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A grandfather’s lesson

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A grandfather’s lesson

Happy Father’s Day.

My fraternal grandfather, Phillip, was not an educated man.  His schooling, of economic necessity, ended at 8th grade, after which he went to work.  He and my grandmother Julia raised my father and his elder sister Phyllis from a tiny, two-bedroom bungalow in Joliet, Illinois – always without much money, Phillip working his way up from a laborer to the foreman at a paper factory, she as a homemaker. (In a remarkable coincidence, as a twentysomething employee at public accounting firm PriceWaterhouse, now PwC, I actually ended up visiting that factory as part of a due diligence exercise for a corporate acquisition.  I didn’t realize it until I heard the history of the factory, after which – while still on the premises - I called my father who confirmed that it was the very place my then-late Grandpa worked.  Odd, exhilarating and melancholy all at the same time.)

Again, Phillip never had much money.  But he did have wisdom…and character.  And something he told my father once has resonated down through our family over the generations.

"If you’re going to dig a ditch, make it the best ditch it can possibly be.” 

As my father told it, as a young man he was tasked by Phillip to dig a ditch on the edge of the property for both he and his neighbors.  Pretty menial stuff, but hard work.  My father did as he was told, thinking, basically, “hey, a ditch is a ditch.”  When he was finished, Phillip surveyed my father’s work and gently, but firmly, remonstrated him.  “Son,” he told my father, “it’s just a ditch.  But if you’re going to dig a ditch, make it the best ditch it can possibly be.”  My father went back to digging.

Such a simple thought, but fraught with such profound dignity and integrity. Yeah, it was just a ditch.  But take pride in your work, no matter how humble.  Respect effort and ensure that you do your best, always.

Some time after my father related this to me and my siblings, Grandpa Phillip passed away.  Standing over his grave at the funeral, my brother David asked to say some words before the conclusion of the burial ceremony.  Reflecting precisely my own thoughts at that moment, he tearfully spoke of that very same lesson from Phillip – “if you’re going to dig a ditch, make it the best ditch it can possibly be.” 

It is a lesson that has served our family well.  My father, in a classic American story, went on to graduate with an engineering degree from Purdue University, worked in the private sector for a time, returned to school to get his Masters and PhD, and ended up becoming the President of one of the world’s great public university systems – the University of Illinois.  From the son of a man with an 8th grade education to the head of a world-class university in one generation – and largely due to my Phillip’s lesson of integrity, dedication to hard work and, yes, “making it the best ditch it can possibly be.”

His children – Phillip’s grandchildren – have all gone on to successful careers and have built successful families.  His great-grandchildren are on their way as well, seeing the world and studying at world-renowned universities.  And, again, this upward trajectory of an American family can be traced, at least in part, to the simple but profound lesson taught by my grandfather to his son in their back yard over seventy years ago.

Happy Father’s Day.

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Angus DuBois
Angus DuBois
Contributor
Angus DuBois is the nom de plume of an entrepreneur of 20 years who, in cowardly fashion, prefers to keep his/her business identity a secret. Comments can be forwarded to angus@nexxuspublishing.com.

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