Making a Difference

In 1998 two couples (the Gottliebs and the Bowers) published a book, 1000 YEARS, 1000 PEOPLE… Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium.  The millennium that they referred to covered years 1000 to 1999.  I love the book.  The short biographical sketches of the 1000 citizens are concise, the writing is crisp and entertaining.  It makes for splendid “bathroom reading”.  Two sketches for a brief stay, four or more for a major sit-down.

#518 Winslow Homer (1836 -1910) the artist of the elements. “He developed a unique style that was realistic and bold, painting nature as he saw it. ‘The life that I have chosen gives me my full hours of enjoyment for the balance of my life,’ Homer wrote. ‘The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice, and thanks.'”

#429 Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940) fiery Russian revolutionary. “It was Trotsky who performed the hardest task: leading the armies that defeated the Tsarist generals.  At his hour of triumph he told a liberal opponent: ‘You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history.'”

#314 Jonas Salk (1914 – 1995) physician who crippled polio.  “Epidemics {poliomyelitis} in the United States had afflicted 27,000 people in 1916… 58,000 in 1952… By 1957, with Salk’s vaccine in use, cases dropped to 5000.”

#262 Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744 – 1812) founder of the world’s greatest banking dynasty. “From selling old coins in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto, Rothschild graduated to money changing before becoming Prince William of Hesse-Hanau’s financier.”

#31 Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) molder of the modern British state. “In forty-five anxious years of rule, she put England in the Protestant camp, unleashed the sea dogs who started the British Empire, and best of all, put trust in that cockpit of popular sovereignty, the House of Commons.”

#4 Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) founder of modern science. “Copernicus popularized the heretical idea that the earth was not central to the universe. For teaching how to search for what was, we rank Galileo highest among scientists. Galileo built the first astronomical telescope, discovered the craters of the moon, invented a better clock, and revealed the laws of bodies in motion.”

Fascinating stuff. 1000 folks who made significant contributions to humanity… who made a difference (albeit, sometimes in a negative spin… Adolph Hitler #20).

But then there is this…

Every year around Christmas, we can turn on the TV and catch Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  And with the magic of Cable, during the Holiday season, you can probably see the film on any day of the week, at any time.  Some folks find it sappy.  Shame. Probably has to do with repeated viewings of it.  It becomes tiresome. Enough already. We get the point.

And the point really is quite simple.  We all make an impact on other people’s lives.  Even George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from Bedford Falls.  And on a Christmas Eve it takes an angel trying to earn his heavenly wings, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), to convince the despondent and suicidal George Bailey to step back from “the cliff”.  And Clarence takes George on a “trip” back in time to create a world that wouldn’t have had a George Bailey.  How would people lives turned out?  What would have happened in Bedford Falls without his presence.

Clarence, “You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”

Regardless of whether the saccharine sentimentality of the film can become cloying, seeing it year in and year out, the message still rings true.

Call me a fool… but I love casting the character of George Bailey against the glittering backdrop of 1000 YEARS, 1000 PEOPLE.  It’s easy… the idea of George Bailey fits right in.  And it serves me well to consider the people who have had an impact in my life and have contributed in making me who and why I am.

I met Gary Moss when we were six years old.  The suburban legend has it that I introduced myself by canonballing him in the Woodbridge CC swimming pool.  But our friendship wouldn’t begin in earnest ’til he entered Hamden Hall in the fifth grade (I had started there in grade four).

In fifty plus years we have had much to share.

Yesterday Gary wrote to me of the passing of his dear friend, “Mary died last night. I’m only sorry you didn’t know her well. Some of my closest friends don’t know each other at all. One can never quantify love and the value of a person, but to me you are all at the same level. It doesn’t diminish our love for each other for me to say this. It enhances it.”

I met Mary only once, when Gary’s Mother re-married.  But I knew of her thru Gary’s references.  And on one level it is surprising that given my closeness to Gary, that there has been so little overlap with the many wonderful friends.  Friends that have been a part of his life… that have contributed to making Gary who and why he is.

But on a different level, the fact that some of his closest friends didn’t know each other, is simply a function of time and distance.  We have lived in different towns, different states… even in different countries.  Our lives have taken us down different paths, pursuits and careers.

From the very beginning Gary has always had the knack for fitting in with whoever was “in the room”. 

Hamden Hall was a very small “pond”.  Still, given our tiny size, there were many different groups of kids and faculty.  And I dare say that there wasn’t a group, clique, upper classmen, underclassmen, teacher who didn’t think the world of Gary.  I marveled at how well he could balance out the disparities between this group of kids or that group of kids. He accepted the differences in us all.  Was very successful at not letting those differences interfere in friendship.

What was true so many years ago, remains true today.  Gary is living a rich and textured life.  He has touched so many lives with his kindness, his sense of humanity and compassion.  It’s no surprise that even casual encounters with the folks where he enjoys his morning coffee become friends and are easily drawn into Gary’s orbit.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Clarence inscribes in a book for George Bailey, “Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.”

1000 years, 1000 people?  Oh yes, Gary has made a difference in my life.  He is in my book.  I’ll put him behind Walt Disney; but ahead of Mozart.

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