Attending Michigan State University and graduating with a baccalaureate degree were my most significant accomplishment in my early life. After I established my professional career, in an effort to ‘give back’, I became involved in the local and national alumni associations and have done so in some capacity for over 35 years.
This summer I attended our annual alumni cookout and met two board members of an endowment that was created for students at MSU’s, Eli Broad College of Business. I also sit on the national Board of Directors for MSU Black Alumni which has a sizable endowment at the University. As MSU alum we are all committed to assisting undergraduates in any way we can. We’ve been through it so we understand the challenges that students face while matriculating at the university. We’re doing as much as we can to make sure that students get all the way through the process from application to graduation by assisting them with tuition, room and board, academic counseling, tutoring, and expenses for books and travel abroad.
During our discussion that day the board members and I talked about the issue of legacy. I mentioned a friend who was a surgeon by profession to the board members, while we were discussing how to better serve undergraduates at MSU. I mentioned my friend anecdotally because he has become for me the working definition of legacy.
My friend had been the head of surgery at one of the hospitals at the Detroit Medical Center. He retired from his rigorous position at the DMC in his early fifties to become a consultant at the contract agency for Social Security Disability here in Detroit, Michigan. The Surgeon approached me, shortly after I was hired at the agency, to show me a picture of – “the fastest white man in Michigan” – his son, a sprinter on the University of Michigan Track Team. Our love of Big Ten Athletics, extra dry Martinis with anchovie stuffed olives and fine dining in the early afternoon made us fast friends.
Right after his son’s graduation, The Surgeon set the 22-year-old up in a Plumbing Contractor business owned by one of his associates. The Surgeon’s long term goal was for his son to take over the Plumbing business. They had mapped out a long term strategy long before graduation and stuck to the plan.
The money that the surgeon earned, as a consultant at our agency, was also part of a strategic plan. The money he earned was not for himself but for his grandchildren. He worked at our agency for almost 15 years, after he retired from the DMC, to insure that his children’s children would have an advantage that most middle class Americans only aspire to have.
When my friend passed away over 10 years ago, no one had to set up a Go Fund Me account for his home going. Throughout his work life, while he was a viable earner, he ensured that his wife, his children and his grandchildren would never be in financial need just as his father had done for him, a generation before.
Knowing The Surgeon and his family, breaking bread with him and becoming a trusted friend, allowed me to have a first hand view of the mechanics involved in the establishment of a legacy. It’s one thing to understand a concept but when you have an opportunity to see a living example of a concept it serves to enrich your world view. The Surgeon was among a handful of men – like my father, a few educators and an exceptional neighbor – that left a lasting impression on me and became a source of guidance in this path that I am following.
When most folks die they may have an insurance policy that covers their burial expenses, a house and a bank account. Personally and professionally, I sometimes watch in dismay, as families struggle to bury love ones because of insufficient funds or they fight over the remaining assets that their loved on struggled to accumulate. While I was married, I watched in silent horror as an in-law squandered volumes of cash – at casinos, on vehicles and on vacations – that took the decedent decades to save.
Americans – particularly Gen Xers and Millennials – seem to have an immediacy about life that precludes saving and planning for their futures. Post war Baby Boomers like me were part of an emerging middle class. Our ethics and expectations are very different from our children that have never had the same struggles as we encountered.
I fear for our country and for our way of life because of the ‘in the moment’ attitude many younger Americans possess. I had a great mentor for over 10 years who taught me the value of legacy. And long before that I had parents that instilled a strong work ethic in me by example.
Throughout my work life, I’ve given my time to my family, to the communities in which I’ve lived and to my University. I don’t feel as if I’ve had any other choice. As a child of the 60’s, I know that if “I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem!” Our society has more than its collective share of problems. From an early age I wanted to be an asset to my family and the community. Knowingly being a liability is too great of a burden for me to bear. Generations of people have sacrificed their very lives to make life more comfortable for you and me.