’d like to avoid on the other; learning from others while they’re living and learning from others after they’ve passed on seems like no exception.

Burt Lancaster playing the role Moonlight Graham in Field of Dreams notes “we don’t recognize the most significant moments of their lives while they’re happening” and yet it’s those moments that inform our present and once we’re gone, shape our legacy.

I routinely vet clients and candidates as part of my work. I’m curious about the “fingerprints” in the roles they’ve held before, and the people and organizations they’ve left behind. Did they actually do something that was memorable and impactful in a positive way, or were they simply people passing through, like Dr. Seuss’s Waiting Place, clocking time before they moved on to their next stop?

The passing of my friend Gail’s father Dr. Benjamin Covington and the memorial service that followed was one of those learning and fingerprint moments this past week. I’ve known Gail since her son William and my son Traylor were 2-year olds together in preschool; William calls me “dad” and I call him “Son #2.”

There’s the adage that “the proof of the the pudding is in the eating” and the proof for parents – bumpy genetics aside – is how their kids turn out. My psychiatrist spouse notes that “mean kids often come from mean parents” and hunch is the inverse is true; great kids are often the products of great parents.

Ben and his wife Shirley Covington’s terrific kids and grandkids are testament to either luck or great parenting; my bet is on the latter. And from the numerous and kind reflections and eulogies at the memorial service it was clear that Dr. Covington spent every day of his 91 years learning, enjoying life, and teaching to colleagues, friends, or a child or grandchild a life lesson they could apply (e.g. “The less you do the less you want to do”). Dr. Darrell Covington, a nephew, fondly recalled spending a summer with Ben and Shirley. “Every day,” he said, “was a day for lessons from Uncle Ben.

Dr. Covington recognized those significant moments in life. Unlike Moonlight Graham, they didn’t pass him by; he saw them for what they were and got the most out of them.

That sort of approach is an active way to living; there are people to meet, things to learn and do, and a life to be prudently enjoyed. It’s the sort of things that leads to long lives. You can even calculate (examples here or here) what you can expect. A New York Times update on the 80-year long research known as the Longevity Project will tell you even more.

The life that Dr. Covington led involves taking risks though as “doing something” invariably does. In his case it was a career as a surgeon during an era when the American Medical Association refused to admit blacks or refer patients to black doctors, taking a stand for integration of local hospitals, and being a force of change – teaching others is an example of helping people change – when some folks find it easier to sit on their hands.

Can one person change the world?

You can if you’re like Dr. Covington; the proof is in his kids and grandkids, and the many people he taught and helped along the way.

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 above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

1917 Type 1 quarter obverse. Photo credit: Wikipedia




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