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Paying it Forward

Written for the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter, September, 2013.

After his first year of college my father was back in his hometown of Smackover looking for work.   He wouldn’t be able to continue his education because money for tuition simply was not there.   Two local men learned of his situation and contacted my grandfather.  They told him to send his son right back to school because his tuition had been covered for the next year.   They asked my father not to repay them but to “pass it on.”

My father went on to finish college with a degree in science while working campus and summer jobs and qualifying for scholarships.  His career path eventually led to his directing pollution control in oil and chemical plants.  By the time I entered college my dad operated a water treatment plant for an oil refinery.  I saw dark, sludgy liquids entering this plant only to come the other side as crystal clear water.  He enjoyed his job because it blended his love of science and appreciation for the natural world.  He was able to do this work because of his education.   While he may have doubted the wisdom of my decision to pursue a degree in music, he saw to it that I went to college.

I admire people who can say “I’m a self-made man,” but in my case it just wouldn’t be accurate.  The truth is that my way has been opened by the kindness and generosity of others.  I was once trying to express to my father that there’s no way to repay your parents for all that they do in your lifetime.  He said the only repayment he wanted was to see his gifts passed on to his grandchildren.

Some of the most significant gifts from my parents have been time, unconditional love, and an education.  There was never a question if my father would attend a ballgame, concert, or school event.  I never once wondered if he would come home after work.  His commitment to my mother and his children was unconditional.   He had been given some opportunities and would see to it that those gifts were passed on to his children.   The best I can do is say “thank you” and work to pass those gifts on to my children and the children I’m privileged to work with at school.

In our rush-a-day work as educators it might do us good to pause and reflect on the gifts we’ve been given.  Who has helped us along the way by giving encouragement or supporting our growth?  How have we worked to increase the value of these gifts and paid them forward?  Whose professional growth are we investing in and how are we encouraging others (children and adults) on their paths of learning?

I never met either of the men who covered my father’s college tuition.  Many years later I told the story to one of their granddaughters and learned that her grandfather was a giving person who helped a number of young people in his community in similar ways.  He would have been pleased to learn that his gift of educational opportunity had been passed down to his great-granddaughter’s school principal.

Some gifts have a way of increasing in value over time.  Like that gift of college tuition for my father so many years ago, our investments in others will have positive effects for years and possibly generations to come.

Note: Below is a picture of my dad (blue hardhat) and description of work he was involved with in water conservation.



My father writing a letter to my mother in the early 1950s from Korea.

My father writing a letter to my mother in the early 1950s from Korea.

Climbing a mountain in Mexico with my dad in the late 90s.

Climbing a mountain in Mexico with my dad in the late 90s.

My dad in 2013, at 85, visiting his hometown of Smackover.

My dad in 2013, at 85, visiting his hometown of Smackover.

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