Lasting Lessons From My Dad

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Debra Weiner is interviewing 100 newsmakers, thought leaders and other people who’ve made an outsize difference about the most valuable thing their parents taught them. Following are excerpts from a few of those stories, edited and condensed.

Kindness

WILLIAM DALEY

Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton; White House chief of staff for President Obama; currently vice chairman of public affairs for Wells Fargo & Co.

ImageThe Daley family at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, circa 1956 or ’57. Back row, from left: brother Michael Daley; brother Richard M. Daley; sister Eleanor “Ellie” Daley; mom, Eleanor “Sis” Daley; dad, Richard J. Daley. Front row, from left: Bill Daley and brother John Daley
The Daley family at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, circa 1956 or ’57. Back row, from left: brother Michael Daley; brother Richard M. Daley; sister Eleanor “Ellie” Daley; mom, Eleanor “Sis” Daley; dad, Richard J. Daley. Front row, from left: Bill Daley and brother John DaleyCredit…via Bill Daley

People who didn’t know my dad or just had read a book about his political power and toughness and the machine would take this probably as all bull, but he had this sense of kindness to people that was really strong. It was just something I noticed as a kid. He’s mayor of Chicago, this real powerful guy, but every night before he’d leave his office he’d thank his secretaries. Or when a woman was getting on the elevator he’d step aside and tip his hat.

My father’s generation went to a lot of funerals and wakes. We’d go with him when we were young, which was kind of weird. “Dad, I don’t know these people. Why am I going?” He didn’t even know them. But everybody knew the mayor and it was a big deal for him to show up. And it wasn’t just political. I think he really understood and appreciated that that was a moment when people needed a kind gesture.

I’m not trying to make him out to be some wuss. He was anything but that. He walked into a room and there was a dynamism to him that came through right away. And he could blow up with the rest of them and be this angry political force. But there was a side to him that was very kind and it’s something I’ve tried to emulate.

When I was commerce secretary, I went out of my way to not be “The Secretary.” I’d always say, “We worked together at the Commerce Department” as opposed to, “They worked for me.” And I keep the same habit of thanking people when I leave the office. Maybe my assistant says, “Oh yeah, he’s just saying it.” But it makes me feel good because it kind of brings back my dad. In a strange way, I think being or attempting to be kind makes you a better human being. Especially today where we’re all so transactional and superficial and you really got to look for kindness, when there is a kind gesture it really impacts you.

You know, I fainted when I was announced to be Secretary of Commerce, live on television. I was terribly embarrassed. And I remember that night at a party at the White House, the minute Hillary saw me she walked right over through this big crowd and told me the story of when she fainted, I think in Greece. I really didn’t know her well and the perception always about her was she was tough. But I have to say, I never looked at her the same after that. Half the other people were kind of mocking me, giving me grief. But she made that beeline. And my dad would have done that.

Do Not Run From a Dangerous Wave

ANGELA OLINTO

Brazilian-born astrophysicist who studies the unknown origin of the universe’s most energetic particles; first female dean of physical sciences at the University of Chicago.

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Angela Olinto with her father, Antonio Cesar Olinto.Credit…via Angela Olinto

My father’s way of teaching me how to swim was to drop me in the middle of the pool. I was 4 or 5 and probably could have screamed my way into him picking me up. But the fact that I was in a panic for a second and had to find my way to safety … that was great. It pushed me to be courageous.

My father eventually taught me how to deal with the waves in the ocean. In Rio, this is a big thing. Every weekend we go to the beach, and when you have big, big waves, you need to know there’s a safety zone close to the beach, and a safety zone after the breaking area. What you want to do is not run from a dangerous wave but swim really fast toward it, then dive underneath it till you reach the other side. Or if a wave is unlikely to break, you can go up with it. Once you pass the breaking region, you’ll be able to swim calmly. I imagine for some people it’s scary. But when you learn how to do it and get the rhythm right, it’s like a wonderful dance.

In my life, I’ve had so many of these big waves coming at me. When you have a challenge, you have the option to avoid it and run back to the beach. Or you can face the waves and go for it with gusto, really go and try, which is what I do. From time to time, they turn me around, and I have to get back up, start breathing again and find my way out. But when I look back it’s “Wow, I did it. I came over the big wave instead of running away.”

Even at this age, when you are established and all cool, it’s scary when you take a challenge. You’re in a conference, you have to give a talk, be in front of strangers, show your stuff, and there’s always this, “Oops, do I really know what I’m talking about?” But if you step into and go for it, no backing out, there’s a pleasure in getting to the other side.

Giving up is fine too. Now if the reason you’re giving up is because of insecurity, then that’s a problem. But if it has to do with the reality of life, if you’re trying and hitting your head against the wall, better to accept that and say, “This path is coming to an end. It’s time to go some other direction.” That’s also courage.

One of the things my father says whenever things get rocky is that there’s a natural flow to life, meaning that when things are chaotic and difficult, take a breather. Let things flow. A solution will be obvious when it happens. I always like that. It gives me this feeling of safety, like the world has an order, that things will go their way. It makes no sense whatsoever for a scientist to say that, but it feels wonderful.

The Gift of Freedom

PETER SAGAL

Playwright, author, most recently of “The Incomplete Book of Running,” and host of the NPR game show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

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Peter Sagal, top, leaning on his father, Matthew Sagal. The toddler is brother Roger Sagal, and next to him on the right is brother Doug Sagal.Credit…via Peter Sagal

My parents were very affectionate, very kind, but they had high standards for us. Growing up, I felt I had too many expectations and not enough freedom to do what I wanted to do. But then something happened that changed my mind about it.

My father had gone to Cornell in the 1950s, majored in engineering, then had gone off to M.I.T., got his doctorate in chemistry, and went to work for what was then Western Electric, later AT&T. He spent his entire career there.

He very much wanted me to follow the same kind of path — you know, appropriate training, advanced degrees, slot yourself into a prestigious arena. He didn’t say I had to be an engineer, but certainly Harvard undergrad, Yale Law, and a prestigious law firm. Or Harvard Medical School and a prestigious post would have been terrific. But I was doing theater and wanted to be a writer and write plays and stuff. It was very tough for him because he thought this was foolish; that I was squandering my potential.

He had a deep anxiety about all of his kids — that we’d get out of college and not be able to put it together, not have a job, not make a living. And my whole 20s I was sort of scraping things together. Once, I remember vividly, I had a crisis with my housing and needed a security deposit. So I called and asked if he could loan it to me. And he got upset. I was living out that anxiety of his. It was happening.

But here’s the punchline. Around 1990, my grandfather died, and my father had taken all his stuff back to our house. And what I found out, looking through my father’s yearbooks, was that in high school, what did my father do? He was in all the plays. He wrote for the high school newspaper. In fact, reading some of his reprinted columns, they were just like the ones I had written for my high school paper — a very similar voice.

So what had happened to my father? His father had said, “You are allowed to go to Cornell and major in whatever kind of engineering you want — chemical, mechanical or civil.” That was the only choice. And that’s what my father did.

He’s never expressed any regret about it. My father took and takes tremendous pride in the work that he did. But I realize how hard it must have been for him to let me do what I wanted to do. What had struck me at the time as disapproval and lack of support was actually, from his perspective, a huge gift of freedom.

And that makes me both admire and be grateful to him. But it also puts my own struggles as a parent in context. Because there are things I would have loved my children to do that they didn’t do. It’s the same thing my parents struggled with: What do you think your kids should do, instead of what do they want to do? Where does a parent’s wisdom stop and your kids’ freedom begin?

The Beauty of Music

SERGIO ASSAD

Internationally acclaimed classical guitarist and composer who partners with his brother, Odair Assad, in the Assad Brothers Duo.

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Sérgio Assad, right, with his brother Odair Assad and their father, Jorge Assad.Credit…via Sérgio Assad

My dad was one of 15 or 16 children. His father had come from Lebanon to Brazil at the end of the 19th century, and didn’t like music at all. It was forbidden in the family, and when my father was 16, my grandfather kicked him out of the house for playing a mandolin, which my dad had won in a raffle.

My father had only four years of primary education. But his love of choro, a type of Brazilian music, was so big — though he never had a lesson, and had learned by listening to other people play — that he became very good at it. Not on a professional level. It was unthinkable to become a professional musician in the 1930s and ’40s. It was not paid. But he was always out of the house, playing with friends in the evening.

To have more of his presence, I think I felt I had to learn to play an instrument. I gave it a try when I was 8, but my dad didn’t seem to notice. Four long years later, an uncle had the patience to teach me a few chords, and when I showed my dad that I could play actual chords, I remember his face. He was so glad. And he said, “OK, can you play this with me?” — a Brazilian song — which I could do easily. Then he had me show it to my mom. My brother, who is four years younger, was jealous and wanted to learn it too. Actually, it was easier for him than for me. And after that, it was the opposite. My dad wanted to stay home and play with us and teach us. He wouldn’t leave.

We were living then in a small city in the state of São Paulo, and didn’t have access to high quality music whatsoever. We never had even heard of classical music. But a newspaper man from Rio de Janeiro saw us play at a party and told my dad, “Your kids are so good, they should pursue this seriously. I know a teacher in Rio who could work with them.”

So my dad decided we should take a trip, 600 miles, to meet this teacher. She was amazed by our playing and told our dad she would gladly teach us, free. So my father closed his shop — he fixed watches — and moved the family, four kids, to Rio and completely changed our lives.

My brother and I felt a huge responsibility on our shoulders. We felt guilty all the time and really had to dedicate ourselves to music. We couldn’t say, “Maybe I don’t want this. Maybe there is something else.” There was no option. I mean, he had moved the whole family. And where we lived, it was not big, beautiful Rio. We were in a very poor neighborhood. People didn’t understand what we were doing. Two young boys sitting hours and hours playing classical music … What was that?

The risk my father took amazes me still. Putting myself in his position, I don’t think I would have done it. There is no simple explanation except that for him the beauty of music was the most important thing. It was not his dream to have his kids be stars. It was not that. It was to see us play guitar at an extremely high level. He had this Gypsy soul — bohemian, we say in Brazil — and his passion for music was so important to him that it became our passion, too.