Religion | Bottom Line Ethics

In the midst of a pandemic that has made me more risk averse than I have ever been, I am witness to a standard of longevity that stands as a monument to tenacity and grace. This week, my Dad, who survived Iwo Jima among a series of Pacific battles that engaged the 4th Marine Division, will turn 100.

When I was growing up, my chain-smoking Dad was the last person I would have thought would live to a ripe old age. I am pretty confident that I never saw my Dad participate in athletic activity when I lived at home, unless you count yelling at Little League umpires. He never worked out between the ages of 30 and 70. He was not careful about what he ate or drank. He was just my Dad, and not anyone you would think of as an icon.

Today, he is one of the most popular people on the third floor of the Isle at Watercrest, still getting around with his walker and, whenever possible, refusing help. But for the last four months, this has been invisible to us, and we have relied on others to provide all of his care and comfort. We are the outsiders, banned from visiting because of the COVID threat to residents.

I would give anything to sit across the room from him in the reading chair that I bought when he moved here a year and a half ago. We would have a meandering conversation about life in Pennsylvania shooting rabbits with his father, or coming of age in Baltimore, or the war. None of the discussion would involve politics or the Astros, as it might have a decade or less ago.

We would look at pictures of Mom on the wall, gone three decades now, but very much alive in his heart still. Next year Linda and I will pass the number of years given to my parents together, but I can guarantee you that the fire still burns bright for my Dad, and it gives me hope that we can continue to kindle something that our kids and grandkids will use in the years ahead to warm their lives.

The pictures in his room also include frozen moments in time of my parents just after the war, and then with one, two, and three children. The last of these is my first birthday, on the porch in Baltimore in my Mom’s arms with me wearing a classic birthday hat, with my two older brothers looking mildly disinterested. I have not seen these pictures for four months because of COVID. But I see them clearly in my mind, and they connect me to my Dad in ways that are hard to describe.

One day, I suppose, similar pictures will hang above my recliner in a similar place, telling a story of days already long ago in which my life was formed and shaped. And my children and grandchildren will, I hope, visit long enough to have that unique mixture of sadness and sweetness that goes with encountering life at the stage where the battery is flashing.

But amidst the long, slow decline, we have this amazing moment. 100. How could it be that he could have gotten to this point, and that he still acts as if the road goes on forever? This man who has witnessed over 40 percent of the history of our nation, who was born just after World War I and the flu pandemic and while Woodrow Wilson was still president, soldiers on in the summer of COVID. And he does it without a single visitor, though we are chomping at the bit to be with him.

All the cultural battles being fought today are the culmination of history he has witnessed. When I was young, it felt like I could never make him happy. Now, he never complains, unless you try to help him. When I talk to him, one of his most common phrases is, “So be it.” It is a mix of resignation and contentment. After Mom died, he spent almost thirty years alone in the home I grew up in. I suppose he is as prepared as anyone I know to be alone in this pandemic, and I am pretty certain that he is content with the periodic visits throughout the day from his caregivers.

But, if I am being honest, I am not. I want to see my Dad, and hug his neck, and let him know face-to-face how much I love him. I almost never talk to him without him telling me how proud he is of me. How many men my age are hearing that? How many men of any age are hearing that?

I have the voice of my father telling me I am worthwhile for one more day. I do not take this day for granted.

I love you, Dad. Here’s to you. 100.

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Religion, Society, Texas A&M

Updated 12/4/2019 11:24 AM with scholarship information at end.

There are times along the road of life that we are given to cynicism. In my world, that cynicism can come from following closely the stories of people in the business world, and in the accounting profession, who live on the edge ethically. They deflect criticism and offer a litany of excuses when they wrong others or take their money. They largely avoid punishments they deserve, and they move on to hurt others in similar ways. There are days when I wonder if there is any hope of changing the environment my students will go into in the business world.

And then you meet someone like Maegan Sanders. Raised in a family deeply rooted in its faith, in a close-knit community, the kind of small town that sends its best to Texas A&M. A gentle, effervescent soul who could dominate you intellectually, but refuses to make you feel small. Maegan is the kind of person you design exams around; the goal is not to challenge her, but to see if you can create an exam on which she will not make 100.

She has been a presence in these halls even before she was in these halls, the precious daughter of a colleague who shapes some of the very best of our Accounting students with the information technology skills that put them in high demand on the market. Her mom is one of the most influential members of our faculty, and I have spent the entirety of my 13+ years here officed in the same hallway, watching her children go in and out of her door as they became formative Aggies.

Maegan hit the ground running here, accelerating through Business Honors into our Professional Program in Accounting (PPA), and she was headed out the door next May to work for Ernst & Young in San Antonio, and to begin her new life with her beloved fiancé. Last Sunday her life was cut short in a moment on a too busy holiday highway.

The tragic accident that took Maegan and her brother, Wesley, from us is the type of event that could make us cynical as well. The unexplainable is often the root of doubt and despair. A decade ago we lost one of our very best in the Professional Program in a similar sudden and unexplainable way, and I am affected by that seeming injustice to this day.

But I also see in these tragedies the hope that springs from faith and from community, and from a life well-lived, whether for 22 or 92 years. I received word of the accident barely 48 hours ago, and yet I have seen an outpouring of love and commitment from the Aggie family and from the students in our program that humbles me. Within hours a 24/7 prayer vigil for the family was launched by PPA students that is continuing at this moment. Money for an urgent need was raised through a Venmo outreach—in 20 minutes. A scholarship is being established to remember Maegan and Wesley, and Aggies from all over are asking how they can be a part.

I try with everything in me to teach and to model a life worth living in the business world. And then someone like Maegan Sanders enters my classroom, already living the joint life of technical excellence, even brilliance, and unquestioned integrity. I wonder exactly how God puts together a person like that.

I can give you a clue. In my Accounting Ethics class, my students are required to develop principles to guide their professional lives. Maegan’s first and last principles came from the same source—her mom. “Always listen to your little voice.” That little voice was “built and sculpted by the way I was raised,” Maegan wrote. And the second principle that was her guiding force in the voice of her mother was this: “Just be nice. It’s as simple as that.”

Tonight I will attend the visitation, and tomorrow the funeral, for two precious lives taken too soon. I will wear something green for Wesley, and yellow for Maegan, as the family has requested. And as I sit there, I will listen to my little voice. It is the same little voice that told me to write this.

And then tomorrow, in the challenges that go with directing a program and caring for aging parents, I will try to remember to just be nice. Because, in the end, it’s as simple as that.

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The Accounting department has created a scholarship endowment in memory of Maegan and Wesley Sanders. Income from the endowment will be used to provide an annual scholarship for an outstanding accounting major and to help create a lasting legacy for Maegan and Wesley. If you would like to contribute to this fund, please visit the Texas A&M Foundation page and choose The General Memorial Fund.  Under gift details, check the box in honor of someone special, select “In Memory” of “Maegan and Wesley Sanders” for the “Memorial Scholarship” and notify “The Sanders Family”. For information on where to send checks, please email ppa@tamu.edu. Thank you.

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Religion, Texas A&M

On this August day, the University of Nebraska at Omaha flags fly at half-mast for a man whose heart was as beautiful as his mind. David Swanson could have done any number of things with that extraordinary intellect. What he chose to do was to quietly make life better for thousands of Nebraskans by investing himself in a critical role that impacted its university system. It is not the kind of thing that engenders a hero’s respect in most people’s eyes. But then Dave is not most people.

David SwansonI met David when I was a young professor at Nebraska, about the time he married Ronda. He was a bike-riding graduate student who thought on a different plane. As they grew into their marriage and encountered parenthood, our friendship blossomed. Linda and I were hopelessly overwhelmed with three, and then four, children, so we welcomed their curiosity and their practical help.

He loved the Twins. The first two times I typed that, it came out “loves” as if my fingers couldn’t type the past tense. He loved them stupidly, like a child, against all evidence, the way I love the Orioles. I still remember a camping trip our families took together, our boys tossing the baseball back and forth as proxies for us. My last memory of Lincoln before leaving for good is a whiffle ball game at his son’s first birthday party.

He loved the Huskers, too, even through a long period of gradual decline after three national championships. But even in frustrating times, he could always laugh at the irony of decisions that were being made. He had a lightness to his heart that did not, with rare exception, allow the blows of life to drive him to despair.

And so he served as a sort of flotation device for many, including me, a combination of humor and relentless rationality that kept us from sinking too deep. He was not just rational about science and math, but he understood the rational implications of the faith in Christ he so boldly proclaimed for all the years I knew him.

Right now I am emotional and dazed at this tragic and seemingly pointless loss. And then I start thinking of him talking to me in that uniquely nasal tone I could immediately identify if I heard it in a crowded room. He is finishing every other sentence with a rat-a-tat laugh that says, “What did you expect?” It is not a cynical question.

So much of our lives as believers is ironic. What would make Dave and me friends? How would we both marry above ourselves to women who, though born a decade apart, cannot seem to get enough of being together? Dave and I would have been stuck with each other even if we had not found so much to like in each other. But I cannot remember spending five minutes in David Swanson’s presence without laughing, even in the bad times.

You don’t lower a flag to half-mast for Ph.D. types who are computer gurus, but on the day I write this, they are lowering it for Dave. He would be laughing and saying, “Are you kidding me?” No, dear friend, we’re not. You have lived a life worthy of that. You have made a meaningful impact on so many, one life at a time, not just one professional accomplishment at a time. What you could do with your mind gave you access to our hearts. And your unselfish devotion to each of us, to your family, and to your Lord is the reason we feel not just regret, but pain, in losing you.

I know you are hearing even better commendations now. But I wanted you to hear it from me, too. Well done, beloved friend.

Related: Two funds set up to support Swanson family

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Religion, Society, Texas A&M

Beren Academy is a modest sized school in southwest Houston, one that values both academics and athletics. This year their boys basketball team has experienced a successful run through the state basketball playoffs of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). They dominated their quarterfinal opponent, Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills, 69-42, advancing to the state semifinals this Friday evening in Mansfield. It is a game they will never play. You see, Beren Academy is an Orthodox Jewish school, and the game is scheduled for the Sabbath.

Coach Chris Cole readily admits that school administrators knew that this was a possible outcome for the team. Beren is only in its second year in TAPPS after competing as an independent in sports. Led by a slippery point guard and a skilled post player with a deft outside touch, the Stars were clearly the best team in their district, and they have been untested so far in the playoffs. Despite the fact that the semifinal and final games of the state championship have long been scheduled during the 24-hour period in which the Stars are unable to play, a past exception made for a Seventh-Day Adventist school in the state soccer tournament gave Coach Cole and his team hope that accommodations could be made.

This story has been picked up by the major newspapers and ESPN, so it is not my intention to belabor the issues involved. This story is somewhat personal because my son plays basketball in the same district as Beren, and the Stars were the only team in the district to defeat his school twice. The district is made up of four Christian schools and Beren. All of the district schools readily adjusted their schedules so that games against Beren could be played on Thursday night instead of Friday night. Coach Cole has been outspoken in his appreciation of the schools’ flexibility, as well of that of their quarterfinal opponent.

There are big problems in the world, and this does not qualify as a big problem. But there is a principle at stake. From Beren’s perspective it is a principle of honoring the Sabbath. But from most people’s perspective, it is an issue of justice. Perhaps Beren should bear some additional cost if arrangements have to be made that inconvenience other schools. But it does not seem like that cost should include not competing for a state championship.

TAPPS was in the news a year ago for its decision to oust Allen Academy, a Bryan private school, because of questions regarding allegedly improper tuition breaks to recruit players. Rather than accept probation from TAPPS, Allen joined an alternative private school association, the Texas Christian Athletic League, and has won the last two TCAL state boys basketball titles. But the decision made by TAPPS in that case was arguably a defense of the integrity of the association, one intended to insure fairness in competition.

This situation is different. The only thing TAPPS is really protecting is convenience, and perhaps the pocketbooks of TAPPS members. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario by which TAPPS could find an alternative location for an early afternoon basketball game Friday Then, if Beren makes the finals, the game could be played Saturday night at 8 p.m., immediately following the last game of the day on the current schedule.

Is there a religious freedom issue here? Probably? Is there a religious accommodation issue? Certainly. But this is not about legalities; this is an opportunity for TAPPS to demonstrate something that you would think would come readily to an association that is primarily made up of schools that are explicitly identified with Jesus Christ—grace.

TAPPS cannot win this dispute in the court of public opinion, but that is not why they ought to let those Beren boys play. They ought to do it on priniciple. They ought to do it as a demonstration of respect for the convictions by which Beren unapologetically operates.

But, most of all, they ought to do it because it is the right thing to do.

Categories: Athletics, Religion

I am not big on wasting my space on lunatics. I try not to provide free publicity to those who do nothing with their lives except to seek that publicity. You can be confident there will be no Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton columns coming from me. But I feel the need to speak clearly and succinctly on an issue that deeply bothers me, and that is the threatened Quran burning in Florida. I do not really want to go into details about the pastor, or what he has been accused of elsewhere in his pastoral career. I somewhat fan the flames just by giving this “leader” of a 50 or 100 person church a platform.

But I feel it is very important to speak to my Muslim friends and students, as well as to my Christian friends and students. While this is a “no brainer” issue, it is important to say to my many friends who follow Islam that this is not Christianity, and it has nothing to do with Christianity. It is a price of free speech in this nation, and right now it is a high price. I cannot speak to what fanatics may do as a result, any more than I can speak to the fanatic who would hold this event.

But I can speak to what we can be as a people. What we can do is talk to one another respectfully, listen to each others’ viewpoints because we have a common foe, and think long-term. I almost wrote on the Manhattan mosque controversy, but I thought the discussion had been handled quite well in our local newspaper. I was particularly taken by the wisdom of my colleague, Dr. Anwer Ahmed, who leads a local Muslim community. I was surprised to find that he was opposed to the mosque’s location near Ground Zero.

UPDATE: Shortly following the publication of this column, the pastor in question held a press conference announcing the cancellation of the Quran burning, but then publicly retracted his guarantee that the protest would not occur. Ultimately, the demonstration was canceled.

What I was not surprised by was the wisdom in his reasoning. He felt that some people of his faith were not being dialogical enough, that they were not putting themselves in the place of those who were opposed to the mosque. My argument as an American for the mosque’s location is that it brings together three of our most cherished freedoms in one decision: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly. Though I was bothered, as was Dr. Ahmed, by a lack of dialogical reasoning in some Muslims, I was bothered as much by a lack of dialectical reasoning in Americans opposed to it.

By dialectical reasoning I mean the ability to think long-term. In the short-run, the mosque’s location is incredibly painful and causes significant anger in many Americans who were permanently affected by the attack on our nation. But the long-term effects of directing where people worship will reverberate and, in the long run, impact a lot more Christians than it will Muslims. America is a nation built on the idea that we may speak freely, even if those who went before us have made some of what we say sound heinous. If we are not a nation that allows people to worship freely, what are we? What is unique about this place? And what freedoms are we fighting for in the Middle East?

We should think long-term, and, if we are wise, swallow the pain that goes with allowing the freedoms of speech, worship, and assembly that make us who we are. There will be days we regret doing that. In fact, what is about to happen in Florida is one of those. We would like to shut the Quran burning down, and shut it down right now.

Will there be demonstrations all over the world? Of course. Are American troops threatened? I am guessing yes. Will this help recruit fanatics to a cause? Undoubtedly. But, in the end, this “pastor” and his heedless minions are actually just setting themselves on fire. Stand back from the flames, ladies and gentlemen. Somebody could get hurt. Given time, they will burn themselves out into irrelevance. And, when they do, I will be standing, shovel in hand, ready to begin building the bridges back to my friends in Islam about whom I care deeply.

Categories: Religion

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