Conversations with Mr. Brown; Five Minutes at a Time
Smaller Doses of Life and Leadership by Jerry Rosenthal
Smaller Dose #10: It's good that you came back for more.
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Length: ~1,500 words
So here we go…..
I hadn’t seen or talked to Mr. Brown in about 30 years. Growing up, he lived down the street from my parents. As a teenager, I delivered the daily newspaper on my block. In those days, there was no such thing as an online payment. You either mailed in a check to the newspaper every quarter, or you paid me in cash as I did my weekly collections. That’s when I got to meet Mr. Brown. He told me I could call him Roscoe. We had brief conversations every week for a couple of years, and that was how it started; five minutes at a time.
Roscoe was retired. 33 years at Bethlehem Steel. He always wore a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, carried a pistol and drove a new Cadillac. He had a fish tank as large as I had ever seen outside of an aquarium. He always had a smile and a kind word to say. That’s what I remembered, but there was so much more I didn’t know or realize at the time.
I went off to college and started my own life a few years later. I traveled back home a few times a year to visit family and friends, but never took the time to reach out to Roscoe. That was a chapter I thought was closed. I didn’t realize that thoughts of Roscoe and our weekly five-minute chats were still floating around in my subconscious. And some of those thoughts, his wisdom, would help me see the light in the darkness at the most unexpected of times.
Every once in a while, my mom would tell me, “I saw Roscoe in the neighborhood, and he said to say hello.” I never thought much of it, until a few years ago after my dad passed away. I started thinking about the conversations I had with Roscoe as a teenager and the thoughts he shared. Most of it I ignored at the time, but some was valuable. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how valuable those lessons were.
What were some of those lessons?
· Work hard
· Always do your best
· Keep your promises
· Respect authority
· Stand up for yourself
· Do what is right
· Be there for your friends
· Pay your bills on time
· Be patient with others
· Give thanks
What I noticed years later was that all of his words were in the positive, things to do as opposed to what not to do. A great lesson in how we think and communicate to others. Focus on the “Do” instead of “Don’t” and “I can” instead of “I can’t.” Framing actions can make a huge difference in the way we experience life.
Sure, my dad shared the same with me in his own way, yet it was different coming from Roscoe who grew up in a completely different world with different challenges and a different life view. Perhaps that is what made his guidance more important than that which comes from family. Both of my grandfathers had passed away when I was young and maybe Roscoe was filling that role in my life, and I didn’t even know it.
In August of last year, while visiting my mom (in the same house where I grew up) to celebrate her birthday, I reached out to Roscoe and asked if I could come over and visit. He loved the idea. I spent a couple of hours sitting with him on the front porch of his home on a perfect summer afternoon. We shared a few stories about me and my journey over the last 30 years. But mostly, I listened to him. I was fixated on his words. Were these the same words he shared 30 years ago? Why didn’t I listen more to him then? Perhaps I had to learn about life in my own way and not just accept his wisdom for what it was.
Roscoe never bragged about himself. But I’m going to brag on him now that I know more. Roscoe was born in Texas, served in the Marines (Montford Point), lived in Chicago for a time and settled in Buffalo. He was awarded The Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 for service to his country. All of this I found out by doing an internet search, not because Roscoe told me. Newspaper article about Roscoe Brown
What Roscoe did tell me on that day in August, was a story about his son. His son had been incarcerated for 46 years for murder. He got involved in a gang and shot and killed someone at the age of 16. And now he was getting out in a few days and Roscoe was going to be there when he was to be released. He was excited and hopeful that at the age of 62, his son could have a life that he never had, find work and be a productive member of society. I was surprised that Roscoe shared this with me. I had no idea but sensed some comfort with him telling me. There was a lesson there too. Everything Roscoe shared seemed to have hidden meaning and a lesson. My goal that day was to listen and learn.
Roscoe and I made plans to visit at his home again during the week of Thanksgiving, when I’ll be visiting my mom again. I asked Roscoe if I could bring a bottle of something for us to drink. “Red wine” he said right away. He wasn’t a drinker but enjoyed a glass of red wine on special occasions. I told him that I would be in touch before my visit to get the specifics of what he liked. I wanted to give him a small gift in return for what he had given me so long ago. A gift that cost him nothing. A gift that he probably never realized he was giving me. It was simply who he was.
Before I left, I told Roscoe how much his wisdom and stories meant to me and that I had thought of him on and off throughout the years. I told him that I considered him a friend and a role model. He smiled and chuckled. “You’re a good kid,” he said. A kid, I thought. I’d always be a kid to him, and I was good with that.
At that moment, I had wished that I kept in touch with him over the years. I could have learned so much more. But here we were. A fresh start. And I was going to do my part to stay connected and learn what I could. We hugged and I walked away, down the street, back to my mom’s house, slowly, thinking of what had just happened over the last few hours. It was a memorable afternoon, one I’m sure I will never forget. An anchor point in the making.
I texted him a few days later. I shared the picture we took prior to me leaving his home. I told him how much it meant to see him, to talk and to listen. He replied. He wrote that he too enjoyed the visit and that he was looking forward to seeing me again at Thanksgiving. I left it at that. He wasn’t the type to text or chat on the phone. He was an in-person, real conversation, look you in the eyes kind of guy.
One day in late October, I talked to my mom (as I do several times a week) and she told me that Roscoe had passed away the day before. He wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to the doctor. He died peacefully in his sleep. He was 94. You would never know it. He still drove his new Cadillac. He still wore his cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He still carried his pistol. He went hunting with friends days before. He enjoyed life every single day. He didn’t have the easiest life, yet he never complained and impressed upon me to do the same.
“You can,” he would say. “Don’t say you can’t.” Those were among the last words he said before we parted ways on that August afternoon.
I teared up a little it after I got off the phone with mom. I was profoundly sad that I wouldn’t be seeing Roscoe again and be able to share that bottle of red wine with him at Thanksgiving. He was a role model and I’m glad I had that chance to tell him when I saw him. An anchor point had been created.
You never know when you will have that last conversation with someone. I’m glad we had a chance to sit and talk that day, and that I was able to tell him how much he had given me and what he meant to me. I think it meant a lot to him too. It meant everything to me to share with him and let him know the role he played in my life; five minutes at a time.
Jerry is the author of “Small Doses: Common Sense to Common Practice,” a book which contains 18 thought pieces about the intersection of Process Improvement, Leadership and Life. Jerry has started experimenting with short stories about life experiences (Anchor Points) and the profound lessons that can be learned from before and after those moments.