Rise Up

 In Business, Character, Culture, Faith, Family, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Identity, People, Poverty, Relationships, Story

Listen to “Rise Up” by Fred Smith

 

My father had a life removed from us that we knew little about until we were grown. It was only a few years before he died that I understood why. We talked about it on a series of trips we took as father and son when he was losing his health, and we knew it was just a matter of time before he could not travel at all. It was on our first of these trips that he told me about New York City and the Waldorf Astoria.

Dad grew up in the poorest parts of Nashville, Tennessee. He was always a misfit there. While others resigned themselves to a life with few expectations, Dad as a young boy would go up into the attic and, using a crystal radio and a “cat’s whisker” he would search for the broadcast from the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf. It was his momentary escape but also his dream to be there one day. Not only was it his dream but one shared with him by his mother.

My grandmother’s life was fixed and limited by circumstance. Being the wife of a poor pastor with a struggling family was her lot and she knew that. However, early on she decided that Dad was going to leave and make something of himself even though others would never understand. In a sense, she also had a life removed but one she would never experience. Dad’s listening to the music of the Starlight Roof became their bond and unspoken pledge. One day he would be there for both of them.

My wife and I were with one of our daughters in New York five years ago and through the kindness of a friend were given tickets to the musical, “Hamilton.” Ever since reading David Brooks’ review earlier that year, I had wanted to see it but knew it was sold out completely. As David wrote, it is the story of a “poor immigrant kid from a broken home, feverish to rise and broadcast his voice. He was verbally blessed, combative, hungry for fame and touchy about his reputation.”

Alexander Hamilton represents for all of us “the relentless ambition of the outsider…who thinks he can remake himself and his country.” David was right. It is a play about ambition performed in the heart of the city driven by ambition. Unlike Portland, where people joke about its being “a place young people come to retire,” no one moves to New York unless they are looking for a place to rise up.

The very first song of the play caught me unaware and took me back to those conversations with Dad about the ambitions of a young man to rise up out of the slums and make something of himself:

“I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!”

I believe New York City – as for the young Alexander Hamilton – was that place for Dad. He was an immigrant Baptist from the South who found a place where many of those dreams, aspirations and interests were shared by others. It was not an escape. It was not greed. It was, like Hamilton, the desire to become a person of both virtue and honor. And it was a part of him that grew even deeper in time. And while he could not live there because of family responsibilities and decisions made, it drew him back over and over again throughout his life.

I had never been in the Waldorf Astoria but after the play our daughter wanted to visit. Walking in for the first time, I looked up and saw a small, lighted sign that said, “Starlight Roof” and then I remembered the rest of the story.

Dad was a gifted communicator and the keynote speaker at a sales convention held at the Waldorf in the Starlight. Before speaking he found a phone and called his mother. “Mother, we are here.” That was all she needed to hear and all he needed to say. They had risen up together.

Later in life, Alexander Hamilton said, “The changes in the human condition are uncertain and frequent. Many, on whom fortune has bestowed her favors, may trace their family to a more unprosperous station; and many who are now in obscurity, may look back upon the affluence and exalted rank of their ancestors.”

Our country is increasingly divided between those of “exalted rank” and “unprosperous station” but I believe Hamilton is right. I also believe even now there are young men and women sitting in attics listening for the sounds of another world that will draw them in spite of resentment, misunderstanding, resistance and discouragement to rise up and not throw away their shot.

Art by Rockwell Kent

More Posts
Showing 10 comments
  • Avatar
    Mike Landess
    Reply

    A beautiful story, wonderfully told, Fred.
    I look forward to Timely, Thought-Prvoking Thursday, AKA: Fred’s Blog.
    Thank you.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Mike. I so much appreciate your encouragement!

  • Avatar
    Tom King
    Reply

    We all choose what shot to take. I was always top of my class when I wanted to be. I was going to be an engineer and let a college advisor talk be into being an English teacher. I did that for a few years and then got an opportunity to be a therapeutic recreation director at a large treatment center for disturbed, mentally ill and abused kids. I started an equestrian program for a population people said I was crazy to put on horses. Our horse program became one of the most remarkable tools we had for helping kids, particularly autistic kids to learn coping skills. I took my shot. It wasn’t a financially rewarding one. I helped start 5 nonprofits and educational organizations and reorganized another. They don’t call them nonprofits for nothing. I sit here at the end of a long career working with kids, people with disabilities, seniors, low income families, veterans and fund-raising for other nonprofits. I raised millions. Now I work from home teaching kids in China to speak English and take care of my disabled wife. We live close like a lot of seniors on very fixed incomes. But I took my shot. I laid up my treasure in heaven and I am content. In this world, it matters not if you are rich or poor so long as you took the shot God offered you and used your talents in His name. I’ve seen others like me who worked hard, endured tragedy and by many people would be considered a failure because they don’t seem to have prospered financially. But I think success is defined more by how much treasure you’ve laid up in heaven. I know a lot of wealthy people who have laid up treasure in heaven by using their wealth for good. And I’ve seen the opposite. I’ve seen poor who laid up nothing in heaven and poor who laid up everything.

    I agree. Choose to do what God would have you do and you are a success. You’ve taken your shot.

    Tom King

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tom. Yes, you were wise to define success early on and follow it.

  • Avatar
    Ralph D. Veerman
    Reply

    Thanks Fred,

    Wonderful comment on your dad and the power of a dream. Very inspiring, thanks.

    Ralph

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Ralph. We all have good stories, don’t we?

  • Avatar
    Clint Roxburgh
    Reply

    Great blog, Fred. I lost my Dad shortly during my first month in college and wanted to quit and dropout multiple times except for the memory of his desire for me to be the first in our family to get a college degree. Motivation comes in many forms.
    Be blessed this Christmas Season,

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Clint. Your Dad may have died when you were young but he left a great legacy in you.

  • Avatar
    Joe McIlhaney
    Reply

    My Dad’s narcissistic parents BOTH went to Baylor BEFORE 1900. They then used their eight kids as slaves. My Dad only finished eighth grade. When Dad broke away at 18, determined to be a success, his Dad told him he wished he had never been born! Dad did not become bitter. He just worked hard and built a successful creamery business in Lubbock included delivering butter all over Texas and shipping boxcars of it to Chicago. He was a good model for me for hard work. What it took for me to get into and through medical school

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Joe – What a story! I’ve just been reading some notes from an old Sunday School lesson about the unpleasant circumstances that take us to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. This is a perfect illustration of that!

Leave a Comment