Leave a Legacy, Be a Legend

Several years ago, in the midst of a summer spent working on-site in Dallas, Texas, during one of too-many sixteen-hour work days designed to expedite my departure from that very same Dallas, Texas, I fell into a conversation about the concept of legacy. I had recently finished reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World. The book, a faster read than its sprawling title suggests, paired well with Timothy Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek, another source of inspiration to my 2011 self. Guillebeau’s book posited that we should, and the sooner the better, identify the legacy we hope to leave behind and work toward it without delay. My co-author on the project, a friend who often thinks on a deeper, more philosophical level than I, argued that the concept of leaving a legacy is narcissistic pretension at its very finest. That short of world leaders in critical moments in history; inventors whose creations changed the world; and humanitarians whose accomplishments warranted celebration in elementary school textbooks, that nobody truly leaves a legacy.

In other words: There are over 7 billion people in the world, your meager existence matters not.

I was on the fence about the idea before raising the topic. To be clear, I had no idea what legacy I wanted to leave, if any, and wasn’t sure if I had the desire to devote myself to one. The discussion helped sway me, easing my mind from the burden of trying to attain a greater purpose with my life. I had decided then, and to a certain extent still believe it now, that to simply be remembered — and hopefully missed — would be more than enough. Eddie Vedder sings in the Pearl Jam song Just Breathe: “Oh I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love.” To know six people love you back would certainly be comforting in your final moments.

But is that a legacy?

Being Missed is Something Different

Death surrounds the news in these early days of 2016: From David Bowie to Alan Rickman to Glenn Frey and Dave Mirra. And that’s just a few well-known celebrities. Musicians, an actor, and a BMX icon; the latter I fondly recall seeing at the height of his popularity when we lived in the same town. Whenever a celebrity dies, social media explodes with outpourings of grief and hopes that the dead may R.I.P. We remember the songs they sang, the films they made and the entertainment they provided. But we didn’t know them. We only know of their deaths because they were famous people; not because a hole had suddenly appeared in our lives.

This time last year I was sitting at the table with my wife and her father one morning, chatting across empty cereal bowls. Though he was terminally ill, none of us had any reason to think he wouldn’t live another month. Yet there we were, discussing legacy. I, as I had done several times over the decades I’ve been hanging around the family, suggested he get some hobbies. He worked too much, I told him. He said “I want to know from the both of you, right now, what you would do if you could spend your day doing anything you wanted.”

I didn’t hesitate to answer: “I’d wake up early every morning and get three or four hours of writing done, have lunch, then spend my afternoons mountain biking with friends.” He was shocked. How could that be enough? How could I not want to leave more of a legacy than that? What comforted him, he said, was knowing that he had led small businesses that created jobs and gave employment to people who needed it. And, of course, that he was father to three fantastic daughters for whom his hard work provided for so well.

The family misses him dearly, myself included. But I don’t believe being missed is the same as leaving a legacy. That’s not a very high bar to leap, being missed. The people who worked for him still went to work the next morning. They missed him too — who wouldn’t? — but the hole left behind by even someone as successful as my father-in-law is still, in terms of the world at large, very small. It’s a personal, private, narrow-but-deep hole afflicting a small group of people. You can probably count them on two hands.

Changing Lives in Your Wake

I was in Turkey last fall, cycling west along some back roads en route from Cappadocia to Istanbul, and I began thinking about how I got there. For those of you who had never spent all day on a bicycle, let me assure you that the mind wanders in some unpredictable directions when you do. As the relatively empty scenery failed to distract me, I stepped backwards through the past twenty five years and realized that, without need for any complicated Rube Goldberg mechanics of cause-and-effect, I could trace my being on a world bicycle tour back to one man. His name was Arthur Shadell, my high school cross-country and track & field coach. We called him Shades. Over the ensuing miles I realized that my life was infinitely better thanks to his taking an interest in my success as a runner and my well-being as a young teenage boy going through a number of challenges at home. At a time when I needed someone to hold me accountable and inspire me, he stepped up. From the moment I met him in the early days of my freshman year and throughout the four years that followed, he was there. It was because of his dedication to me that I had the discipline, the grades, and the talent to get an athletic grant to Lafayette College. It was there, at Lafayette, where I met another incredible mentor of mine and, even more importantly, where I met my wife. It was she who encouraged me to pursue a writing career. It was that writing career that helped fund our hobbies and adventures. It was our mutual love of travel that had us twenty months into a dream trip: touring the world by bicycle.

An avalanche can only go where the valley below allows it. And though the ultimate size of the slide is a result of myriad factors, it can always be traced back to one moment in time, an incident that got things moving in the right direction. Shades asking me if I was interested in joining the cross country team (to which I replied, “I don’t ski, but I’m hoping to run track.”) was the first domino that fell, the inciting incident of a chain reaction for good.

I started writing a letter to Shades one night in a forgettable Turkish hotel on the Mediterranean Sea. I hadn’t spoken to him or seen him in over a dozen years, not since I flew back to New Jersey for his retirement party. I didn’t know where he lived, but I’d find out. I’d finish the letter and get it to him and hopefully, if he was up for it, I’d pay him a visit the next time I was in New Jersey. After all, we were headed home to the USA in December.

I was on my way into a furniture store a week after returning home to the States when I received a text message from a close friend. Shades had passed away. The letter, two-thirds finished, was still on my laptop.

I mailed it, a week later, to his wife, inside a sympathy card.

Shades, as many teachers do, left a wider hole than most of us can ever hope to. The lucky among us can point to one or two teachers who changed their lives, who will always be remembered. And since so many of us have had this experience I have no choice but to believe that nearly every school has these special teachers and coaches who leave such an impact. Teachers, perhaps by definition, have the capacity to potentially leave a legacy. They can alter and mold lives, dozens each year. Not all of them, and not for every student. But for enough of them. I’m sure there are those who had Shades as a teacher or as a coach but never thought of him again upon graduating. Not every teacher can be all things to every student. Teachers leave an impact, but it’s a personal one. Not unlike that of a family member… they just happen to have a much bigger family.

Legacy Means the Hole Must be Filled

A week into 2016 I attended a memorial bike ride in honor of Len Francies. We were riding the Grand Ridge Trail in Issaquah, where he had passed away on New Year’s Day while riding with one of his best friends. Len was 57 years old and though I had only ridden with him a few times in the past and seen him no more than two or three times over the past five years, I felt a duty to attend this ride. As did the thirty other riders there that chilly morning and the more than two hundred people who attended the memorial service that afternoon, many of whom were merely mountain bike acquaintances like myself.

We stopped halfway through the ride and toasted Len’s life with some beers we carried in our packs. His longtime friends and those who knew him the longest shared stories about the man nicknamed “The Legend”. They spoke of his work in dealing with land managers, his incredible riding prowess, and his tireless efforts in building and maintaining trail. Len was a US Forest Service-certified sawyer and not only took it upon himself to clear fallen trees off of dozens of miles of trails in Western Washington, but he also volunteered to teach chainsaw certification classes to others. He had boundless energy and treated everyone, strangers and acquaintances alike, as if they were a long-lost friend. There aren’t many like him.

The group stopped again on the return leg of the ride, at the spot where he died. There was talk of dedicating a bench, of naming an unfinished trail in his honor, and of other gestures of remembrance. Then it shifted. “Everybody who hikes or bikes trail in Western Washington has benefited from Len’s hard work,” someone said.

I had kept quiet throughout the somber moments and sharing of stories. I didn’t know Len well. I’d occasionally run into him on a trail somewhere and we’d chat for a few minutes, or I’d see him at a trail work party, but that was about it. I wanted to let those closest to him have this time. I had no intention of saying anything, but then I suddenly found my lips moving, my voice loud.

“I used to be one of those guys who felt it wasn’t really possible for average people like us to leave a legacy. But being here today and listening to you all tell stories and, well, just seeing how many of us are here and thinking about how many people it’s going to take to fill the shoes that Len has left behind, I’m starting to reconsider my beliefs. And maybe it’s just that Len wasn’t average, he was special. And I know that, but…” I lost my train of thought at that point and others chimed in and echoed my sentiments. They steered the conversation to the hard work we all needed to do now that Len wasn’t there to do it. That remembering him that day wasn’t what was important, that remembering him in the years to come was what mattered most.

I’ve continued to ponder the concept of legacy since Len’s death, aided in part by the well-publicized deaths I alluded to earlier. And what I’ve come to realize is that a legacy isn’t about being famous, or being loved by family, or even by giving a few people jobs or helping shape a student’s future.

It’s about community. About having a community of people feel the need to collectively gather, not just to mourn your death or retirement, but to ask themselves, “How are we going to make up for this loss?”

It’s not about leaving a deep hole in a family member’s life or leaving a small hole in the lives of fans. It’s about leaving a hole that a community feels an immediate need to fill. It’s not about having your person missed; but having the work you’ve done continue.

That’s what leaving a legacy is.

What I do with this realization remains to be seen. But for now I just thought I’d share it.

Post Image by Alosh Bennett, used under Creative Commons.

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6 thoughts on “Leave a Legacy, Be a Legend”

  1. Going to reflect on this for a while because I disagree with some of your definition…Got a date with a treadmill in about an hour – thank you for inspiring me to think about this…(and just typing that gave me an idea about what the word/idea means to me)

  2. A few weeks ago my friend Don McKinney died. He was at my wedding – I believe I introduced you to him. He taught for 50 years. When he retired, he headed the Math + Science Coalition for the Ed Fund, where I met him. We worked together 7 years and then kept in touch after I left, having lunch once or twice a year. He dedicated his life to education and touched thousands of people as a result and bettered the lives of children in Philadelphia. I went to his funeral. Students of his from ten to forty years ago came out and told stories of how they never had a single birthday without personally hearing from their favorite teacher – that they kept in touch all these years.

    Don was an amazing man and he made me feel special and that I could achieve anything. We spent hours weighing whether or not I should go back to school (he always thought I should) and he was proud of me when I did. He was a mentor who lit up with a smile every single time he saw me. I miss him.

    He will always be remembered. His legacy lays in all the people he inspired to become great teachers, educators, activists… there is no hole for community to come together and fill. Someone else will head the Coalition and that will be that. He inspired people so much while he was alive that his legacy had already been in motion. His work already continues because he inspired people enough while he was alive. Therefore, now that he’s gone, we can remember him fondly and keep doing the work he inspired so many to do.

    Therefore, I disagree. If there’s that much of a need for people to rally together to continue your work after you’ve gone, perhaps you didn’t inspire enough people to work alongside you while you were here. I’m thinking now of someone like Jane Goodall. Her work will continue without skipping a beat thanks to the people she inspired and taught to take her place. To me, that’s legacy – leaving someone to take your place so your work lives on.

    1. Sorry to hear about your friend Don.

      Inspiring people is certainly another definition. I don’t claim to have the ONLY definition or requirement for legacy. I do think when people do great things beyond the realm of their careers and those they encounter professionally, it stands out even more. My example about Len only scratched the surface of his accomplishments (he was a founder of the current Evergreen MTB Alliance and developer of the rider education program, for starters), and even though there were always people working alongside him, drawn to help the cause because he inspired them, he outworked everyone. That’s why people felt the need to rally. One volunteer couldn’t fill his shoes alone.

      But this discussion wasn’t about him, just about my own ruminations on what the term legacy even means.

      Professional leaders are to their peers what teachers are to their students. The position gets filled, but they are remembered for the guidance and inspiration they left behind. Some may call that a legacy. I don’t know if I do.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on this. As an life-long educator (and one whom your wife knows), I appreciate your kind words about teachers. Even more, I love the notion of legacy you derived. I would like to share it with my class next term.

    1. I appreciate the nice words Marilyn. By all means, please share it at will. I’ve had some interesting conversations spurred by this post; I suspect your students will no doubt have some interesting takes on it.

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