February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Dad’s heroes

By |2023-07-24T05:57:16+02:00July 24th, 2023|"Notebook"|
Stockton Rush, doing a test drive in 2018.

y father was born in 1918. That birthdate put him squarely in what journalist Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. These were the everyday heroes who as young adults survived the Great Depression of the 1930s and fought the Second World War (never mind that their parents also survived the same depression and had their own world war).

In my personal experience, members of the Greatest Generation were bemused and startled by their title. For them the heroes were always someone else. Some were decorated and famous, such as Audie Murphy. Most were known only to the men who owed their lives to a quick-thinking buddy or who could never overcome the guilt of being the guy who had made it.

The Greatest Generation had another kind of hero, a new kind created by the proliferation of mass media. My father’s favorites were Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and Douglas MacArthur. My father could get misty-eyed about these men, probably because they were bound up in his own feelings. My father identified with Lindbergh, who was just an ordinary Midwestern boy with dreams. My father grew up in Detroit, where everyone was connected to and owed something to Henry Ford in one way or another. As a Navy medical officer in the Pacific, my father made a personal contribution to MacArthur’s vow of “I will return” to the Philippines. The things my father admired most about these men were their suspicion of regulations and status quos and their singleness of purpose and imperviousness to others’ opinions. Part of this was bound up in my father’s admiration for his own father. Despite only a one-room schoolhouse education and serial bankruptcies, his father hewed a path to success on his own terms. My father applied these lessons to his own life. He left secure jobs to follow his own medical passions and stuck to his own principles and vision, even when opponents made it uncomfortable.

We Americans love our myths of mavericks, from our own revolutionary repudiation of the British Empire to go it on our own, to launching thousands of improbable businesses and quixotic searches.

It should surprise no one, but the world’s word for these qualities is an American one; maverick. We Americans love our myths of mavericks, from our own revolutionary repudiation of the British Empire to go it on our own, to launching thousands of improbable businesses and quixotic searches.

The current generation has enshrined maverick thinking. Their hero is the “smartest guy in the room.” Their slogan is “Move fast and break things.”

Investors throw money at people such as Elizabeth Holmes because they “think outside the box.” It seemed anti-American to urge regulators to slow down the cryptocurrency hype before it burned up many people’s savings. Others cheered on the undersea ambitions of the Titan submersible’s creator Stockton Rush, who scoffed at safety and quoted MacArthur.

Whenever my father expressed his admiration for Ford, Lindbergh, or MacArthur, he usually followed it with a “but wait.” But wait, Henry Ford was an outspoken anti-Semite, he’d remind us. But wait, Lindbergh had an ambiguous relationship with the Nazis. But wait, MacArthur surrounded himself with yes-men (always a sign of character weakness in my father’s estimation) and went too far in the Korean War.

Now that I am my father’s age, I realize what these men’s real flaws were. They lacked healthy self-reflection. They were low on patience. They were not humble and they failed to realize that listening to other people’s opinions can be a gift.

There is a word for these qualities. And every language has its own version of it. It is “wisdom.”

It seems to be scarce these days. Our culture repeatedly chooses being smart over being wise, especially when money is involved.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."