had a wonderful husband. John was a writer, a newspaper night city editor right out of
journalism school, and a filmmaker who made wonderful documentaries and was one
of the first six Robert Flaherty Fellows (Robert Flaherty was considered the father of
the modern documentary—his films include The River and Nanook of the North).
We had one small problem. He took a cool, clinical, measured look at things, while I
would want to leap ahead. “Wonderful. Let’s go!” I’d say, and on and on. One day when
I was particularly exuberant (obnoxious) about a possibility, John said, “Frances, if you
were drowning and going down for the last time, you would be shouting, “Today was
great, but tomorrow will be better.” That became the family joke.
But keeping our spirits up and seeking out hope in tough times isn’t a joke, it’s essential.
In these uncertain times, we cannot give in to despair or cynicism.
Every day, if we look, if we seek them out, we can find moments that give us hope.
“Lowest level of trust, highest level of cynicism” in our own society may be what we are
observing, hearing, feeling at times. Yet positive messages, trends, and examples are all
around us, led by this “Crucible Generation” and all of us who recognize, support, and
cheer them on.
Here is one example. On May 22, I attended the West Point Graduation, Class of 2010, where President Obama gave the stirring commencement address. It was inspiring and respectful, combining the gratitude of our country with great expectations of these young second lieutenants, commissioned officers at the end of the ceremony. This was the first time that two women finished atop the graduating class in West Point’s 208-year history—Alexandra Rosenberg and Elizabeth Betterbed. This year’s class included 136 female graduates.
“The faces in this stadium show a simple truth,” the president told the graduating class. “America’s Army represents the fullbreadth of America’s experience. You come from every corner of our country—from privilege and from poverty, from cities and small towns. You worship all of the great religions that enrich the life of our people. You include the vast diversity of race and ethnicity that is fundamental to our nation’s strength.
“We cannot succumb to division because others try to drive us apart. We are the United States of America, and we have repaired our union, and faced down fascism, and outlasted communism. We’ve gone through turmoil, we’ve gone through Civil War, and we have come out stronger—and we will do so once more.”
President Obama knows how important hope for the future is. After his speech, he gave out a number of the diplomas, and then shook the hands of all 914 graduates.
When I talk about today’s Crucible Generation, it is not an abstraction. I have one of this generation in my own family—Johnny, in college, writing stirring poetry and stories, with his two-year-old daughter Isabella and wife Nicole as his cheering section. I remind him that he is the fourth generation of John Hesselbeins—all writers—and his own father, the third, tells him that of all four generations, he is the best.
Seeking hope in tough times isn't a joke, it's essential.
Even though his father, my only son, is an invalid and cannot get out of bed, even to sit in a wheelchair, he does not despair. While he was in the Army, scar tissue had to be removed from his lungs. Today, spending 24 hours on oxygen and with congestive heart failure, John says, proudly, “I was a soldier, I am a soldier, I will always be a soldier.” (Isabella, the baby who adores him, is what is keeping him alive, says his doctor.)
“Today was great, but tomorrow will be better” was our family joke, but it expresses an attitude that is essential to living a life with purpose. Why should we not be positive? And add Claire, Doug, Gloria, Justine, Risa, Theresa, the young and energetic Leader to Leader staff, plus the remarkable board, led by Fred Altstadt, chief operating officer of Mutual of America, to my working life, and it is very difficult to be anything but filled with gratitude, expectation, and a sense that for all of us, it’s never just a job. Every day is a gift.
I’ll close this column with a moving experience I had at the Women Presidents’ Organization in Fort Lauderdale.
The day before, I’d been at Fort Benning, where I spoke to General Michael Ferriter’s U.S. Infantry Maneuver Center of Excellence and his officers, and received the Saint Maurice Medal, one of our U.S. Army Infantry’s highest awards. I am now an honorary member of the U.S. Infantry, and the award ceremony was one never to be forgotten. The plaque with the inspiring medal hangs in my office at West Point, a reminder of one of the great days in my life.
From there, I went to another “fort”—Fort Lauderdale to speak to 500 women who all own their own businesses, the Women Presidents’ Organization. (I was gratified to learn that 95 percent of these business owners had been Girl Scouts.) One of the most moving experiences happened at the end of my speech to the group. My speech, “Leadership Imperatives,” was exceptionally well received, with standing ovations and some tears at the end. After the speech, I left the stage and went down on the floor to mingle with these business leaders.
The faces in this stadium show a simple truth.
We expressed appreciation for each other and shared lots of hugs. Then before me stood a young woman from another country, probably somewhere in Asia. She knelt before me, on one knee, with hands clasped, head bowed, and said, “Bless me. Please bless me.” I come from a long line of Methodist ministers, but nothing in my background ever prepared me for this moment.
I looked at this earnest young woman, placed my hand on her bowed head, and said, “May all the blessings be yours.” She rose, embraced me, in tears, and then I saw behind her, kneeling on one knee, her colleague, who also said, “Bless me, please bless me.” I placed my hand on her head and said, “May all the blessings be yours.”
It was a rare and moving moment for me. And for the leaders who surrounded us. One more moment to be grateful for—never to be forgotten, always to be remembered on this inspiring journey we all share.