I recently perused a local art shop looking for a gift when I began to take notice of the portraits of famous people - famous people who had affected my childhood. What struck me was that I had never given it much thought. For all intents and purposes, I didn't think I had any heroes. I admired my parents to be sure, but I didn't follow sports teams all that much until I moved to Pittsburgh in 1974. But even then, I wouldn't have called any of the Pittsburgh Steelers my heroes, or even role models. But as I looked at the paintings of hundreds of famous people, four stood out as individuals that had a profound affect on my life, although I hadn't realized it before.
The first man that caused me to say, I want to be like him; was Muhammad Ali. To begin with, Ali was great at what he did - make no mistake about it; whether you think he was "The Greatest" or merely one of the best in his field, he was flat out, no doubt about it, just plain awesome at his craft. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" was his motto and he personified it. And... he was funny. He was a joy to watch inside and outside the ring. I learned you could be stunningly good at your job and have fun doing it. I'll let others decide how good I am at my work, but make no mistake - I have fun doing it.
Later when Ali chose to avoid the Selective Service, he showed conviction to a belief system. To me it didn't matter whether you agreed with his belief system or not - that wasn't the point. To be willing to give up your livelihood, your career, and your fun because of your convictions was noble. I learned that there are some things which are more important than your job, your reputation, and your income. Lastly, when he lost his fight with Joe Frazier (Joe actually broke Ali's jaw midway through the fight), Ali was genuinely graceful and complimentary during the press conference afterword. You could see his swollen face and that he was still in pain and yet he had the style and grace to accept his defeat and honor the victor. I learned that sometimes you lose, and that's OK.
My second role model was Dr. Martin Luther King. Yes, yes, I'm Caucasian, white as the new fallen snow. I grew up during the 1960's when racial tensions were broadcast daily on the evening news. We lived in the downtown of the largest city of the county and went to a very integrated school system. It was integrated because no one had the money to move to the suburbs. I was raised by very progressive parents who simply showed no appreciation or tolerance for bigotry. They didn't march, they didn't yell, or scream, or even shake their heads in disdain at prejudice. They just treated everybody as equals - and raised us to be the same. As a result, Dr. King's message of non-violence, of equality, of dignity, of judging people by the content of the character resonated with me. Still does. I learned that leadership can come by delivering the right message, at the right time, with the right words. I can only dream of leading so well.
I am one of five children that 'blessed' the lives and Ed and Jean Meredith (snicker). My brother Ed, Jr. and I shared a bedroom for most of our young life. If you ever want to know about our relationship back then, just listen to Bill Cosby's routine titled, "To Russell, My Brother Whom I Slept With." I honestly thought the title was "To Wrestle My Brother, Whom I Slept With." I listened to all of Cosby's comedy albums as a child because he completely captured life as I knew it. Snakes on the floor, monsters in the closet, walking home after dark, and sharing a room with your brother. He made sense of my life by simply talking about his own. Later, my wife and kids and I religiously watched the Cosby show in the 1980's because, again, he seemed to see the same world we saw. I learned that people are people; and we all worry about the same things; our kids, our future, and monsters in the closet.
By now you may have picked up a theme and are wondering if I had any heroes that "look like me." I'll forgo the discussion of two arms, two legs, and a nose in the middle of my face. I would like to think that these three men resemble me to a very large degree, after all, I've modeled much of my life after them. That we don't share pigmentation is way less meaningful to me than that we do share the same planet at the same time. Henry Adams once said, "A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." This can surely be said of these men as well.
Lest you think I only admired great men of color, I did have one other role model.
Of the four famous men who helped form my image of a man - the last was none other than Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation Starship, Enterprise (NCC-1701). Go ahead and laugh, but this character (not at all to be confused with the actor William Shatner), was smart, commanding, aggressive and kind when he needed to be, and - and this may be the most important thing of all - he was able to admit when he was wrong. When the Organians prevented Kirk from starting a war with the Klingons, Kirk was embarrassed. Embarrassed because he had actually wanted a war. When he fought against the reptilian Gorn, it was only at the last minute that he realized that his initial motivation for the fight was wrong. He'd overreacted and plunged his ship into a fight over a misunderstanding. How many powerful people do we get to witness admitting mistakes with humility and grace. I realized I didn't have to be perfect person to be a good person.
I've never met any of these people, and I imagine if I ever did, I'd just come across like a bumbling crazed fan. If they only knew how much they meant to me.