Legacy

Yesterday, Ed Kellner, my 91-year-old father, departed this life. He left behind a few shirts and pairs of pants, a pair of shoes, a pair of bedroom slippers, three Bibles, pictures of children and grandchildren, and a few odds and ends. It doesn’t sound like much.

My father and mother were successful by the standard measurements of American culture. They did well in the real estate business, well enough to retire in their fifties and not worry much about money for the next 35 years.

And yet, it all came down to what could be packed in two boxes. Except, dad left a lot more than two boxes of clothes and memorabilia; he left a rich legacy. Within minutes after I posted his passing on Facebook, the condolence messages started coming—more than 400 by last night.

Some came from friends dating back to childhood and college, others from friends and colleagues I have made as I have traveled the world or people who have heard me tell stories about his life. A number came from people I have never met, people whose lives my father touched. A pattern emerged quickly. Some people are remembered for their sense of humor, or their golf game. The people who wrote to me yesterday talked about the orphans my father sponsored in Haiti, the water wells he helped dig in Africa and the churches he helped launch in the US.

The theme was consistent: Dad was always giving.

When his time came, his earthly possessions fit in two cardboard boxes. But the legacy was huge.

Legacy was not so important to me when I was young. I focused on achievement. And like most Americans, I used hard metrics to determine success. Now that most of my career is behind me, I am much more focused on legacy, the things that don’t fit in a couple of boxes.

Oskar Schindler was not a very good man most of his life. He was a spendthrift, a playboy and a war profiteer. He made a lot of money and threw away a lot of money until he realized the value of an individual human life. Then, he spent much of his fortune trying to save the lives of the Jews who worked for him from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. By the time the Russians arrived, Schindler had saved more than 1,100 men, women and children. In the climactic scene of the Steven Spielberg film, the Jews he saved gathered to say goodbye to Schindler and his wife before he fled from the Red Army. The spokesman for Schindler’s Jews gave him a ring with an inscription from the Talmud, “Whoever saves a life saves the world entire.” Schindler broke down and wept at the realization that he could have done more, much more.

Few people have as dramatic a moment as Oskar Schindler, but we leave a richer legacy when we invest in saving lives.

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