By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
America’s Wealthiest Man
One night long ago my wife and I were at my parents’ home for a holiday visit. As was our custom as the evening grew late, my dad and I gathered around the breakfast bar between the kitchen and the family room to hash out the events of the day. It was a convenient location — close to an ample supply of cold beer in the refrigerator.
By that time we had grown accustomed to disagreeing about almost everything. It had started years before with the normal things that create tension between a conscientious father and a typical son. Then the Vietnam War exacerbated our differences. Dad was a Marine who had fought in World War II. His father had fought in World War I as a Marine and in World War II as a Navy SeaBee. One of the first songs I had learned as a child was the Marine Corps Hymn. But I was actively opposed to the war on the basis of the values I had been taught by those two warriors. For years it had driven a wedge in our relationship.
That night in the kitchen we touched on that — and many other things political, economic and social that were unfolding in our country in the late 1960s. In almost every instance we disagreed. Our exchanges were not really disrespectful, but they were candid, clear and loud. At one point my mother came into the kitchen at asked to hold it down so as not to wake the children ... or the dead.
Finally, in exasperation, my father said that no matter what, he was certain about what was important him. He reached for his wallet and started to dig for something in it. I too had a clipping in my wallet that had impressed me enough to have it laminated and to carry it with me. Not to be outdone, I dug for it too. As he handed me his clipping, I handed him mine.
Then we both froze. Our clippings were identical.
We laughed. We cried. We embraced. We shared the common knowledge that beneath the surface of our differences over passing events we were bound by the same values — the same heartfelt sense of what it means to be a success. The next day we told our family about our discovery — and shared the verse with them. When my father died, I printed up copies and shared it with members of our large family — about 50 of us — and with his many friends. Now I’m honored to share it with you.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived, This is to have succeeded.”
-Bessie Anderson Stanley*
Dear friend, I wish you all the success in the world.* This poem is often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, most experts agree that it is not his work. Though it has not been completely verified, it has been studied thoroughly, and therefore it can be concluded by a consensus of experts that Bessie Anderson Stanley was almost certainly the original author of this poem. It should also be noted that there are numerous versions of the poem. Here is an explanation from the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society.