My Dad, John Robert “Bob” Berigan always gave me good advice. He provided counsel in my dating life and my road to finding a mate. He gave me a calm warning when I was being dropped off for college and I proceeded to ignore the three rules he laid down for me (I was convinced I knew everything). Over the years as some of you have seen the saddle in my conference room, I have shared the advice he gave me about choosing a career. That career advice really has been a core tenant of what has motivated me for much of my professional life. In that conversation, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said he knew since he was 4 years old that he wanted to be a cowboy. He did not want to be a movie star cowboy or even some dime store rustler with boots decorated with nickel plated tips. No, he wanted without showmanship to be a real working cowboy. So, the first best introduction of my Dad for all of you is that he was a cowboy. He was confident around his job. He stood tall at 6’4” and was strong and serious about his avocation. His clothes were marked daily with the smell of livestock, strong sun, constant wind, and all the dents of hard work. He was tucked away from most people in the Plains working day after day on his place. The life he led wasn’t romantic or like the movies even though he had the handsome looks to have been a star in some great American Western.
There is an aloneness in rural Nebraska. Although the connection with community is strong it isn’t because of the repeated interactions that happen every day. Days go by without seeing anyone and that happens because people, structures and the bustle of cities are replaced with cattle, grass and wind. My Dad was comfortable with that. It suited him.
My Dad was also a great athlete. He was honored to be in the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame for basketball with his teammates. A small town in Northeast Nebraska had a basketball team that competed with the best teams in the entire state of Nebraska. The team had 6 members and yet it produced two division 1 basketball players. My father and his teammate were later members of the St. Louis University Billiken basketball team in the late 1940s when that program was a perennial top 10 team. There is so much to this story, but space is limited. A remarkable group of young men who caught lightning in a bottle and won so many games together. My Dad and I connected through athletics. He and I used to watch Monday Night Football together. This was when Monday Night Football was an event narrated by Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford and Dandy Don Meredith. We would bet a dollar on the game each time. I inevitably would get sleepy, and I would know who won if there was a dollar bill on the family room ledge when I woke up. If there wasn’t one, then I knew I lost but he never asked for a dollar from me – that’s how I like to gamble! I remember growing up playing basketball in high school and was having some level of success. I would get older men coming up to me after the game congratulating me on a good game. They hardly got that formality out of the way when they followed up with an excited need to make sure I understood how good my father was. They might say, “Great game son. You should have seen your Dad play. He was something else. That whole team was incredible. He would have been an even better football player if St. Joe’s had football back then.” Some of my happiest memories was when my Dad would pull into the driveway and park his pickup truck in the garage. He would come out onto the driveway where my buddies and I were playing hoops and he would clap his hands for the pass. I would deliver it right to his shooting position and he would shoot a one-handed set shot. He might miss the first one and then I would quickly grab the rebound and throw him another and soon he would be in a rhythm nailing one 18-footer after another in his cowboy boots and my friends would just look at me in disbelief. Finally on his next miss he would run and get his own rebound and shoot a running 10-foot hook shot off the backboard like nothing (in case you don’t know that is really hard to do – trust me).
My Dad had a loving heart toward people that did not fit in. If Dad wasn’t alone then he would hire folks to help out here and there while we were in school. He had a penchant for connecting with people who were marginalized or ostracized a bit. He hired a deaf man, another man with a strong speech impediment and also some men who were painfully poor and trying to find their way. He had a great gift for seeing people with fresh eyes and he focused in on his intuitive sense of the spiritual gifts of these men. My Dad loved the small community his ranch was in. The people there were connected to each other even if they necessarily did not spend a lot of time together.
My Dad had a deep faith. After my mother died in 1992, he spent the next 20 plus years going to Mass every day. He and my mom had 8 children. He wrote a prayer in 1956 when only 3 of his children had been born. He kept it up until all 8 were born and never stopped saying that prayer for us. He used his hands to say the prayer. The two thumbs represent his wife and himself and the other fingers were his 8 kids:
Keep my babies always...
Holy, Healthy, Happy.
Keep them from any disastrous disease, accident, or death.
Grant them success in their endeavors.
Then do with them what you will.
My Dad’s relationship with money was wrapped up into that of my mothers in many ways. Marriage has a way of linking us whether we are ready to be financially bonded or not. We say yes to love and some baggage could come with it. The hard part about a spouse’s baggage is that you are so busy being irritated by their warts that you forget about the trunk of messiness you brought to the journey. My father’s ambition to succeed was perhaps connected to the success he saw around him within his wife’s family. Maybe it was just his strong desire to make a great life for his own family. Or, most likely, it was a combination of both of those things. I personally have a kind of ambivalence toward my own ambition. I have had a lot of it in my life up to now. It is what motivates me when I don’t have any other levers to pull. It has moved me to a great career with a wonderful company and many lovely people. Conversely, it has also kept me absorbed inside myself and my needs and left an imbalance of time and connection across my family life. My dad shared my imbalance of time with his family so many years ago. He loved us dearly, but the small moments of time together were not as plentiful as I would have preferred. I understand it now. I am not as hurt about it as I used to be. Ambition in my mind is critical to own a small business and make something successful. A service that people benefit from and enjoy is necessary to succeed in that small business. A committed work ethic combined with ambition fills up your bank account enough to lead a good life. I respect the power of ambition but at this stage of my life I am partially suspicious of it because I think it made me partially selfish and unaware of the impact it was having in my house when all along I thought it was clear that I was doing it for my family. They wanted time from me not money. Ambition’s connection to ego could be painful if you do not have people around you to let you know when you get too stuck inside your own desires no matter how noble your goals seem.
Debt can be a powerful method to build a small business. My Dad’s experience with debt was noticeable inside our family all along. Debt can be emotional. My life as a financial planner has taken me into many topics for the people I serve. One that comes up again and again is debt. Most of the time there are questions around should I pay it off? How much is too much? Should I be debt free in retirement? Should I buy the car with cash or borrow? Underneath the questions is always a feeling of wondering if having debt is ok. There is never one answer, but I have some basic thoughts. First, it is better to take on secured debt rather than unsecured debt. So, have an asset behind that debt that is worth at least as much if not a lot more than the debt you have. Know how you will cash flow the debt payments. Understand the impact those payments have on your liquidity needs and lifestyle. These topics are for another blog but in essence my Dad’s business was strangled by debt because he perhaps borrowed too much but frankly the massive interest rates of the early 1980s devastated his ability to service those loans and the impact of that changed his business as a rancher forever.
My Dad spent the next 25 years putting the pieces of his business back together. He used his “married money”, wisely or not, that was set for longer term use to retire debt and then he buckled down with hard work and a deep commitment to create something meaningful to leave behind for his kids. My father was adamant that he have some assets to leave his children. Passing something on was why he spent so much time away from his family. I knew he did not want to have made that deep commitment to work and not have something to point to for his version of success. My siblings and I repeatedly encouraged him to use his money for himself and not worry about us. He bristled at that. In the last 6 years of his life, I worked directly with him on his impulse toward his legacy as he hired me as his financial adviser. I decided that I needed to remove my son hat and put on an advisor hat. I needed to accept his desire to maximize what he had left even if I was watching a man relentlessly practice minimalism. It was his nature to forgo things and not a burden for him. We wondered if he was too much of a minimalist but that is what cowboys do. I learned that even if my head tells me what advice I should give clients to make their lives easier if the heart of my “client” has something else in their heart that is what I need to embrace also. In my Dad’s case, this was his last best way of achieving what he worked so hard for. He wanted to give us something when he died. He wanted there to be money that could be used to help all of his children.
I walked with Dad consistently through those last several years as he was seeing his account grow and still have his needs met. We made a fuller connection as father and son through my role as his adviser. I will always cherish that even if that intimate connection came so much later in life than my 15-year-old self would have preferred.
Legacy is not just about estate planning and leaving assets behind. There is another tributary of legacy and that is a loved one’s story that lives beyond them and the love within it. These feelings are hard to quantify but have deep value for survivors – a real lasting legacy so to speak. My deepest learning from my Dad was how he led himself into death and dying. I remember in the Spring of 2013 I took my daughters and went on a road trip to my hometown -O’Neill, Nebraska – the Irish Capital of Nebraska. My Dad’s health was failing. I watched him really struggling physically. We had a great visit with my Dad. He was able to spend time with all of my daughters. We spent a day driving around the ranch we grew up on. We stood next to the Niobrara River and watched it run with fury. I took my kids into an abandoned home that hadn’t been lived in since well before I was born. Broken down, empty and scary looking for three little girls from the “big city” to explore.
Dad’s legacy of love came in a personal moment of power for me. O’Neill is the kind of town where I could leave my young daughters in the car as my Dad and I walked into the bank to get some paperwork done. As we pulled up to the bank, I was pulled in several directions and maybe a little crabby and frazzled. I told my girls to behave, and I would be right back. I shut the door and I could hear them arguing immediately – so much for my warning. I walked toward the bank with my dad. This man who was 6’4” and a 230 lb earth-strong giant was now maybe 170 lbs leaning shorter too as if his old man gate were pulling him into the ground. I could see my Dad was having a hard time understanding all that we were doing at the bank. We had to go over it more often than was normal. Eventually he understood all that was said but he and I both knew how vulnerable he was. I always knew my Dad loved me and my siblings. His loyalty, availability and reliability were traits that he used to verify his love for us and essentially say in the best way he could, “I love you”. Men of his era and occupation aren’t comfortable or quick to use those “I love you” words freely. I knew that and I also knew that I wanted to make sure he knew from me how much I loved him. I grabbed his hands outside the bank, and I clutched them. I looked him in the eye and tried to be as authentic and non-dramatic as possible. I paused, looked him in the eyes and finished my admiration and care for him by telling him that I loved him. He let it in but said nothing and that didn’t surprise me, nor did it hurt in any way. It wasn’t why I said it to him. However, moments later as we were crossing the street he stopped in the middle of the crosswalk and grabbed my wrist and yanked it with the strength he used to have and with emotion all over his face said, “I love you, Will”. It was and is a deeply moving and emotional moment for me. I had little time to savor it in that exact instant because my girls were about to kill each other in the car, and I had to scoot in and stop the carnage!
That moment and the days and months ahead as my Dad was dying, I saw a man of great dignity truly unwinding into death as his best self. I was so moved and impressed as he really settled into the man he always was meant to be but like me things such as ego, suffering, worry, timing, and any other human barrier we all share keep us from reaching that best self. His journey into dying was something I did not get to witness with my mother’s shocking and sudden death. However, his legacy of dying well is something I took to heart immediately and thought I should fiercely begin my own work on my best self decades before my death happens if I can. That is my most treasured legacy from him. My Dad left me my biggest lesson from his death. My Dad was wise that way. I am grateful.
John Hiatt might show up on these blogs a lot. Who knows, but I think this one fits…
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