One of the most important aspects of any individual is his or her character. There are all kinds of ways to look at character, but to me it is best described by words such as honesty, loyalty, respect, unselfishness and courage. We all use these words and know what they mean. But how they relate to a person is a different matter. To me, character has to do with how you behave and how you treat others. People who exhibit true character are special. They make all the difference in the world to an organization. They are the backbone of our society-without them, this would be a chaotic, depressing place.
Helen Keller is a classic example of someone who lived life with character and courage. Some people may not remember who she was, but I remember her well, along with the character she displayed her entire life. Keller was born normal and healthy in the early part of the 20th century. However, when she was 18 months old she contracted a debilitating disease that would eventually rob her of her sight and hearing.
She was totally isolated from the world for almost five years, alone and in the darkness. Think of the nightmare that child endured. Along came a woman named Anne Sullivan, a special teacher who helped Keller fight her disease. She learned to communicate. She graduated from Radcliffe College and went on to become a revered and honored member of society. She was, in essence, one of the most incredible individuals to inhabit our society, and through her writings she shared her feelings and thoughts, such as: "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved."
Keller was a shining example of someone who conquered seemingly impossible odds. "The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome," she wrote. "The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse."
How many of us have experienced the joyous feeling of overcoming a challenge through hard work and sacrifice? It could come from being a part of a team-whether in business or on the athletic field, attaining a goal that once appeared to be out of reach through loads of hard work, sacrifice, heartache and a special chemistry. It's a wonderful experience. But not everyone has had that experience, and they have missed something very special. If we are to succeed in any venture, there is really no easy path. It takes character and steadfastness.
Recently I read a story about a young man named Neil Parry who played football for San Jose State University. During the 2000 season Parry sustained an injury that almost cost him his life. While playing against the University of Texas at El Paso, he sustained a compound fracture in his right leg. The leg became infected, forcing doctors to amputate below the knee. It was devastating, but Parry never lost hope. One day, while recuperating from surgery, he asked his father whether he would ever be able to run again. According to the article I read, his father replied, "Yeah, you'll be able to run again. Shoot, what are you talking about?" And Parry said, "Hey, if I can run, why the heck can't I play football again?"
From that moment on, Parry dedicated himself to the dream of playing football again. And it looks like he might just accomplish that goal. Here's a quote from this fine athlete, a sentiment that provides some insight into how Parry looks at life: "It has been rough" he said, "but humor helps and I don't think people need to be brought down. It's my situation. What good is it going to do to make other people feel bad that I'm hurt? There are two things you can do: Make the best of it or do nothing and be bummed out all the time. That's not a way to live. Life's so short as it is. You've got to be happy and try to make the best of it."
Then there's a young man named Pat Tillman, whose story first appeared July 14 in the New York Times. It tells of a 25-year-old professional football player who abandoned a career in the National Football League in hopes of becoming a U.S. Army Ranger. The Rangers are a Special Forces' light infantry unit and one of the most storied military organizations in the world. The pay differential will be dramatic-with the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman made at least $1.2 million per year. His salary with the Rangers will be about $20,000. According to the article, Tillman is the first NFL player since World War II to voluntarily leave the game for military service.
So far, Tillman has declined to comment on his career move for fear it will be interpreted as a publicity stunt. But close friends say he was deeply affected by the terrorist attacks of 9-11. Furthermore, it is rumored that one of Tillman's close friends died in the attack, but no one knows for sure. Neither Tillman nor his brother, Kevin-a former minor-league baseball player with the Cleveland Indians organization, who joined the Army with his sibling-is talking. The point is that Tillman is a person who marches to his own drummer and is willing to make sacrifices to follow his beliefs.
We all know people who display character through their actions. Keller, Parry and Tillman are only three examples of this kind of individual. To me, character is more important than any other human trait. I know people who think the keys to success are a diploma from a prestigious college, a big annual salary and a closet packed with the latest designer clothing. They're wrong. Some of the most highly educated, wealthy and well-dressed people you can imagine have a tiny amount of character. On the other hand, I've encountered individuals who have little education, very few material possessions and a simple wardrobe who have an abundance of character. These are the kinds of people I love being with. As somebody once said, "Never judge a book by its cover."
Class and character go together,