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Ruminations at 100

HTG friend Richard Bobbe greets his 100th birthday with gratefulness and good humor.  In “Ruminations” he looks back on his fortuitous life and shares his reflections- so inspiring we had to share.

Many years ago, my wonderful old doctor, Burton Goldberg, said to me, “Richard, keep away from doctors.” I’ve tried to follow his sage advice and, except for various joint replacements, and a few “OyVays” here and there, have pretty well succeeded. Voilà! Here I am, observing my 100th birth date! The amazing journey of life continues. So I suppose that this warrants a special celebration.

In sharp juxtaposition is the almost unbelievable fact that in the last three months we’ve lost more than 100,000 people in the US. How are we to celebrate under these circumstances? So many aspects of the life we had all taken for granted threaten to change all around us. In my ruminations a year ago, I posed the question that we all must face, how can we live sanely in an insane world? I’ve concluded that the answer is that we have no choice but to persist and become increasingly active to shift the balance more surely in the direction of sanity. This is up to each and every one of us. And it wouldn’t hurt for each of us to vote 3 times in November.

The pandemic and now, triggered by the murder of George Floyd, the street demonstrations and riots throughout the United States, have highlighted as never before the pernicious interrelationships of race and color, education, health, financial independence, opportunity and quality of life. Much rethinking of social policies and economic consequences up and down the line are required if our democracy is to be maintained and enhanced. (David Brooks’ excellent column in The NYTimes of 6/5/2020 describes an interrelated series of practical steps for gradually overcoming this systemic racism.) Let’s hope that a new president will be capable of providing the much-needed leadership required to begin such a long-range and fundamental and complex restructuring, and to sustain it.

It seems almost paradoxical, yet wonderful, that such fundamental and far-reaching change is brought about within a framework of almost unending natural stability that we fondly refer to as Mother Nature. Fortunately for me, each and every April/May/June, I am witness to a wonderful spectacle, appreciated perhaps more this year than ever before. Right on schedule, the birdhouse on my porch some 10 feet from where I sit at my desk becomes a scene of fantastic activity. The sparrows born and raised in this birdhouse a year ago have now magically returned to continue the cycle of breeding and caring for their own young. A male and female flying in and out to remove last year’s detritus and bring in feathery and other soft materials to nest their own brood. Then, in mid-May, tiny beaks begin sticking out from the opening to be fed by their parents. And then, in mid-June they disappear into their world. This is played out in front of my own eyes and is an annual reminder of the immutable nature of the natural world. As we walk in our beautiful parks and drive on our wonderful highways we should allow ourselves to be reminded of this basic stability.

Happenstance! We can’t control it, but it can make a huge difference in one’s life.

My date of birth, for example: June 4, 1920! Had I been born a few weeks earlier, my entire life would have been completely different. I would have been sent into combat in France. But because I had not reached age 21 upon graduation from Lehigh, my pending commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army could not be issued. Fellow classmates who had by then reached age 21 received their commissions along with orders to report for training before being sent to France. Pearl Harbor occurred that December. Instead, my fortuitous date of birth paved the way to a fulfilling life of pleasure, joy and productive pursuit.

Three people (in addition to my wonderful parents) became so very important to the evolution of my life, punctuated so importantly by my going to the Harvard Business School where I experienced a wonderful, broadening education, and acquired a cachet of inestimable value in enhancing my career.

You never heard of Ted Diamond, but I would never have gone to HBS if it hadn’t been for him. Upon graduation from Lehigh I took a ‘temporary” job at the nearby Office of Inspector of Naval Material. INSMAT was the procurement center for hundreds of suppliers of naval material, including the very large Bethlehem Steel Company. Despite my efforts to be assigned to active duty as a naval officer, I spent the entire war in that office. Among its staff were six naval officers having various technical backgrounds. One of these was Ted Diamond who graduated from Lehigh two years before me and went directly to HBS before joining INSMAT. In discussions and debates with colleagues, I observed that Ted stood out from the crowd because of the manner in which he always provided context and rationale to frame every discussion. I was deeply impressed. Emerging unscathed from naval combat, I decided that I needed to gain some of Ted’s capabilities in order to be as successful as possible in the business world. HBS was the place for me to learn how to do so.

So I filed my application at a time of great competition for admission. After discharge from the Navy, my wife Carol and I bought and refurbished a used house trailer, and traveled throughout the United States for three months. This is where my father did the unthinkable. In one of my periodic phone calls from California, he informed me that I had been invited to come to HBS for an interview, but because I could not get back in time (no air travel at that time), he traveled to Cambridge, MA from Altoona PA, and showed up on my behalf. When we returned from the trailer trip, I was again invited to be interviewed. Introducing myself to the Admissions Officer, he looked up and asked if my father had been there a few weeks before on my behalf. When I said yes, he replied “Anyone with a father like that is automatically admitted. Get out of here!”

Some 15 years and 4 or 5 jobs later, working with various industrial companies (in each of which I took on challenges that had never existed there before), I met and joined with Robert H. Schaffer who had recently begun a unique management consulting practice. A very rewarding 30-year working relationship ensued which continues to this day. The thing was, however, that when I joined the firm I knew virtually nothing about the psych-dynamics of change or what it takes to becoming a successful consultant. Bob, with his sophistication, his concepts about results-focused consulting, and his droll sense of humor, became my mentor. My sense of confidence and my creativity began to blossom as success began to come my way, thanks to him.

As my years have accumulated, I am increasingly aware of the beauty and importance of stimulating strong family and other interpersonal relationships.

“When in doubt, reach out.” And do so with openness in sharing of feelings and opinions. These are matters over which each of us has control. (I am so frequently reminded of the “wow” that I (a recent engineering graduate and naval officer) experienced when in my first class at the Harvard Business School the professor stated that a feeling is a fact, just as much as a cost is a fact.) Think about that! Plus the fact that I had begun to come to grips with not permitting false pride to stand in the way of expressing and acting on my true feelings. These became two very important keys to a successful and rewarding life.

The shutting down of The Knolls (our life care community) in March has, of course, had a profound effect on all of us here, as well as on our friends and family. There is no dining room, no in-house cultural activities, no bus trips to concerts and plays, etc., no committee meetings, virtually no interpersonal contact, as most of us stay in our apartments. An unforeseen result is that Pauline and I have been sitting on the glider on my nice porch, overlooking our beautiful campus and the many trees close by and beyond. Holding hands as we glide back and forth is a source of great joy for both of us. All I can say is, “Thank God for Pauline!”

Aside from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, I’ve noticed that my interests and energy level had begun to decline. The loss of my car a year or so ago and the fact that I am now one year older have all come about during the past year. Despite these, my work as management consultant and executive coach with Managers of the Town of Greenberg continue to be rewarding for all concerned. I have maintained active contact and spirited discussions with former colleagues, former clients and friends. The loss of my car makes it impossible to continue my prior work as mediator and arbitrator for the New York Court system. Increasing drowsiness makes reading and television watching less attractive, and participation in Rhodes Scholar programs less feasible. Clearly, my interests have begun to narrow accordingly. Surprise! Surprise! Despite this, Pauline and I continue having high quality time with each other, punctuated by considerable laughter and commiseration, as we share this next phase of our lives together.

Carol died on the exact date of our 63rd wedding anniversary. What a ride it was! I fantasized her saying to me as she closed her eyes, “Richard, enough is enough!” Although it is now 12 ½ years since she left us, hardly a week goes by that a Carol anecdote, expression, wisdom, humor doesn’t pop into my thoughts, and often into my conversation. My life was fundamentally shaped by her. It was not all a piece of cake! We continue to miss her.

These ruminations would not be complete without remembering, as I often do, Jocelyn with great fondness. Carol’s close and loyal friend of many years became very important to me during the late stage of Carol’s Alzheimer’s, virtually living with me for five–six years. She brought solace, love, great humor to a wonderful relationship. She suffered a severe stroke and died two years later, in 2013. Her loss was a terrible blow.

To my great good fortune, Pauline , a resident who had experienced similar losses timed closely to mine, and I got together a year or two thereafter – developing a loving, mutually supportive relationship which we both cherish. Wholesome and hearty, with a laugh to match, what a wonderful person! Our lives are again filled with joy, love and mutual support. What a blessing!

And to top it all off, my children and daughter-in-law, plus my extended family in Atlanta continue to bring meaning to my life through their affection and caring. This brings to mind what Carol used to say about my daughter-in-law joining our family, “Are we lucky, or what?!”

Adding to the richness of life, I find that the aphorisms cited in my ruminations a year ago are as valid as ever, and so I repeat them here with a couple of modifications/additions.

  • “Participate in the game. It is a wonderful, wonderful opera – except that it hurts”, Joseph Campbell.
  • Unchanging is the need for affection, caressing, loving, nuzzling your partner’s neck.
  • Go to sleep laughing, awaken in the morning laughing.
  • Beware of succumbing to false pride. Be scrupulously honest about one’s self. “It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and look the situation squarely in the face”, WC Fields.
  • Good enough is not good enough.
  • Remember that none of us is without warts.
  • “Everyone likes a bit of honey”, Noel Coward when asked how he felt about being knighted by the Queen.
  • All you need is love, but it doesn’t hurt to eat one or two chocolate truffles or Tate’s cookies – Charles Schulz and Richard Bobbe.
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the cures for anything”, Irish proverb
  • “Truth is beauty and beauty is truth. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know” – Ode On A Grecian Urn, John Keats.

 

Finally, the ultimate existential question asked by Carol’s mother, Minnie Kantrowitz, at age 86, sitting with Carol in her retirement community, “What’s it all about, Alphie?”

L’Chaim!

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