In this space last week, graduates, I gave you a bit of advice I believe can lead you to success. Today, I am offering advice that may lead you to happiness.
Since I wasn’t born 69 years old, I know what you’re thinking. The last thing you need at 17 or 18 is advice from a guy my age. Well, I have good news for you. You’re are not about to get advice from a guy my age. You are about to get advice from a guy way older than I. I only ask you to bear with me.
I was a lot closer to your age — actually, about ten years older than you are now — when a 91-year-old man shared his key to happiness with me. Few days have gone by since that I have not thought about it. And him.
It was right around this time of year in 1978 when, as a young newspaper reporter, I was assigned to write a story about a fellow who was marking the 75th anniversary of his high school graduation. I’ll do the math for you. It meant he had graduated in 1903.
You probably cannot imagine being out of school for 75 years. Nor could I when I graduated from Pittston Area. That was in 1967. But I blinked my eyes and I was going to my 50th anniversary reunion. And that is now two years ago. I doubt I’ll be around for my 75th anniversary. But you never know. George W. Bainbridge was.
He’s the guy I want to tell you about. I cannot remember if I grumbled about having to interview this old man, but I was young and stupid and, so, probably did. But it wasn’t long before Mr. Bainbridge won me over. Listening to him talk about his life was as much fun as I had ever had up to that point, and still one of the highlights of my life.
For starters, he seemed more like 19 than 91. He was full of life in an impish sort of way. He told me there were only five members of his West Wyoming High School graduating class, three girls and two boys, and that he was the valedictorian. As I began to write that in my notebook, he said, “And put down that I was voted best-looking.”
“Really?” I asked, as I stopped writing and looked up.
“Well, there’s no one left to dispute it,” he said, “so really.”
He wasn’t kidding, though, about the valedictorian part. He told me there was no electricity in his home and he wrote his speech by candlelight while munching on nuts.
“We were always eating nuts back then,” he said, “and there was a good reason for it. We got them for nothing. All we had to do was go into the woods and pick them up off the ground.”
The title of Mr. Bainbridge’s commencement speech, “Keep Your Head Cool,” is good advice in and of itself, but not the life-changing advice to which I refer.
He added, by the way, that in 1903 there were no caps and gowns and no graduation parties. “I did have a new white shirt,” he said, “and I was very proud of it. My mother made it out of a flour sack.”
Mr. Bainbridge said his mother raised pigs on their property in West Wyoming. “But the biggest, plumpest pig,” he said, “well, we didn’t even get the squeal out of that one. He was for the neighbors. That’s how people were back then. Others came first.”
Again, a message worth taking to heart. And Mr. Bainbridge surely did. He spent his life giving to others. In 1968, he helped found the Greater Pittston Meals on Wheels program, which is still in operation to this day delivering meals to those who cannot afford or are not able to feed themselves. He was 81 at the time and continued to deliver meals for several years thereafter.
Throughout his adult life, Mr. Bainbridge spent his spare time writing poetry. He composed nearly 3,000 poems, all delivering an uplifting message. He spent his own money to have them printed on little cards which he would hand out to his friends. A newspaper colleague, the late Bob Linskey, Sr., once wrote Mr. Bainbridge always ran out of cards before he ran out of friends.
Recalling my interview with Mr. Bainbridge after all these years, I have to say his entire life constituted a worthwhile message for high school grads. But it was his parting advice that I particularly want to share. It’s something I’ve incorporated into my own life, and my children, one 36, the other 32, have incorporated into there’s. It’s simple, but it’s perfect.
Here’s what he said:
“You trade a day of your life for all the things you did during that day. Make sure when you are going to bed at night, you can say to yourself, ‘Good trade.’”
You have a lot of days ahead, grads. Trade ‘em well.