Category Archives: Character

Character Matters – Irena Sendler

By Harris R. Sherline

We often read or hear stories about courage and heroism without stopping to think about the greater meaning they convey.  And, all too often, we make a brief mental note of them and move on with the routine concerns of our daily lives.  But, such stories have special meaning – because they exemplify the best and perhaps most important aspect of personal character: helping others without any expectation of compensation or reward.  Doing good for its own sake.

It happens every day.  A passerby rushes into a burning building to save someone they don’t know, a fireman risks his life to save a dog that’s fallen through the ice, a co-worker donates an organ to an unrelated fellow employee who cannot survive without a kidney transplant, or a woman like Mother Teresa, who dedicated her entire life to caring for those who are sick and poor.  Such selflessness offers hope and encouragement in a world in which we witness far too much hate and violence.

This is the story of a woman who routinely risked her life for two years during the Nazi occupation of Poland to help Jewish infants and children, a woman who received little if any recognition for her selfless, sustained acts of heroism and asked for nothing in return.

In 1999, four high school students in a small Kansas town were asked by their teacher to check out a magazine article he read about a Polish woman, who had reportedly saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and 1943. He said he’d never heard of the woman and speculated that the article may have gotten the facts wrong.  The students followed up as a National History Day project and discovered that the story was not only true but that this heroic woman was still alive at the time.

Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa), a Polish woman, was one of many heroes and heroines of WWII.  Yet, until recently, very few people had heard of her.  A woman of uncommon courage and principle, for two years she risked her life in the Polish Ghetto to rescue some 2,500 Jewish infants and children.

According to a website created to tell her story (www.irenasendler.org), the students “found that Irena Sendler, as a non-Jewish social worker, had gone into the Warsaw Ghetto, talked Jewish parents and grandparents out of their children, rightly saying that all were going to die in the Ghetto or in death camps, taking the children past the Nazi guards or using one of the many means of escape from the Ghetto – the old courthouse for example – and then adopting them into the homes of Polish families or hiding them in convents and orphanages. She made lists of the children’s real names and put the lists in jars, then buried the jars in a garden, so that someday she could dig up the jars and find the children to tell them of their real identity…The Nazis captured her and she was beaten severely, but the Polish underground bribed a guard to release her, and she entered into hiding.”

As an administrator at the Warsaw Social Work Department during the war, Irena began making false documents for Jewish friends when the war started in 1939.  From 1939 to 1942, she made documents for people in the Warsaw area, helping many to escape before she joined the underground Zegota and started saving children.  She had a network of helpers (twenty-five at one time), almost all social workers, who rescued both adults and children from the Warsaw Ghetto, made false papers for them and found places to hide them.

Irena was eventually caught by the Gestapo and put in Pawiak Prison, where she was tortured and had a leg and arm fractured.  Zegota bribed a guard to have her released in the night to a member of the Underground shortly before she was about to be executed, and she remained in hiding throughout the rest of the war.

EPILOGUE
Irena passed away on May 12, 2008 and was buried in a Warsaw, Poland cemetery.

The great irony of Irena Sendler’s story is the fact that she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was awarded to Al Gore, a man whose own character is highly questionable.   However, I believe she will be remembered long after Al Gore’s name has become just a footnote to history, demonstrating once again that character matters.

© 2008 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved
NOTE: Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at “opinionfest.com.”

Too Many People Go To College

Issues & Views Editor Elizabeth D. Wright has graciously allowed us to reprise timeless articles from her Newsletter. This article suggests that it’s time to reconsider the benefits of a practical, entrepreneurial education.

by Leon Podles

Despite today’s worship of the college credential, most real wealth in our society is still gained not through education and the professions but through entrepreneurial activity. Higher education as it now exists in America simply doesn’t develop the qualities of initiative and aggressiveness necessary to succeed in business. Often it undermines them.

American education can be particularly inhospitable to males. Patricia Sexton in The Feminized Male shows how energetic and assertive boys are punished because they cannot function in classrooms taught by women wl assume that the quiet, non-physical behavior of a girl is the only type prop to school. Active boys consequently often do poorly in school. This is an especially massive problem in America inner cities, where the boys grow t with fewer civilizational restraints c their innate male natures.

Few of these overactive boys will ever become great successes in a world of conventional academic schooling They could excel and become productive citizens, however, if directed instead toward work, practical vocation and business. Consider that when teacher describes a student as aggressive or physically active, she is saying he is a problem. But if a businessman or trades employer describes a worker as aggressive, he is paying a compliment.
The most aggressive boys have always gone into business. Today, the poor ones often end up dealing drugs.

Boys who go the legitimate route, however, can end up being very productive indeed. In 1995, the U.S. Trust Company surveyed a sample of America’s biggest earners and found that less than half of them had completed college, while 29% never went at all. Instead of learning to conform to academic expectations, they were out adding value, making products, and earning money—in ways that are not taught in schools today.

(from: I & V summer ’95; orig: American Enterprise: Sep/Oct, ’95)

Black History Month – Yadda Yadda

by Ronald Court

When famous soprano Leontyne Price was hailed by an opera critic as, “perhaps the greatest black opera singer of all time, ” she responded with, “What’s black got to do with it?”

Exactly.

Her fierce dedication, discipline, training and hard work – in a word, her character – not color,  defined her.

Yet news & feature editors around the country today are still rummaging through their archives for old columns to recycle in commemoration of February as “Black History Month.”

Expect articles on the usual suspects:  Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., and my favorite, Booker T. Washington. Still, it seems a bit patronizing to ‘commemorate’ one month in twelve to a few famous people who happen to be of a particular race.

Maybe it’s time to emphasize color less and character more.

According to John Adams, the American Revolution occurred in the hearts and minds of the American people years long before shots were fired at Concord and Lexington. He saw the War for Independence as merely an “effect and a consequence” of the real American Revolution.

Similarly, the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency is merely the “effect and a consequence” of changes that occurred in the hearts and minds of people over several years (decades) leading up to the election. Note also that Michael Steele, a black American, was just elected to lead the Republican Party. Both events underscore that America has at last entered a post-racial age.

It is not how we look, but how we live that defines us.

Maybe it’s time to emphasize color less and character more.

Though Dr. King’s dream that people not be judged on the basis of color has been realized, his dream had a second part: that people be judged on the content of their character. In this, he echoed the practical vision and teachings of Booker T. Washington. When it comes to character, Booker T. wrote the book. Literally. His book, “Character Building,” a compilation of Sunday evening talks he gave to Tuskegee students is online and free for download at www.BTWsociety.
Sadly, much of Dr. Washington’s timeless wisdom and plain advice has been ignored by too many for too long. And we all, to one degree or another, suffer the consequences.

If, as WEB DuBois wrote a century ago, “the problem of the twentieth century (was) the problem of the color line,” what will be the problem of the twenty-first century?
The economy? Terrorism? Global warming? Political corruption? Reasonable people may differ as to the degree one presents a more “clear and present danger” than another. But these terms merely describe the effect and consequences – not the cause – of the actions taken by multitudes of individuals.
Each of these problems have at their root, a failure of character by individuals.  Thus, the problem of the twenty-first century will likely be the problem of the ‘character line.’

If the solution to the problem of the color line lay in emphasizing civil rights, I humbly suggest that the solution to the problem of the character line will lay in emphasizing personal responsibility.
Rather than “black history month,” why not, say, “character month?” Though the temptation to have government attempt to change society from the top down will always be with us, history shows that the slower way, by changing the hearts and minds of men and women from the inside out is the only true, lasting way.

This is real hope and change we can believe in.

“Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee”

By Harris Sherline

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was perhaps the most widely recognized taunt during the years that Muhammad Ali dominated the fight game. He was and is a larger than life personality, transcending even the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, which sidelined him some years ago.

But, the Muhammad Ali most people remember, especially America’s seniors, is a man who overcame every obstacle he encountered on his way to the top of his profession, exhibiting uncommon strength of both character and will as he went. He is a towering personality, still beloved by people around the world.

Without question, Muhammad Ali was the most famous African American of his time and remains among the most widely recognized faces on the planet, widely remembered as one of the greatest prize fighters of all time, if not the greatest, a three-time winner of the heavyweight world title. Famous for his prowess in the ring and his ability to promote himself, he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a billboard sign painter and a household domestic. He was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., which Ali changed when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964.

However, “Aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod for controversy, turning the outspoken but popular champion into one of that era’s most recognized and controversial figures.”

There was a time when Ali was reviled and attacked by many of the very people who later came to admire him. During the Vietnam War, he refused to serve in the United States Army, on the grounds that he considered himself to be a conscientious objector, stating, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”

I remember, at the time, most Americans thought his claim was merely a ploy to avoid serving in the military, that he was ungrateful for the opportunities and financial success he had been able to achieve in this country. But, he stood firm, not only adhering to his Muslim faith but having to deal with having his title stripped from him.

Ali said, “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Ali also famously said in 1966: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong …They never called me nigger.”

When he appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces in 1967, Ali “refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other boxing commissions followed suit.”

The jury gave Ali short shrift, finding him guilty after deliberating for only 21 minutes. He received the maximum sentence, which was upheld on appeal in New York, and the case subsequently went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he ultimately prevailed. After not being able to fight for three-and-a-half years, he regained his title in 1974, defeating the then champion, George Foreman, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Held in Zaire, Africa, the fight was billed as the “The Rumble in The Jungle,” drawing the largest audience in history at the time.

Although Ali has been faulted for many of the choices he has made during his lifetime, he is a living demonstration of the fact that “character counts,” displaying uncommon courage and strength of character by converting to the Muslim religion in the face of widespread intolerance, refusing to yield in spite of the damage to his reputation and the loss of his livelihood, and the threat of losing his freedom. He was clearly prepared to go to jail for his principles.

Today, at age 66, dealing with the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, Ali is a living example of character and grace. Notwithstanding the various shortcomings and perhaps his less than exemplary behavior at various times during his earlier life, Ali has become a model of courage and dignity for all to see and emulate. Traveling throughout the world to participate in a wide variety of events, he has become one of the most beloved figures of our time, a living example of the fact that character counts.

Blessed with a gift for words, Ali has made many quotable statements. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is perhaps the best known, but others truly exemplify his great character:

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.

I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.

Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.

I never thought of losing, but now that it’ s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.

Old age is just a record of one’s whole life.

To be able to give away riches is mandatory if you wish to possess them. This is the only way that you will be truly rich.

Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.

We have one life; it soon will be past; what we do for God is all that will last.

What keeps me going is goals.

© 2008 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved

NOTE: Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at “opinionfest.com.”

It’s a Crisis of Character, not of Financial Markets

By Reggie Jones

Booker T. is said to have defined character thus: “Character is Power.”

Character is “how you behave when no one’s watching.” The present financial crisis is a wake up call to recognize the importance of character. The so-called leaders of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, along with their enabler politicians, are largely responsible for actions that brought us to the financial brink. Yet the media blames it on a lack of oversight and under-regulation, claiming Republicans weren’t watching the store.

But the real question is, “Why the need for oversight?” Don’t responsible people know the difference between right and wrong?

Yet, in today’s society, highly paid people, from athletes to politicians even US Presidents have engaged in illegal and immoral activities and do not hesitate to lie when caught. Oversight? Meaningless when fans and political parties stand behind them.

Finding celebrities without character all too easy, making it all the more difficult for young people to withstand pop culture pressure and develop proper character. Yet the bitter fruit of the lack of good moral character among so many is all too apparent. Skyrocketing out-of-wedlock birth rates among young and younger teens. Rising rates of sexually transmitted disease (STD). families break down.

But speak out against these trends and you are labeled as judgmental. Success is less and less defined as living a constructive, productive life, but more and more by having more ‘bling’ than the next guy.

Booker T. Washington never wallowed in self pity for lack of ‘bling,’ nor for being born a slave. Rather, he used his struggle as motivation to improve himself. He refused to hate white people, choosing to seek common ground through forgiveness. He understood and applied the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness.

He showed that character – above all – was essential to attaining success. He also defined character as having a strong faith in God, keeping your word, taking responsibility for your actions, serving your fellow man, exercising thrift in financial affairs, and following the golden rule.

If more people on Wall Street and at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue adhered to Booker T.’s ideal and model of character, our country would not be having to deal with our present moral and financial crisis.

On Leadership

By Ronald Court

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I was about to share some thoughts on his leadership. But many have already said much. I may only repeat.

Instead, I want to share the gist of a recent article on leadership in Chief Executive magazine highlighting the Best Companies for Leaders.

For the last three years, Proctor & Gamble has been rated #1 or 2. Here is what P&G’s CEO A.G. Lafley, has to say:

“We focus on individual leadership… How can you personally become the best leader that you can be? … We talk about inspirational leadership because we want courageous and inspiring leaders. The days of command and control are over.”

“We are a pure meritocracy. We don’t care where you went to school, whether you have an MBA, or what your country of origin is.” Lafley continues. “All we care about is that with character and integrity, you deliver outstanding business results… Do that and you move ahead.”

On this day, let us remember that Booker T. Washington had a dream also. A dream that MLK Jr. embraced and honed and clarified with his own powerful rhetoric. Let us also remember that even as today’s politicos pontificate, there are hundreds, thousands of companies, big and small, who have already proven that the dreams of Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. are already a reality to those who would pursue them.

Head, Hands & Heart

By Ronald Court

To help yourself
And your fellow man,
Train your head,
Your heart, and your hand.
       Langston Hughes

Mr. Hughes paid tribute to BTW in 1941 with The Ballad of Booker T..

Booker T. may even have coined the phrase “heads, hands & heart” for I can’t find anyone using it earlier he in the 1880’s. BTW surely made it famous… and years before any “4H” Club came into being. For the record, Booker T. also widely preached the 4th “H” (Hearth…Home).

Among Booker T’s many abilities was a rare ability to express in plain and simple terms, his refined and sophisticated philosophy. He “connected” with people everywhere. Today, to become “self-actualized” in fancy-shmancy psychological terminology, one “engages the Mind Body & Soul” (read… Head Hand & Heart). Booker T. was here way before “New Age” came along.

To be a whole person, you cannot divorce training the heart or soul from the mind or body. By heart, Booker T. clearly meant living a moral life. with character… and faith. I’d like to believe that Langston Hughes, darling of the Harlem Renaissance, got that.

Sticks & Stones

By Ronald Court

I let no man drag me down so low
as to make me hate him.

BTW’s signature

It seems that especially lately, a lot of people have gotten upset over the “n—” word. It is a reprehensible word. But the recent incidences brought to mind a response I was taught as a child. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s not entirely true, of course, for words can hurt… and also heal when said sincerely.
Why do some words cause our blood to boil, and others cause us to collapse in laughter or weep in joy? How did they get to wield such power over us? I believe the answer’s simple, if uncomfortable. It’s because we let them. We forfeit our own personal power over our emotions.

Easier said than done, I’ll admit. I’m sometimes offended, but it’s because I let someone get to me.. It’s not business. It’s personal.

“Sticks & stones” serves as a first line of defense to give us time to get back control of our emotions.

“I let no man drag me down so low as to hate him.” Booker T. gives not one inch in those words. And what character… showing that love overcomes all. What CharacterPower.

Mt. Vernon

By Ronald Court

I hope the BTW Ambassador Scholarship students, parents and teacher/mentors the Society brought to Washington from New Orleans this April watched the news tonight reporting on the Presidents of the United States and of France touring George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate. It reminded me of the evening the Society treated them to dinner at Mt. Vernon and a special evening tour of its museum.

Actually, we had booked a special private evening tour of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon home for them, but were “preempted” at the last minute by Nick Cage and his Hollywood film company shooting scenes to a sequel to “National Treasure,” their film about stealing the Declaration of Independence in order to preserve it.

2 BTW Ambassadors at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon Estate Museum‘/>

Still, the museum was opened up for our group to tour and view an exciting multi-media presentation of the independence of our country. In a way, there are two “Fathers of our Country,” both born Virginians, both named Washington and both inspired millions to become independent.

Inasmuch as all our BTW Ambassador students this year were from New Orleans, a city founded by the French, perhaps having walked the same grounds as the Presidents of the US and of France at Mt. Vernon will hold special meaning for them. I hope so.

Character, Not Color

By Ronald Court

A while ago, ESPN Magazine did a story on 24 year-old NBA star Boris Diaw. He came to America from France three years ago to play with the Atlanta Hawks. He’s with the Phoenix Suns now..

He found America’s obsession with race odd…
His closest friend on the Hawks, Josh Childress, said, “He couldn’t get over the fact that there was separation between blacks and whites here. “He was like, “In France, we just look at people as people, not as black or white.” He’d ask why it was like that and Childress didn’t have an answer for him.

Booker T. had the answer. And you can pass it on.
It’s what’s inside that counts, not outside.
It’s Character, not color.