A Grand Example of a Perfect Role Model

A FEW years ago a child I know walked into an interview for a coveted scholarship place at a competitive high school. Things were going well until the panel asked the 13-year-old to name a person she most admired. ‘'But,’‘ they stipulated, ’‘it can’t be either of your parents.’'

The girl was stumped. Like most Australian kids, her mother or father was the adult she most admired (according to a UNICEF study, this is the case for most kids between the ages of nine and 17). And while her house was filled with ABC radio and TV news, she’d only ever heard her parents cursing politicians, never praising them. She took a deep breath and confessed defeat.

I was reminded of this story when my grandfather died last week in California. He was 89 years old and less than a year shy of his 70th wedding anniversary. The self-made son of a casual pattern cutter – his father used to get sacked every Friday and rehired the following Tuesday so his boss never had to pay holiday leave or other benefits – he and his elder brother trapped rabbit and fox during the Great Depression in upstate New York. He would give his mother the meat and sell the pelts for pocket money. He also sold magazine subscriptions door-to-door. When he died he had founded and made his fortune on one publishing and one foreign licensing firm, the latter of which survives to this day.

None of these facts is why, if I had been sitting that scholarship interview, I would have named him as the person I most admire, though they are perhaps evidence of those reasons. For me, it was my grandfather’s zest for life that really stood out. In a family with its share of glass half-empty depressives, he was an unapologetic optimist. He was always confident that the lives of all his children and grandchildren would hold a wealth of wonderful opportunities that we would all relish and make the most of.

I also admired him because, despite evincing the gallantry emblematic of men of that generation, his expectations of his three granddaughters were no different to those he had for his grandsons. I remember the day my mother told my grandparents I had not done well on an important exam – my first academic failure. My grandmother rushed to comfort me but grandpa shooed her away. ‘'Leave her alone,’‘ he said. ’‘She doesn’t like failure. That’s as it should be.’'

My grandfather also gave me confidence. Not through his praise or approval – this was offered sparingly and only when earned – but his example. Was he really as certain as he seemed that he could do anything he set his mind to, or was he an adherent of the ‘'fake it until you make it’‘ philosophy well before it became fashionable? Who knows? What matters is that multiple generations absorbed his unblinking and assertive posture in the world until, for most of us, it became our posture, too.

Today, some of my grandfather’s approaches to child-rearing might draw disapproval. Contemporary experts frown on elders who praise children’s achievement over effort, or who confuse expectations with compliments, leading to what one expert calls a ‘'burden of greatness’‘.

Maybe, but for a brilliant man who had his chance to attend college stolen by World War II,

I reckon he gave a pretty good account of himself.

Vale, Bob Abramson. Vale.

Publication history

A Grand Example of a Perfect Role Model   Moral Maze, Sun Herald (Sydney)