When my dad passed on 16 years ago, my friends at work took up a collection and bought a park bench in his name, which sits proudly at one of the entrances to the zoo; actually just a few hundred feet from my office.
As I pass it each morning walking from the parking lot, I smile and nod as if I am saying hello to him. I’m funny that way, I guess, but lying beneath my greeting is respect.
My dad was a good man. He treated his family and friends well and was always willing to help people.
There were more than a thousand people at his wake. The line wound all the way down the block outside the funeral home. From union line workers to company vice presidents, people pumped my hand that day and attested to their sorrows in the passing of this “good man.”
He was a metallurgist at Ford Motor Company. He had a few patents to his name, and boxes full of bowling and softball trophies, but he led a quiet, unobtrusive life.
As the spectacle of Penn State Coach Joe Paterno continues to swirl, I am reminded of how difficult it is to live a life without some interruption by less than stellar decisions.
Mr. Paterno has not been charged with anything other than extremely poor judgment, and in the wake of the charges that have been brought against others in that group, he is fortunate to get away with so light a comeuppance.
I am not writing this to approach the morality of the alleged child molestation issue. My point is simply that it is a shame that such a long and distinguished career would end so abruptly and so disjointed.
But clearly, Joe Pa had hung around too long. Sure, the case could be made for the “institution” he had become and the value that was to the university, but all those years? The likelihood of something going wrong had to proliferate with each passing year.
So how does one know when it is the right time to go and, further, how does one maintain a life and reputation that will last as the years pile up long after they are out of the picture?
Others have found unique ways to handle this dilemma. Just recently, lifelong CBS commentator Andy Rooney finally retired. He was 92. Three weeks later, he died.
Pretty much everything that could have been said negatively about Andy after he died had already been said while he was alive--and he was usually the one saying it. To that end, his life should be considered distinguished. He never tried to be what he wasn’t and he gladly identified his shortcomings to anyone who asked. There’s respect in that kind of self-actualization.
On the other hand, the on again/off again retirement of former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Farve is, in my opinion, the perfect example of someone who took something wonderful and turned it into garbage.
His career was so respected and his die-hard efforts so endearing that he originally stepped away from the game amid a tearful press conference where he was lauded and honored.
Months later as he “un-retired” and plied his financial strategies to join the Minnesota Vikings, he turned his career into a media circus--and did so over and over in the seasons that followed.
Eventually, there were charges of misconduct regarding a woman connected with the team, and his whole heroic position began to melt like a Green Bay snowball in a Los Angeles July.
Today he is looked upon by many as a self-inflated, narcissistic has-been who may have been overrated from the beginning. The responsibility for that whole demise is completely his.
Recently, a biography about former NFL great Walter Payton has surfaced and, again, a person who had a seemingly indelible set of values and heroic respect was found to be just the opposite.
Evidently the behind-the-scenes battle between his wife and girlfriend on the day he was inducted into the Hall of Fame kept him from several of the ceremonies despite the pleading of fellow Chicago Bears inductee Gale Sayers. Walter “Sweetness” Payton evidently was more “Bitter” than the fans were led to believe.
I think the wise side of maintaining a good reputation and respected history has more to do with knowing when to go than with making the most of extending your stay.
Some get the benefit of an early departure, which creates their reputation for them. Actors who died young, like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and entertainers like Elvis Presley, have survived on predictions of what “could have been” for decades following their death.
But think about if they had lived. What if Elvis had lived to be 80 or 90 and had ballooned up from the weight gain battles he was always losing? What if Dean and Monroe, whose chemical addictions were well known, had become addicted has-beens hanging around Hollywood trying to pump back up their golden years.
Would they be as revered as they are today? I doubt it.
Look at the most popular TV shows that we recall with the most favor: “M*A*S*H,” “Cheers,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond”; all of these shows sensed when they had worn out the characters and tried every story line they could invent.
Every one of them wrapped up while they were still hot and people still wanted the show to stay. Going out on top is more than just a trite saying; it should be considered a way of life.
In 1992, Johnny Carson began a slow fade into the sunset. As one of Hollywood’s most distinguished and respected sons of the “Tuxedo Era,” Johnny showed more style and good taste over the years than any similar talent that comes to mind.
As his final day approached, he lined up as many of the stars (that were still living) that he had interviewed on his show 30 years earlier and let everyone enjoy his trip down memory lane for the last several months of the show.
One of his last guests had been his first guest ever on his very first show--singer Tony Bennett. As they reminisced, an old black and white photo was produced that showed Tony standing on a wooden box singing on that very first “Tonight Show” performance. Johnny was a few feet away sitting at a rickety old desk, and the audience shrieked with laughter at the poverty-like look of the ancient set in the photo.
“Boy, we spared no expense on that set, huh, Tony,” said Johnny, smiling.
“Hey,” said Tony, reflecting on Johnny’s long and distinguished career, “it isn’t where you start, it is where and how you find yourself at the end.”
The audience burst into applause as Johnny blushed, choked up, and shook Tony’s hand.
There endeth the lesson.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.