Among my earliest childhood memories was hearing about how my great-grandmother made sure her housekeeper knew that anyone who came to the back door looking for a meal was never to be turned away. What began during the Great Depression continued until her death. She volunteered for her church's annual rummage sale, the proceeds of which funded the needs of many local families throughout the year. And when a newly-arrived immigrant came to the community, she led efforts to welcome them and make sure they were set-up with clothing, furnishings, employment and schooling for children and parents alike.
Her husband, my great-grandfather, came from a long line of Quakers who, in addition to being pacifists, valued education and health above most, if not all, things. When World War I came, he said he could not fight, and instead contributed to the effort by driving ambulances in France for the Red Cross. During the Great Depression, he paid the college tuition of four young men who would otherwise not have been able to attend. His service to his church and civic organizations always included raising money to support programs and events which removed obstacles to achievement for children and their families.
My grandfather and his siblings, and in turn their children, and now my generation and my own children, lived by the ethos of giving back and doing what you can, when you can. No matter how difficult a challenge was, you worked to overcome it, and you were grateful to have the resources available to do so, appreciating that others who going through similar challenges might have the same support.
You were expected to be polite. Always. Your words and actions were a reflection of your family, which was gentle reminder of being the best version of yourself. Manners during meals, social settings and in professional endeavors were simply part of who you were. No one could eat until everyone at the table had been served, or returned from a buffet. During a meal, you talked to the person seated next to you and wouldn't even think go leaving the table until mom or dad said it was OK.
A firm handshake, with eye contact and stating your first AND last name, was a standard greeting, with the optional curtsy for the youngest girls on the most special occasions. Doors were opened for anyone entering a building, and you waited for en elevator to empty out before heading inside.
Modesty reigned. It was considered rude to call attention to yourself and it was acceptable to appear in the newspaper only three times in your life: when you were born, married and died. Gentlemen wore hats, and removed them when inside, and stood up when a woman enter a room. Any plane or train travel meant wearing "Sunday clothes" and hair and make-up were kept to a minimum.
Adults had last names, not first names (as in "Good morning, Mr. Nelson", rather than Hey, Don!"). Thanking others was an art form, taking great pains to ensure that the thank-ee knew how much you loved what they did, or gave. A steady inventory of personalized note cards were on hand for a quick note, typically written with the wrapping paper still at your feet. RSVPs were made within a day of an invitation arriving and no one would even think of arriving empty-handed to a party or neighborhood get together.
Giving back, pitching in and doing your part was how things were done. Working to make their neighborhood better for those who would come after them, establishing schools and community centers which are enjoyed still today.
A glimpse down any street in just about any city will yield buildings bearing names of individuals and families who translated their wealth into a lasting gift for the benefit of others. The Shedd Aquarium, Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, Chicago Booth School of Business. Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Sound familiar?
In addition to the initial capital investment, hundreds of people work non-stop throughout the year to raise money so that all who can benefit are not turned away. The women boards, planned giving efforts, endowed scholarships and special events that bring in millions of dollars are all possible because of the collective efforts of volunteers who are dedicated to continuing the family legacy.
So why is this tradition of gracious living and commitment to civic involvement a target for scorn? Why is the success of others do demonized?
WASP life is far less about wealth, and far more about a way of life. It is not country clubs and diamond tiaras. It is not Rich Uncle Pennybags, the Monopoly mascot. It is a mindset that guides decisions about how you live. A tradition of service above self, living with humility and consideration of others. It is social awareness and community mindedness. It is more about making others feel comfortable than feeling superior to anyone.
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