The old man sitting on the bench in the middle of Parkway Mall didn’t seem like he would mind, so I sat down alongside him. He had clearly taken care to dress himself in a neatly pressed shirt and trousers and a cotton sweater vest. He seemed to smell faintly of cigarette smoke, though I was unsure that it wasn’t someone sitting on the bench behind us. When he spoke I must admit, at first, I found myself a little annoyed. I just wanted a quiet moment. Apparently, the man I came to know as “Billy,” did not understand.
“There’s a hell of a lot of people out here today,” he said.
I smiled. Nodded. “Yes sir.”
“I come out here every day and walk. Then I sit to watch people.”
Another smile and nod. Surely he wasn’t going to just keep talking.
“I’m 95 years old,” he said.
Okay. Now I’m hooked.
The man looked to be no more than 70, his collar gaped around his neck, in the way they do on frugal old men who’ve lost more than a few pounds. It isn’t every day you meet someone that was born when Woodrow Wilson was President and there were only 48 stars on the flag.
As we talked, Billy told me he had served in North Africa and Italy during World War II. He had been an Airman in the U.S. Air Force. He had seen seven different countries during his service and had really enjoyed Italy. Something about the women there, he’d noted, but I’ll keep that between us. Billy had been a lifelong Democrat. He voted “for that fellow in the White House now” but wasn’t “too sure about him.” He’d only voted for one Republican in his life and “that (expletive) got thrown out.” Billy told me he had lived his entire life, other than while in the service, here in Madison County, Alabama. When he was a young man, he said, the site on which the Mall we sat in had been a “swamp” and he spoke of all the watercress that had grown around here. After the war he had gone to work for a farm implement company and “travelled all around fixing problems.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he had worked for them his entire career.
When my wife approached us Billy stood in the way my father had taught me to rise when a lady approaches. He spoke kindly to my wife and I introduced them. She told Billy he didn’t have to get up. But he smiled and said, “it’s no problem, I can even run if I have too.” (I wondered if Billy had some experience running from jealous husbands.) We shared a few more words and Billy set off to a different end of the mall. I wish we could have spoken longer. I had questions. Did he have children? What of the wedding band he wore? Was his wife living?
So what the heck does all this have to do with anything about life, leadership, or the stuff that matters? Just that life is really about the people you meet. And who meets you. He probably didn’t know it but Billy inspired me. He made me smile. He was an unexpected blessing that I didn’t even know I needed. I thought I really needed a few moments of uninterrupted solitude. What I needed was to hear someone’s story. Billy didn’t cure cancer. He probably didn’t build a business empire. He didn’t give me some life changing advice. Nonetheless, he gave me something only he had to give. I will carry the memory of our brief visit with me for the rest of my life. Part of Billy’s legacy will be something he will never know in that in that brief conversation he reminded me it’s the people you meet in life, and how you influence them to think about life, make them smile, and appreciate the journey that really matters. Thanks Billy. I hope I can honor your legacy.
Keep the faith.