In giving meaning to others, we give meaning to ourselves

  • Published
  • By Col. Kathleen Concannon
  • 319th Medical Group commander
History abounds with the names of famous second-mile leaders -- Pitsenbarger, Sijan, Levitow, Cunningham, Mother Theresa--men and women who performed feats larger than life that leave us with examples of heroism, selflessness and service to their fellow man. Too often we put these heroes on pedestals, above us mere mortals and beyond our reach in terms of being able to do what they have done. So let me give you a real life example.

Rich O'Sullivan was a St. Louis, Mo. kid, born to a working class family. He was a gifted athlete, the quarterback of the football team and the center in basketball. He worked after school at a grocery store so he could afford the tuition at the local catholic high school. Knowing college was out of reach for his family, the high school priests arranged for a scholarship to St. Mary's College, in Maraga, Calif. He was the only member of his family to graduate from college. For the rest of his life, Rich valued education, paying for his four children to attend and graduate from college. He also imbued each of them with an appreciation for fitness through athletics. For him, working as part of a team gave him the best successes in life as well as the ability to persevere and triumph when the odds looked stacked against him.

After college, Rich decided to join the Navy. The field of submarines was particularly intriguing to him and he entered submarine training. During his qualification cruise, (a check ride for submariners) he started the submersion drill when water poured in through a hatch that had been reported as secured but wasn't. Rich could see his dreams sinking as the vessel filled up with seawater, but he appropriately surfaced and began recovery operations. A quick investigation discovered a sailor had not checked the errant hatch and Rich had been performing appropriately up to that event. He was given a second chance the next day and passed the trials with full qualification. He never forgot that episode ... he realized his subordinates held as much of his success as he did himself, and throughout his career, he cared for his Sailors, junior officers and those in his charge to ensure they were well trained and had opportunities to improve themselves professionally as well as personally.

But more so than his military career, it was the time after retirement that offers the best glimpse of his example to all of us. After 30 years in the Navy, rising to the rank of captain, Rich retired and began a life of service to others. He joined a prison ministry, working with prisoners to find meaning in their lives as they served their sentences. Often he made 20 dozen cookies to take to the prison, partly as an enticement to have them join the group, partly as a way to feed their bodies while nourishing their spirits. Did he make a difference? Only those prisoners know, but he worked with this organization for more than 15 years with the hope these men would find value and worth in their lives, and be productive when they returned back into society. His satisfaction in serving others was most often behind-the-scenes. Well into his 60s, he would quietly shovel the neighbor's driveway before they were up and about because they were the "old folks" on the street ... in their 70s.

The true test of his character came when he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia. This insidious condition affected Rich's ability to communicate. At first, there would be a slight hesitation as he was speaking when he tried to find a word. It progressed to substituting a word, similar but not quite right, for the one he was thinking of. Then came the inability to put together a sentence at all. It was a cruel diagnosis for a man who enjoyed interacting with others, but he still managed to find meaning and purpose in his life. He began volunteering in the laundry area of a homeless shelter. Silently he would take the clothes from the patrons there, often their only possessions. He would bundle them up in a mesh bag, wash and dry them, and then fold the garments to return to the people. Along with the laundered shirts and gently creased pants, he would return their dignity, respect and identity. In that simple activity we take for granted, he saw beyond the grime and poverty to the human being who deserved the benefit of clean clothes and a clean start. Though he couldn't speak, he said volumes in how he treated his fellow man, in how he took a small gesture and gave meaning to the lives of so many who had lost a sense of purpose.

The world and I lost a great role model on March 4th this year. You see, Rich O'Sullivan was my father, and I lived in the light of his example and mentoring all my life. The eagles he wore in the Navy are the ones he pinned on my service dress uniform three years ago. They continually serve as a reminder of his strong leadership and gentle concern for those he served with as well as those he came in contact with. It is an example I can only hope to live up to.

So what can we learn from this simple second-mile leader? One, never stop learning. Education gave my father the opportunity to leave St. Louis and see the world. His experiences gave him a perspective, understanding and acceptance of many cultures and ideas that gave him flexibility when faced with a challenge. Whether it was formal classes or how to rewire a lamp, he never stopped having an inquisitive mind that searched for a better appreciation of the world around him. Two, we all have something to offer. The act of shoveling snow or talking to prisoners may seem easy and insignificant, but the deeper meaning of a sense of caring and commitment to others is a lasting legacy. In giving dignity and respect to others, we dignify and respect the talents we are given in life. Finally, it is sometimes the small gestures that have the biggest impact on others. Never underestimate what a sincere word or a random act of kindness might do for someone else. In giving meaning to others, we give meaning to ourselves and in turn, make the world better for all.