Founded in 1871 as a steel-making center, Birmingham exploded almost overnight, quickly growing into Alabama’s largest city and earning the nickname “The Magic City.” When I got the call that my brother was injured in a serious motorcycle accident there, mostly I saw the medical center not the burgeoning culture. Jim is a motorcycle aficionado with more bikes than I imagined — Harley, Ducati and who knows what other brands — who did track days and raced at speeds that made me nervous. That he wiped out on the Birmingham track didn’t completely surprise me but scared me. At the emergency room, they cut his leathers off to tend to his broken elbow, ankle and assorted other injuries. It must have been an ugly scene because his wife called me that day to tell me she needed my help. It was a Monday night and I was watching a Packer-Bear game. I booked my ticked to Alabama at half-time.
When I reached the medical center in Birmingham, Jim was hooked up to a variety of tubes, his elbow and ankle immobilized. He was angry I was there, which didn’t make it easier. “I didn’t ask for you to come,” he hissed. “Go away.” Within a couple of days of my arrival, his boss called and fired him.
I talked to the doctors and nurses about his situation. As a diabetic, Jim was experiencing swelling that prevented some of the surgeries he needed. They advised me that the best course of action was to get him back to his home in Milwaukee and conduct the surgeries there. Medical transport to Milwaukee was crazy expensive. So I did what any sister would do. I called my other brother Michael. “Get down here. I need you,” I begged. Mike and I rented a mini-van and retrofitted it to carry our patient home. The drive was about 18 hours and we traded time at the wheel to drive straight-through.
Injured. Unemployed. In a precarious marriage. Jim’s life had been unceremoniously stripped from him.
And then, little by little I stood by him as he reclaimed it. He applied for his dream job at Harley Davidson. He got it. He bade his bad marriage goodbye and I served as counsel to him and his divorce attorney. He recovered from his injuries, slowly. I went to his house and helped him clean it out. He applied to Marquette University‘s Graduate School of Business for an MBA, accepted on academic probation. He went to school on nights and weekends, while working a full-time job and traveling the world for work.
When he asked me to help him write a speech as the prospective graduation speaker, I did. “Graduating from Marquette was my dream as a boy but it took my becoming a man to realize it,” he wrote. He made it to the top three finalists. Another guy was selected as the graduation speaker but when I heard him, I knew Jim’s speech was better. But of course I was biased.
“I was not a good student growing up. You might have called me complacent because I didn’t apply myself academically. There were number of other challenges in my life – being diagnosed with diabetes in my late teens, addressing my father’s long and debilitating illness and ultimately his death when I was in my 20s, followed by my mother’s untimely death, and the challenge of handling my strong drive for success but not knowing how to execute it. You might say I had my hands full. But it was the critical time when I realized how much I needed guiding principles in my life. I just couldn’t find them then. You see, when I graduated with my undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee more than 20 years ago, I thought that was enough for me. Of course it wasn’t and I began to understand that the quest for knowledge lives hand-in-hand with the desire for excellence. We are all given gifts, but sometimes we can’t see them clearly even when we need them most and so we explore different paths until we finally understand what these gifts are and how we can use them to our advantage.”
There we were. At Jim’s MBA graduation on Sunday. Tears flowed down my face. I felt like I was watching a miracle. I was watching a miracle. I saw a man’s transformation and I was part of it.
Our Aunt Mary — my deceased mother’s only sister — hosted a private lunch following graduation. Jim had written of her in his speech, “Over the years, I learned to have faith in myself. More importantly, I realized that to truly succeed, I needed to embrace the faith others had in me. My fellow alum Aunt Mary provided this foundation for me and I feel partially responsible for her recent knee replacement procedure – Aunt Mary – I know you have worn out your rosary beads and bruised your knees praying for me through St. Jude. Thank you for your unwavering belief in me, and your love and guidance. Through your example, you have been one of many people who taught me the meaning of faith, service and leadership. Not just once but over many years of always believing in me. You embody the excellence of Marquette every day. At 85 years old, I know that is no small feat.”
It was a good day. I write about fire and how it shapes our lives. I had just watched the fire develop in my own brother. It was a good day. It is there for all of us.
- Marquette, UWM grads don caps and gowns, celebrate graduation (fox6now.com)
- Remember core values, comedian Bill Cosby tells MU graduates (jsonline.com)
- To my Daughter, Lara, upon her Graduation from Marquette University (johannisthinking.com)