The Fire of an MBA

Jim Gallagher graduates with honors with an MBA from Marquette.  Pictured here with the Dean of the Graduate School of Management

Jim Gallagher graduates with honors with an MBA from Marquette. Pictured here with the Dean of the Graduate School of Management

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.

He wrote:

“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.

California Dreaming

California Dreaming, Chicago Style

Walking to the elevated train this morning through the first snow of the season, I had California on my mind.  Temperate California seemed the antidote to the late onset of Chicago winter.   As I climbed the steps to the el, right before me was the ironic contrast of my California dreaming — a snowy “California” sign, teasing me, taunting me as I slid on my winter gloves and hunkered down for the train to arrive.  Where I wanted sunny California, I got a snowy sign called the California el stop in Chicago.  Ouch!

That’s when it hit me.  My logical, sequential mind always did things like this.  It assumes that California is “A” when it might just be “B”.  Expecting “A” makes it disappointing to get to “B”. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more comfortable with gray areas, more open to things not being as they seem at first pass.

Coming to terms with expectation and ambiguity is a challenge, at least for me.  Wouldn’t it be great if everything was 1:1?  If you cook, you eat.  If you work hard, you succeed.  If you are good, things are good.   Why has it been such a shock to me that life doesn’t work out that way?

In any event, I’ve learned that if you seek, you don’t always find.  If all your ducks are in a row, life may still throw you a curve ball.  No matter how hard you try to stay on the straight and narrow, it might not be your path.  Or, what happens to be in store for you.  As I’ve heard it said, “You gets what you gets.”   No matter who you are or what you do, life has a plan for you that is probably not the plan you have for it.

In my exploration, I’ve found things I couldn’t have predicted, run up against dry sockets I couldn’t have imagined and seen things that are both improbable and beautiful at the same time.  The more I’ve wanted things to move in direction “A”, the more certain nothing is.  Long story short, suspending belief is both art and science, as well as a fairly decent way to live. 

This is not something I knew when I embarked on the journey to understand how burning my leg at the age of two brought me to my current state of life.  But I’m here now. 

And when I saw the snowy sign “California” this morning, I laughed out loud and took a of photo of it.  “Good one universe, good one,” I said to myself.  I’ll go with your flow, I’ll go with your flow.

Returning to Green Bay

Rainbow on I-43 North September 30, 2011

Since my parents passed away in the mid-1990s, my return visits to my hometown of Green Bay, WI are tied to special events rather than happenstance occurrences.  With a class reunion looming, I made plans with two St. Joseph Academy high school friends to attend the event together and didn’t initially give much thought to maximizing my time there.  But as the weekend approached, it seemed right to think about, and perhaps visit, some of the landmarks from childhood.

After all the research and thinking I’d already done for Anne on Fire, I decided to let the weekend unfold on its own rather than attempt to orchestrate anything.

As Barbie, Teresa and I hit Highway I-43 for the drive north, the largest and most beautiful rainbow appeared ahead of us (see photo above), symbolically beckoning us forth, or at the very least giving us a very good feeling about the weekend.  (For meaning on rainbows, see:   http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2008/08/what-do-rainbows-mean.html and http://www.buzzle.com/articles/colors-of-the-rainbow-and-their-meaning.html) .  Our feeling was right on the money:  Green Bay had changed and expanded since our high school days but our connections to each other felt as if no time had passed. 

519 Spring Street, Green Bay, WI

On Saturday, we did some errands and then drove by the old neighborhood.  I hopped out of the car and took a picture of my old house at 519 Spring Street (above) and then we headed out of the city to visit Teresa’s parents for lunch.  For our entire childhood, Teresa and I lived across the street from one another, frequent refugees in each other’s houses and intertwined in the storylines of growing up.  Her parents had long since moved from the St. James neighborhood we shared and we pulled up to a cozy brown ranch with an enormous garden next to it.  The table was set for lunch and after a tour of the garden (and some choice pickings from the remaining harvest) we settled in to catch up and break bread. 

As lunch neared its close, Teresa’s dad turned and sincerely asked, “Now Annie, tell us what you are doing with yourself.”   After telling of husband and kids, I mentioned my Anne on Fire pursuits hoping they might have a remembrance or two to share.  I watched Teresa’s mom nodding and then she said, “I do remember how hard it was on your mother.  There was one day when I went across the street to visit and she told me she had just received a call from the Service League.  Just the day before I had received one as well and of course with all the kids I had, there was no time for me to be volunteering for other things but they must have been calling some of the neighborhood women.  After what had happened with you, there was of course no way your mother could have joined and she told them that.  They wanted her to know however that they were very busy because they were regularly visiting you in the hospital.  Well, your mother was about as mad as I’ve ever seen her.  ‘Gwen,’ she said ‘How could they?  If they really wanted to be of service, why wouldn’t they come to my home and watch my other two children so that I could visit my own daughter in the hospital?””

She continued, “Annie, I think your mother had a lot of stories like this.  There were things she wished people could have or would have done to help.  But in that day and time, we didn’t say what we wanted.  We accepted what was there.  I know there were many people who were there for her and we all tried to help her as much as we could.”

We talked some more about what they knew about the accident.  I wondered how many other friends and neighbors in Green Bay had bits and pieces of the story like Teresa’s parents did.    It meant so much to have these details, to hear their recollections; to fill in the context I had been seeking.  I wondered too why some people like Teresa’s parents were so forthcoming and others so resistant.   I wondered if I had enough stories and if not, where to probe for more.

With warm hugs and muddy shoes from the garden visit, we pulled out of the driveway and returned to our reunion adventure.  I squeezed in time to see my brother coach his son in a kiddie football game and visit with my sister and sister-in-law.  When my sister Susie invited me to church on Sunday, I met them at our old parish, St. John the Evangelist, before driving back to Chicago.

Everything about the visit felt right — the warmth of a small town, the ease of going from Point A to Point B and the connections with the people gathered there that weekend.  Even my own Anne on Fire story felt right, that things happened just as I’d been told they did, that people knew, remembered and cared.  If you let it happen, you can always be home.

St. John the Evangelist Church, Green Bay