A Letter to Grandchildren

March 31, 2011

Dear Grandchildren,

That song is from a show called “South Pacific”. It was a Broadway Play in 1949 and later made into a movie. Besides being a wonderful show filled with great music, South Pacific was one of the first dramas to address the questions of race and discrimination. Another song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” dealt with the fact that we are not born as racists, we must be taught to hate for no good reason.

I trust that your parents have not taught you to hate people simply because they are different. I’m sure you’ve been taught to judge people based on their character, and nothing more.

In the meantime, have you been taught the importance of having a dream? I failed to have a dream when I was young, and I’m afraid I may have discouraged your parents from having dreams. If nothing more, I failed to encourage them to sit down and give ample thought to what they hoped to get out of their lives.

As a child, I went through the typical dreams of the time – to become a star professional athlete, a fighter pilot, a fireman, and so on. But it wasn’t until I was nearing the end of my high school education that I gave it any serious thought. In truth, I gave little serious thought to anything at that time. That is why my grade average was a dismal “C”. I had the ability to do much better, but I had no reason to try. That’s what a serious dream would’ve given me.

Late in my senior year I decided that I would follow the foot steps of my older brothers. I would join the military (to avoid being drafted), serve out my required time, and then get a job driving a tractor-trailer across America. All three of my brothers had served and seen parts of the world I could only dream about – see! We can dream about lots of things! The two oldest brothers were local delivery truck drivers. I wanted to go beyond that and use the job to see the rest of our country.

Fortunately, one of my older brothers saw more promise for me than I did and convinced me to think about other options. At the time, I had started going back to church and was very impressed by our minister – John Latta. In talking with him, I decided I wanted to be a minister too. He sent me to talk to a younger minister at a church in downtown Pittsburgh. That’s when I learned that I could not enter the Presbyterian Seminary unless I had a Bachelor’s degree from a college.

I was a few weeks away from graduating high school and hadn’t even bothered to take a college entrance exam.

I went and spoke to the Principal of Langley High School – Harry D. Book – and asked his advice. That was the beginning of the whirlwind. Mr. Book recommended I apply to Edinboro State Teachers College and arranged for me to take the SAT in late June. He also wrote a glowing letter of recommendation to the admission office in Edinboro.

I scored surprisingly high marks on the SAT and received my letter of acceptance in early August. Classes began a week after Labor Day and I was on my way to becoming a member of the clergy.

The same brother who suggested I give serious thought to my future paid for my basic education for the first year. That amounted to about $1,000. Too bad those prices are a thing of the past.

For spending money, I got two campus jobs. I worked in the cafeteria and the Student Union. My pay was $0.75 per hour. Now do you understand inflation?

That first semester, I hit the books hard every night and finished with a 2.7 grade point average. That was almost a “B”! Unfortunately, by the time the semester came to an end, my “dream” of becoming a minister had faded. It was still there, but not as strong.

From that point on, I stayed in school for only one main reason – to NOT disappoint my family. I was the first of my siblings (also the youngest and last chance) to attend college and I had to graduate. In 1966, I did graduate… with a “C” average.

I still didn’t have a dream. I still had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I managed to get a job teaching emotionally disturbed children in a mental hospital. A year later, I was teaching emotionally disturbed children at an inner-city high school.

Through a series of lucky breaks, I then landed a job with IBM. I held that job until I retired. I made a good salary and provided a good home life for my family… from a financial standpoint. As I mentioned earlier, I think I failed my children in a number of ways… especially when it came to developing a realistic dream.

When I look back on my own life, there were many wonderful experiences and I did manage to accomplish at least one of my dreams. I’ve traveled all across our country and seen all fifty states. I didn’t get to drive the big truck, but I did travel over many of the same roads.

But what about the other aspects of my dreams? I never became a professional athlete, a fighter pilot, or a fireman. While I have been involved in the Stephen Ministry and have done extensive work with the homeless and needy, I never attended a seminary and was never ordained.

What I have done is pile up a number of doubts and questions. What could I have achieved if I had really applied myself and worked harder in school? What would have happened if I had entered the military after college (I had given that some thought when I had trouble finding a job) and made a career out of it? Could I have retired as a General? What if I had stayed in the field of education? Could I have become a college professor?

What if I had held off getting married and traveled the world when it was much safer and cheaper to do so? Would I have met a girl in Korea or Switzerland or Brazil, gotten married and spent my life in that country?

Obviously, none of these questions can be answered. I do know that beyond the questions and doubts I am happier now than ever. I have a wonderful wife, great children and step-children, and fantastic grandchildren.

It’s those grandchildren I’m thinking of as I write these words. I want each of them to sit down and think seriously beyond Justin Beiber, fire trucks, trains, and any of the other faddish things that can quickly grab the attention of today’s youth. I want each of them to realize that the jobs they are training for most likely don’t exist right now. Technology is changing everything.

So, we all (it’s not too late for me to develop a realistic dream!) need to think about the things that interest us the most – beyond Justin Beiber (can you tell I have a number of granddaughters?) – and begin studying subjects that fall into that general category. By all means, nail down the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. If you have those basic skills, you can learn anything.

Take the time to develop a dream you can hang on to for the rest of your life. Don’t let life just happen. Know what you want and make the effort to get it.

See! This grandpap can do more than tease!