I met an impressive man once under a cloudy sky in New Orleans. He was humble, quiet, and unassuming, yet he was followed by a throng of people who attended to his every need. His intelligent eyes examined every person in his path as he walked the trail of post-Katrina destruction.
After his tour, he stopped at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station to thank the military service members who were mobilized to help bring some sense of order to the fear and confusion gripping that city. A veteran himself, he displayed a swelling heart of pride and admiration for all of the uniformed personnel he came in contact with. His eyes moistened as he listened to the story of a young airman who, in the midst of escaping the ravaging floodwaters in her neighborhood, had to tie her dead mother to a corner of her house so she could return after the waters receded to claim her body. He hugged her before turning to the next person.
He settled into an outdoor picnic area for lunch with some of the personnel there, but seating was limited. The rest of us had to stand back a distance and try to capture this event with low-resolution cell phone cameras that were standard fare in 2005. As he ate, he laughed heartily at a comment made by one soldier sitting across from him, patted the shoulder of another sitting next to him, and seemed genuinely interested in the conversation going on around him.
As he got up to leave, I noticed a cordoned-off path leading from the picnic tables to a building. I assumed this would be the path of egress for this gentleman, so I walked over to one side of it and waited to see if he would come by. He rose from his table, collected his trash, and took it to a bin himself. I remember being surprised he didn’t have someone take it for him, and I was struck again at the humility that seemed out of place for a man of his stature.
I guessed he would quickly pass by and on to the next thing on his undoubtedly tight schedule, so I readied my cell phone in the hopes of catching a picture of him passing by. By this time others had joined me and I was sort of pressed against the tight rope outlining his path. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry though, as he slowly made his way up the walkway, pausing to shake hands along the way. He wasn’t running for office, so this was not the typical sprint-paced grip-and-grin.
As he made his way toward my position, I tensed in the hopes that I would be favored with a handshake as well. He stopped a few feet from me to shake another hand, and as he turned to walk again, he stopped in front of me. His eyes regarded me for a second and I was frozen in place. He flashed me a grin that had served him well throughout life, extended his hand, and said, “George Bush. The older one. Thank you for your service, son.” I managed to stammer out a “thank you, Mr. President…” as he turned to walk away. Mine was the last hand he shook in that place.
I have always lived by one governing principle in regard to other people: I am never as impressed with anyone as they are with themselves. What I saw that day was a former U.S. president touring a ravaged city and loving on the people who suffered, as well as those who were there to help. I was not impressed that day with the office he once held. I was deeply impressed with the man that he is.
Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.
I was a lazy high school student who rarely did homework, rarely studied and merely got by on excellent test scores. Some of my teachers appreciated my ability to kill their tests so they let me slide on the work. Others decided I needed to learn a lesson about work ethic and hit me hard for not putting in the effort. I walked into college thinking I had academics figured out, but I had no idea what was about to happen to me. Object lesson number one: Dr. Tom Auffenberg.
Auffenberg was a short, round, jolly man who made fast friends with everyone he met outside the classroom. He had an easy, infectious smile and a demeanor that immediately set you at ease. I first met him in an office call prior to the beginning of the semester and I immediately liked him. I walked away from that encounter knowing that his History 101 class was a slam dunk for me. I was in for a rude awakening.
Call-me-Tom from the hallways of Ouachita Baptist University’s history department turned into Dr. Auffenberg, Esteemed Academic once I crossed the threshold into his classroom. He still had a very engaging teaching style, but business was business when it came to academics. He handed us a syllabus the first day of class that looked like step-by-step instructions on how to build an airplane from scratch and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.
First, there was the reading. Just so…much…reading. Our textbook was at least three inches thick and when I say it was about history, I mean it was about ALL of it. I took AP History in high school, so I decided to ignore the book and coast through the lectures. The first test I took was a complete bomb. I mean, an F. I actually tried to study, too—a little, anyway. The rest of the semester went about like that with Auffenberg and I was awarded with an F for a semester grade.
I retook that class two years later thinking I was grown up and more responsible. I was doing much better in my other classes so I had some well-earned confidence in taking on The Berg again. Same class, same professor…same result, and this time it wasn’t from lack of effort. I was still missing something at age 21 that I couldn’t put my finger on. I retook that same class with a different professor the next semester and got an A. I was just glad to be done with Auffenberg. Or so I thought.
Military service conspired to keep me out of school until I was 30 years old. At that point, I had chipped my degree plan down to just a few classes, and among them was a senior-level history course. As it turned out, the only class available was taught by—you guessed it. My stomach churned, my scalp broke out in a sweat, and my hands began to tremble. I wasn’t a kid anymore, but I still expected failure.
Textbooks in 1995 gave way to laptops in 2006, but I read every word of assigned text. I took every quiz, turned in every paper, and got extra credit for never missing a day of class. The tests were still 70% of the grade that semester, though. When it came time for the first test review, I looked around the classroom and realized I was the only student in there over the age of 21, so I decided to try a leadership technique I learned in the Army. I raised my hand, and when called upon I asked Dr. Auffenberg if he could provide a study guide for us to organize our notes around while preparing for the test. He stared at me, dumbfounded, as the other 23 students in the class all turned in their chairs to get a better look at the old dude in the back of the room who had the nerve to ask such a question.
The Berg scanned the mixture of shocked and hopeful faces around the room, gave me that big Call-Me-Tom smile that I had not seen since the first time we met 12 years earlier and said, “What a splendid idea, Frank!” I instantly went from Old Pathetic Dude to Campus Hero. I also used that study guide—and the others that semester—to go from Auffenberg Flunky to straight-A student.
The obvious point here is “if at first you don’t succeed…” The less-obvious one, though, is that sometimes we require a little more seasoning in life before taking on monumental goals. I realized through my growth process that Auffenberg was not the code to be cracked in order to succeed. I was.