This was originally posted in June, 2012. I am posting it again as a tribute to my wonderful Daddy on Father's Day. On August 24, 2013, he “slipped the surly bonds of earth” and made his Great Escape in the wee hours of the morning. What a ride he had in his 95+ years, and how grateful I am for the gift of his life and love.
Elizabeth Herbert Cottrell
Hey, Cinderella, who's your fella?
You are, Daddy!
Yep, we really have started many phone conversations like that, and not just when I was a little girl! As I write this, Dad will be 94 years young in July (2012). What a privilege it is to reflect on all he’s taught me over my own 62 years.
Before he was my Dad, he was a hero
Dad, also known as Grandy, Uncle Jim, or Jim Herbert, served as an Army Air Corps fighter pilot during World War II. He flew 14 combat missions in P-38s and 43 missions in P-51s over Europe and far into Russia, earning the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He served his country bravely, and I know how proud he is to be an American. Thus one of the earliest lessons I learned from him was this: America is worth fighting for.
After the war, he returned to his family farm in Virginia, married my mother in 1948, and raised five children there. I am the oldest.
A different kind of courage
One of Dad's most principled stands came in 1957 when he resigned his commission after the Little Rock desegregation intervention, firmly believing that the US military should not be used against its own citizenry. In the context of the times, for a southern man living in a southern state, this was an act of significant courage.
Lessons spoken and unspoken
Like most fathers, Dad's lessons were sometimes spoken and sometimes conveyed by example. I'm sure I’m forgetting some of the things he taught me, but these life lessons make a pretty impressive list:
About meeting people
- Give them a firm handshake and look them in the eye. Throughout my life, especially in situations where I’ve been the only woman, I’m complimented on my firm handshake. It's not a bone-crusher…just nice and firm.
- Tell them your name. “You know yours, and sometimes they know theirs.” For a long time, I didn't understand what he meant by this. Now I'm amazed how often I introduce myself to someone at a party or networking function and they smile but don't tell me who they are. I’m good at connecting, but I’m not telepathic!
- You only have one chance to make a good first impression. No, we shouldn't judge others by their appearance, but Dad knew it was human nature to do so. Being clean, neat, polite, and friendly are important when you meet folks for the first time.
About going out in public
- Remember who you are and what you represent. I never went out on a date when this lesson wasn't repeated at the door. You can bet it's advice I passed down to my children too. Our reputation is too hard won to risk it doing something stupid.
- Avoid the appearance of evil. Teenager translation: Don’t come out of the bushes (with your date) looking guilty and disheveled. Of course there are plenty of adult applications for this lesson too!
- Be prepared. Before I left the house, Dad always asked if I was carrying a safety pin and enough change to call home (obviously, this was before cell phones).
- Don’t fret about what you’re going to wear. When I was asked to go to a dance, I worried about whether I should wear a short dress or a long dress, plain or fancy. Dad reminded me no matter what I chose, there would probably be someone better dressed than I was and someone less well dressed than I was. “Just go and enjoy yourself.” Being self-conscious is a waste of emotional energy.
- Set the bar high, but don’t give up on people if they fall short: Dad expected us to do our best and abide by the standards he and Mama set. While I certainly didn’t want to disappoint him, I never doubted his love for me, no matter what I did or didn’t do.
- Reach out to others when they’re in trouble. Dad said of one friend, “If you called Milton in the middle of the night and said you needed him, he'd come before he ever asked you why.” I’ve always thought this was so powerful and worthy of emulation. Dad followed Milton's example of faithfulness in frequently visiting friends in nursing homes. When we went out on dates, he was sure to say: “You can call me anytime, day or night, and I’ll be there if you need me, no questions asked.” I never had to take him up on it, but I never doubted he’d do it.
- Look for the good in people. Dad had two friends who were severe alcoholics. They let him down time and again, but he never abandoned them, and he continued to love them for their finer qualities.
- It doesn’t grow on trees, but it can be used to create happy memories. He spent money to create opportunities for fun and learning: a treehouse, a little sailboat for our farm pond (both of which he built), surfacing the driveway so we could skate and ride bikes.
- Balancing your checkbook regularly is important. He was on the board of our local bank, and unbeknownst to me, a list of customers with overdrawn accounts was circulated at each board meeting. My name was only on that list once. Now I keep track of my money and balance my checkbook regularly.
- Happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want. Dad didn't mean you should accept any miserable situation. He meant it's important to count your blessings and not expect happiness from more acquisitions you think will make you happy.
- Pay yourself first – set aside 10% of everything you earn and consider it untouchable. He gave us, and other young people, a copy of The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason, which beautifully illustrates this principle.
- Compounding of interest is your best friend. Dad showed me the amazing math behind simple compounding and how small amounts of money, with interest reinvested, can add up over time. Here’s a nifty little calculator that clearly shows the power of compounding interest.
About encouraging young people
- Take time to write letters. I recently helped Dad clean out his files, and there were quite a few carbon copies of letters he had written to grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and young people from church, congratulating them on milestones or encouraging them in some way. In each letter, he included some advice to help them in life. I’ll bet I’d find the originals of those letters in many desks across the country.
- Share inspirational writing. Heaven only knows how many copies of books or poetry Dad gave to young people when they graduated from high school or college. His favorites were Sir William Osler’s A Way of Life, George S. Clason's The Richest Man in Babylon, and Rudyard Kipling's poem “If.”
- Let children know you care. When we were growing up, Dad always kept balloons in his pocket. When he wanted to get a child’s attention, he’d pull one out and blow it up, thus earning the title The Balloon Man. In later years, he discovered pocket-sized squeeze flashlights. He still orders them by the gross and gives them away generously, especially to children. He is known far and wide for these unique gifts.
- Teach children to broaden their skills. Dad taught us how to drive by taking us out to a grass runway at a neighbor’s farm. Long before we were old enough to get our driver’s license, he trusted us to drive on the farm. By the time we were on the road, we were steady and confident. He made sure we were good swimmers and knew the basics of boating, tennis, snow and water skiing. He didn’t care if we excelled at any of these activities, but he wanted us to be able to enjoy participating safely if we were ever invited to do so. He also taught many of our friends to swim and water ski on our farm's lake. And here’s one that can bring the house down at a boring cocktail party—he taught me how to call cows when we wanted them to come get the hay we brought into the field.
About life in general
- Get enough sleep. Most people go through life chronically fatigued and don’t realize how their sense of well-being would improve if they were rested.
- Avoid indecision. That feeling of being torn in different directions when we have a decision to make is miserable and paralyzing. It's best to weigh your options as quickly as you can and make that decision, one way or the other. My version of this is, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”
- Don't let others gossip or be malicious in your presence. Dad had a neat little trick for this. If you find yourself in a group where mean things are being said about someone, look at the ringleader and say innocently, “Oh, but she's always saying nice things about you.” Works like a charm.
- Live until you die. He is living life to its fullest, even if that means something entirely different at 94 with a myriad of health issues than it does when you're younger. It's good advice for any age, and having problems is no excuse.
- God comes first. Dad and Mom heard our prayers every night and took us to church every Sunday. Dad said grace at every meal, and he wrote a family prayer we used for special gatherings such as Christmas and Easter. I have come to realize that having such a loving father has helped me get a glimpse of the incredible love my heavenly Father has for me. What a precious gift of faith this was.
- Family is a close second. Our lives revolved around family. Dad and Mom rarely went out, but they planned picnics and gatherings we could enjoy together. This included outings with the cousins who visited a nearby farm from South Carolina every year. They made sure we knew our grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
- Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t his wisest lesson, but we all thought it was hilarious. We didn't really eat dessert before dinner, but like my Dad, I still eat ice cream with an iced teaspoon to make it last longer.
About community service
- Support your community. Every summer, Dad took us to the Marshall Fireman's Carnival and gave us money to spend. We had a ball while supporting our local volunteer fire department.
- Support the causes you believe in. Dad served on several boards of organizations he felt were important to the community’s well-being. His community service included our county hospital, the local bank, and our church.
So you see, Dad…I really was listening! And these lessons have made so much difference in my life. Thank you!
Hey, Cinderella, who's your fella?
You are, Daddy! Yes indeed, you still are!
Captions from top to bottom:
Jim Herbert/Dad – the cocktail napkin reads “If life gives you lemons, just add vodka.” Photo by John A. Cottrell, Jr.
Capt. (Later Maj.) James Herbert on the wing of his P-51 D Mustang, September 11, 1944.
Dad celebrating his 90th birthday in 2008 with my mother (center) and his two sisters. Photo by John A. Cottrell, Jr.
Squeeze flashlights given by Dad to be used as favors for his granddaughter's rehearsal dinner are raised in a toast to him since he couldn't be there in person. Photo by Rob Herbert.
Dad with three of his “girls” – me, my mother, and my daughter. Photo by John A. Cottrell, Jr.
Capture your own parents' stories or write your own autobiography with the tools in Dennis Becker's excellent e-course: Writing Life Histories for Fun and Profit. I highly recommend it, and the price is amazingly low: http://www.elizabethrecommends.com/LifeStories.