We normally don’t recognize the genius of those among us until they die. Van Gough in the art world. Dickerson and Poe in literature. Galileo in Physics. Or Mendel, the father of genetics. The same holds true of heroes. Often, people become heroes as a result of their final act leading to death. More often, we simply fail to acknowledge a heroic individual until their death. Which is sad.
My Dad is my hero. He is alive, so I am taking the time to recognize him as a hero while he breathes. He inspires me. I owe much of my success to him. Leadership, I learned from him. Dad inspires others who know his story. Heroes are not saints — my brothers and sisters would be the first to remind you. My mom, if still alive, would also testify. But this is not about my Dad as a great father or husband. My guess is Dad is within the standard deviation of average in these areas. This is about my Dad as a hero for how he has thrived against all odds. Alive today. I recognize my Dad and the things he teaches all of us about leadership.
Dad didn’t grow up playing marbles or riding tricycles down the street. He grew up poor, and born to an unmarried mom, which made the two of them instant outcasts. But she was strong, and her steely resolve would save Dad’s life and enable an entire generation. At 8 years old, he found himself locked in a cramped cattle car, standing in human excrement. This was no ordinary train. This was the death train. Destination concentration camp. Only Dad would survive.
Separated now from all family except his mom, he spent nights foraging for food in dumpsters behind the guard’s mess hall. One evening as darkness fell, his mom kissed him goodbye. Under the cloak of darkness, weeping, released him to a guard. He was thrown into the back of a supply truck. Outside the barbed wired fences, the French underground took over. He would never see family again. Thank goodness for nuns who risked their lives and hide Dad from the Nazi’s as they ransacked their sacred convents searching for Jewish boys. Three years later, war machine still raging, Dad was taken by the Swiss underground traversing the Alps. He found shelter in a Jewish home for orphaned boys. A few years later, the world healing from war, teenage Dad was sent to New York, where distant relatives agreed to sponsor him. He eventually settled across the river in New Jersey.
Despite this horrific childhood, Dad made something of himself. He did not complain, nor seek pity. Nor handouts. He took advantage of being drafted and followed the US Army to Germany. Dad would bring healing to the land that sought to destroy him. He considered it a privilege to return and rebuild. My Dad met a beautiful young Fraulein who, scared by the ravages of war, was ready for love. Soon thereafter they were married for what would last 50 years.
My Dad didn’t get rich as an enlisted soldier, but they made do. He served in the US Army for over 20 years. A distinguished career including a Vietnam tour, he received the bronze star for valor. Following his service, Dad took odd jobs and enrolled and completed college, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business. With this, he embarked on another 20-plus year journey as a civil servant, with tours at the US Air Force Academy and Peterson Air Force Base. His passion was officiating soccer, for which he had a world-wide reputation for excellence and fun. In addition to collegiate and semi-pro games, Dad became the only official in any sport to eject (red card) a sitting President (Bush 41).
Dad boasts of his 7 children (The Magnificent 7, as he calls us), 20 grandkids and 7 great grandchildren… and counting. All siblings are highly successful professionals and persons with advanced degrees. In the expanded family, we have teachers, pilots, scientists, social workers, engineers, programmers, officers and clinicians. From the ashes of hatred was forged a strong and resilient family impacting the world for good.
Dad remains active and travels constantly to see his family. While Dad’s reach may not be as far and wide as some, he is a hero no less to the many he touches.
Leadership Lessons from my Hero Dad:
- Don’t let what tried to destroy you, destroy you. Lead in the opposite direction. My Dad could have turned down his multiple assignments in Germany but chose to stay to ensure a holocaust could not be repeated.
- Make things happen, don’t wait for things to happen. Nobody would have thought less of my Dad if he gave up. He had the perfect excuse to fail. He persevered and things began to happen.
- Give thanks in all circumstance. My Dad continues to give thanks for the guards who worked with the underground to enable his escape. Thankful for the nuns who hid him for many years. For the Swiss guiding him over the Alps to freedom. For the orphanage sheltering him until his USA adoption. Most of all Dad is thankful to his Mom, who sacrificed her body to enable his escape.
- Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere. Embrace your situation. Acceptance is the first step to healing and success.
- Take responsibility. It is your life. Don’t wait for others or blame other because life is not fair. Take action.
- Vision is everything. Many times my Dad could have given up, but he had a persistent drive to succeed. He survived the unimaginable knowing something better awaited him.
- Success comes from hard work. If you want to succeed you have to be willing to work hard. My dad worked hard and out hustled others more gifted or resourced.
- Choose love over hate. Many become bitter when life deals tragedy. The impact is so severe that many never recover. You must decide to walk in the other direction. Even when it hurts.
My hope is none of us will ever face the injustice and tragedy my Dad and his contemporaries did. If so, may we emerge heroes like Dad. I love you Dad!
This piece was written by Ed Marx, CIO at the Cleveland Clinic. To follow him on Twitter, click here.
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