The Big Deal

June 25, 2011

My Dad was a "no nonsense" guy. Although he gave us the heritage of family relationship to Thomas Jefferson via a prominent old Boston family, he was as down to earth as they come. Truth be told, he was not very impressed with all that stuff. After the war (World War II), he refused to accept his family's help, including his parent's help, to follow in the family tradition of going to Harvard in the name of saving money (another fine Bostonian tradition) so he went to the local State school and never looked back. He never wanted to take advantage of any privilege he might be afforded due to his family connections.

When I was younger, I thought he was wrong. "Why not use all that to get ahead?", I often thought to myself. As I got older, I found myself acting like him, thinking like him and talking like him.


This is Dad standing in front of Thomas Jefferson's grave at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. Dad often used pithy phrases to make his points. "Money doesn't grow on trees." "We need to get down to brass tacks." "Be thankful you weren't born on the streets of Calcutta." There are a lot of quotes I could put with this picture and they could be correct. Truth of the matter is, I can't remember exactly what he was talking about. But, this type of gesture he is making with his arm was often used with one of his favorite phrases – "What's the Big Deal?" Sometimes he would utter it in conversational tone. Usually he would bellow it out with mock pomposity making sure the listener (often me) got the point that he was acting way too big for his britches.

Working with our family issues at Monticello was the last cause Dad took up before he passed away. I had never seen him so passionate and involved with people. He had just gotten over a cancer scare and had been down for a couple of years. Getting involved with family energized him like I had never seen before. It inspired many of us who watched him take to the microphone at family meetings or when buttonholing family or press on the side. I remember one particular trip to the Hemings Reunion in 2003. On the long drive from Dulles airport to Charlottesville Dad was "pontificating" about what we were going to do this trip. The stream of advice was non-stop. One of his major points was to ignore the press completely. The important thing was family. After we arrived at our hotel, I got us organized in our room, while he took off to find the rest of the family. When I tried to find him, one of my cousins mentioned he was in the bar – with a reporter from the New York Times! I thought surely our cousin was mistaken, but there was Dad, deep into conversation with a guy from the Gray Lady and his photographer. As I listened in, I could tell he felt this was different. This was vintage Dad – talking to folks as if they were normal people, just trying to make his point. He gave no thought to "20 second sound bites" or spinning a phrase just the right way. (And doggone it, he got quoted more than I did!) Isn't that interesting that in a place and set of circumstances where one really ought to be at least a little pompous, Dad was just being himself. He was no different in Charlottesville than he was at home growing up in Kansas or in later years in Denver.

(At the end of the reunion, the family "adopted" this NY Times reporter and photographer, as well as another.)

Over the past few years I have slowed down. As I observe life go on around me whether in the news, at work, at church. at home, or in the mirror, I see what he was talking about. There is a lot of chest thumping and posturing going on. There are a lot of folks that think they are the cat's pajamas. There are a lot of people and things promoted as a 'big deal". After what I have experienced, I am not impressed anymore – with myself or the self-important others and their plans and schemes. I've kind of figured out that the ones that are really doing the most good in this world are the ones that aren't spending their time "tooting their own horn" (another Dad phrase) but are quietly and effectively doing what they can with what they have been given. They aren't interested in building a name for themselves or their company, church or organization. They aren't interested in being a "Big Deal".

You know what is really funny about all this? As much as Dad wasn't interested in the press, celebrity or being out front, he really was a "Big Deal".