By Adele R. Haas
An essay titled, “The Conscience of a Valet,” by Mike Kerrigan was published in the Wall Street Journal recently. It told of a time when the author and a friend were working as valets at a Washington, D.C., restaurant in the 1990s.
They were young college students and cash poor. At the end of their working day, they would share their tips and their stories. A $50 tip had been the highest ever received until the day a $100 bill was thrust into the hand of a co-worker, Sean.
An instinctive feeling that this was too unusual and probably unintended prompted Sean to run after the departing car and check to see if this generosity was indeed intended. The much-relieved driver said it was not. The $100 bill was returned, and a more modest tip ($3) was given.
The author ended his story with a thank you to Sean. His character was (unintentionally) tested and he just did the right thing. And this “tip,” the author wrote, is one of the best he ever received. That is evident as he shares this story with us so many years later.
Sometimes the stories you are told as a youngster become strong influences in your life. Looking back, I think that the following are mine.
As a child, I was told by my mother that my father, having finished trade school, came to this country legally, at age 18, from Poland. After working in the Chicago stockyards for a few years, he moved to Buffalo to begin a business.
At 24, he studied English in night school, became a U.S. citizen and joined many other immigrants on the bustling East Side.
After working hard, and initially being successful, some decisions resulted in a setback that led to his need to declare bankruptcy, reform his business and start again. Though all of his debts were wiped out legally, he was devastated.
My father was a man whose handshake or word was his bond, and although he was not legally required to repay his business debts that had been forgiven, once his business picked up he personally repaid every penny he owed. His character was tested and he just did the right thing.
I was also told that earlier in his life when he was at school, he lent some of what little money he had to the class bully. When time had passed and he was not paid back, he approached this boy for repayment. Instead, my father was badly beaten, and it was probably then that his defining character was formed.
My father was not a complex man, but he had a strong feeling for what was right and wrong. He lived a life of being helpful and generous to others.
When he passed away, numerous former customers who were hard hit during the Great Depression told me of how he had given them food and “put it on account” (which back then, often meant went unpaid) and how his kindness and forgiveness of debt enabled them to get through a time when social agencies to help those in need did not exist.
Dad was a man who just did the right thing. He did not talk about it, but he “spoke” silently in his actions and in his respect and empathy for others, which shouted volumes about his integrity and character to me.
Thank you, Dad. You were forgiven, and you gave forgiveness. You were wronged, and you learned to do the right thing. You knew hunger, and you gave food. The stories of you were the best gift I ever received. How privileged I was to have had this man of honor as my father.