The wisest person I ever met in my life: a third grade drop out. Wisest and drop out in the same sentence is rather oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp. Mm-hmm. Like fun run, aint nothing fun about it. Like Microsoft works, ya’ll don’t hear me. I used to say, like country music, but I’ve lived in Texas so long I love country music now. I hunt, I fish, I have cowboy boots and cowboy– Ya’ll, I’m a blackneck redneck do you hear what I’m saying to you? No longer oxymoronic for me to say country music. And its not oxymoronic for me to say third grade and drop out.
That third grade drop out, the wisest person I’ve ever met in my life, who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom to make an impact, was my father. A simple cook, wisest man I ever met in my life. Just a simple cook. Left school in the third grade to help out on the family farm but just because he left school doesn’t mean his education stopped. Mark Twain once said “I never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.” My father taught himself how to read, taught himself how to write. Decided in the midst of Jim Crow-ism, as America was breathing the last gasp of the Civil War, my father decided was going to stand and be a man. Not a black man, not a brown man, not a white man – but a man. He literally challenged himself to be the best that he could all the days of his life.
I have four degrees, my brother is a judge, we’re not the smartest ones in our family. Its a third grade drop out daddy. A third grade drop out daddy who was quoting Michelangelo saying to us, “Boys, I won’t have a problem if you aim high and miss. But I’m going to have a real issue if you aim low and hit.” A country mother quoting Henry Ford saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” I learned that from a third grade dro– simple lessons!
Lessons like these: Son you’d rather be an hour early than a minute late. We never knew what time it was in my house because the clocks were always ahead. My mother said for nearly thirty years my father left the house at 03:45 in the morning. One day she asked him “Why, Daddy?” He said “Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.” I want to share two things with you, Aristotle said “You are what you repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence ought to be a habit not an act.” I know you’re tough but always remember to be kind, always. Don’t ever forget that. Never embarrass mamma. Mm-hmm. If mamma aint happy, aint nobody happy. If daddy aint happy don’t nobody care but you know, what can I tell ya.
Next lesson, lesson from a cook over there in the galley, “Son, make sure your servants’ towel is bigger than your ego.” Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the paint of stupidity. Ya’ll might have a relative in mind you want to send that to let me say it again, ego is the anesthesia that deadens the paint of stupidity. Pride is the burden of a foolish person.
John Wooden coached basketball at UCLA for a living, but his calling was to impact people. And with all those National Championships guess what he was found doing in the middle of the week? Going into the cubbard, grabbing a broom, and sweeping his own gym floor. You want to make an impact? Find your broom. Every day of your life, you find your broom. You grow your influence that way. That way you’re attracting people so that you can impact them.
Final lesson: “Son, if you’re going to do a job, do it right.” I’ve always been told how average I can be. Always been criticized about being average. But I want to tell you something, I stand here be fore you, before all of these people not listening to those words, but telling myself every single day to shoot for the stars, to be the best that I can be. Good enough isn’t good enough if it can be better. And better isn’t good enough if it can be best.
Let me close with a very personal story that I think will bring all of this into focus. Wisdom will come to you in the unlikeliest of sources, a lot of times in failure. When you hit rock bottom remember this, while you’re struggling, rock bottom can also be a great foundation from which to build and on which to grow. I’m not worried that you will be successful, I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time. The person that gets up off the canvas and keeps going, thats the person that will continue grow their influence.
Back in the 70’s, to help me make this point, let me introduce you to someone. I met the finest woman I’d ever met in my life. Mm-hmm. Back in my day we’d have called her a brick house. This woman was the finest woman I’d ever seen in my life there was just one little problem, back then ladies didn’t like big ‘ol linemen… The Blindside hadn’t come out yet, they liked quarter backs and running backs… We’re at this dance and I find out her name is Trina Williams from Lompoc, California. We’re all dancing and we’re just excited and I decided in the middle of dancing with her that I would ask her for her phone number. Trina was the first… Trina was the only woman in college to give me her real telephone number.
The next day was walked to Baskin & Robins ice cream parlor. My friends couldn’t believe it, this was forty years ago and my friends still can’t believe it. We go on a second date, and a third date, and a fourth date. Mm-hmm. We drive from Chico to Valleio so that she could meet my parents. My father meets her, my daddy, my hero, he meets her, pulls me to the side and says, “Is she psycho?”
But anyway. We go together for a year, two years, three years, four years by now Trina’s a senior in college. I’m still a freshman but I’m working some things out. I’m so glad I graduated in four terms; Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan… So now its time to propose, so I talk to her girlfriends and its California, its in the 70’s so it has to be outside. Have to have a candle, you have to have some chocolate – Listen I’m from the hood, I had a bottle of Boon’s Farm wine. That’s what I had.
She said “Yes!”
That was the key, I married the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my – Ya’ll ever been to a wedding and even before the wedding starts you hear this, “How in the world?” And it was coming from my side of the family!
We get married, we have a few children, our lives are great. One day Trina finds a lump in her left breast. Breast cancer. Six years after that diagnosis me and my two little boys walked up to Mommy’s casket. And for two years my heart didn’t beat. If it wasn’t for my faith in god I wouldn’t be standing here today. If it wasn’t for those two little boys there would have been no reason for which to go on. I was completely lost. That was rock bottom.
You what sustained me? The wisdom of a third grade drop out. The wisdom of a simple cook. We’re at the casket. I’d never seen my dad cry but this time I saw my dad cry. That was his daughter. Trina was his daughter, not his daughter in law. And I’m right behind my father about to see her for the last time on this earth, and my father shared three words with me that changed my life right there at the casket. It would be the last lesson he would ever teach me.
He said “Son, Just Stand.”
You keep standing. You keep standing. No matter how rough the sea, you keep standing. And I’m not talking about just water. You keep standing. No matter what. You don’t give up. And as clearly as I am talking to you today, these were some of her last words to me. She looked me in the eye and she said “It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me most is how I live.”
I ask you all one question, a question that I was asked all my life by a third grade drop out. How you living? How you living?
Every day ask yourself that question. How you living? Here’s what a cook would suggest you live, this way, that you would not judge, that you would show up early, that you’d be kind, that you make sure that that servants’ towel is huge and used, that if you’re going to do something, you do it the right way.
That cook would tell you this, that it is never wrong to do the right thing, that how you do anything is how you do everything, and in that way you will grow your influence to make an impact. In that way you will honor all those who have gone before you who have invested in you.
Look in those unlikeliest places for wisdom. Enhance your life every day by seeking that wisdom and asking yourself every night,
How am I living?
Speech by Rick Rigsby