“That’s me in you”, proclaimed the late legendary Muhammad Ali, responding to his daughter’s generosity to a stranger in need by laying claim to the virtue he saw in her actions. Ali was known for his deep caring heart, but you can also hear his swagger in the boast.
Those four words remind me a lot of someone whom I could never imagine repeating on his own to express himself: my dad. Even if he thought them on occasion, about me or one of my siblings, the statement would be too bold, and too much about him to be uttered. You see, he’s one of those stoic old-school ‘greatest generation’ types, where actions speak and words are often better left unsaid.
I’m not like my dad in that way. While I believe actions count, words matter too. So, I have no problem saying to him “that’s you in me,” to express gratitude for a trait that he’s given me more by example than by preaching.
In many ways my dad and I are a study in opposites: he’s a conservative, reflexively introverted, focused science guy. I’m an extroverted, creative, bleeding heart. And yet, people say I am like him. For starters, I look like him. Trust me, as a teenager I was horrified by this comparison: I look like a balding 40- something man? I wanted to look like my pretty mother, though the truth is, I looked like a younger female version of him, but with an unruly mane of hair.
While politically he is probably best described as libertarian, in his own quiet way he’s also a guy with a caring heart. Since he retired he’s worked as a volunteer “Road Runner” for the local hospital, driving older, sicker, and poorer patients for care. As he nears his 88th birthday, I love the thought of him picking up older patients, some perhaps buoyed a bit by having someone closer to their age helping them out.
While few of our staff and board at Fistula Foundation, let alone our donors, have heard much about my dad, I know one thing for sure: he’s had an extraordinary impact on our organization. In addition to the example of caring for others, my dad gave me something invaluable: hard-wired thrift and a “no excuses” work ethic.
I think one of the primary reasons Fistula Foundation has been successful raising more than $60 million and helping tens of thousands of women is because we are brutally, strategically cheap. Our ethos is “it’s not our money,” it belongs to the women who need it and the doctors that treat them. I learned how to pinch pennies from dad, who thinks waste is a sin. In our case, a war on inefficiency and on not spending on silly or superficial or unnecessary stuff means more money lands where it changes lives: hospitals in Africa and Asia.
My dad came of his thrift the hard way: living through the Great Depression in hardscrabble Butte, Montana, in a big family, with barely enough of anything to go around. He got his first job at 13, served as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War, put himself through college, and then grad school, and then put four kids through Berkeley – all on a salary as a research scientist for NASA. He didn’t stop working until he retired.
The other thing that dad stressed more by deeds than words was that, around money in particular, there is a right and a wrong. You don’t take what isn’t yours, whether it is credit for an action or money you don’t deserve.
I remember in high school he’d driven me to the grocery store, and when I got back to the car I told him gleefully that the check-out clerk had just given me an extra $5 in change. His response: go back inside and return it. I was mad! I wanted to keep it, but he said if I did it was basically like stealing. I still remember the way the shocked smile on the clerk at our local Safeway made me feel surprisingly good, almost worth the foregone $5 I just returned.
Twelve years in to my work at Fistula Foundation, thanks to some incredibly generous and kind people in more than 60 countries, dedicated doctors and nurses in the field and staff here in the U.S., we are now funding more surgeries than any organization in the world, helping tens of thousands of too often forgotten women get their lives back. But I know a critical, but invisible part of that success is my dad’s impact on me. While we are far from done, we’re off to a good start.
So, on this Father’s Day, I wanted to thank one special dad for helping us achieve so much. My dad, Bob Grant.