My long-time friend David Currie is the grandson of James Manson “Manse” Patton.
David’s grandfather, from Paint Rock, Texas, ran a bank. He ran it on this principle: “A man’s character is his best collateral.”
I am not going to try to interpret or deconstruct these seven words, and I most certainly do not have the background in business or human nature either to attest to its validity or its naïveté.
Mr. Patton lived by those words and shared them with David, and he remembers the man and his values. And David lives by them. And it is to that fact I focus my attention.
I happened to choose a field of endeavor (rabbi) that suited my penchant for telling other people what to do. I recognized early on that my bossiness was not such an asset without a credible philosophy to back it up.
So, I undertook to study the faith tradition that had always been an essential part of my upbringing and the context for my family of origin’s rhythm of life.
During my first year of seminary, I met Rabbi Henry Fisher, now of blessed memory. He had a long career as the rabbi of a synagogue in Chicago, not terribly far from where I grew up.
His task was to teach the first-year students how to preach – sermons, eulogies, wedding talks, all the various ways we would be expected to give frontal presentations during our careers.
Rabbi Fisher was delightful and possessed of a generous spirit, as well as a unique public persona that included surprising observations about life.
During that first year, the seminary was undergoing its cyclical accreditation, and I was among the students being interviewed. Rabbi Fisher was the faculty liaison.
At the end of the interview, I was asked a question about a matter of Jewish law regarding lip gloss on Passover (It’s a thing; don’t worry about it.). I did not hesitate to offer my opinion and received a lovely compliment on how I articulated my position from my questioner.
Afterward, Rabbi Fisher took me aside and said, very gently, “I want to share with you two things privately. First of all, when your teacher is in the room and you are asked to offer an opinion on a matter of Jewish law, the right thing to do is to defer first to him. I don’t mind what you did, but others might.”
I was, rightly, a little embarrassed. “What’s the other thing?” I asked. He replied, “You were wrong.”
I am now almost as old as Rabbi Fisher was when we had that encounter. I am no less inclined to be bossy than I was in those days, but that encounter helped me to understand that cultivating the right qualities was far more important than indulging my impulses.
Maybe a few people come by what some of us (like David Currie and I) still call character as a natural process, but mostly it is developed by experience and by paying attention to people who can offer you a character-forming lesson.
I don’t know how many people walked into Manse’s bank with the thought in their head that they would borrow money first and worry about how to pay it back later. But when the guy who is willing to lend it to you offers you his life lesson that a man’s character is his best collateral, I am guessing that at least in and around Paint Rock that was as much an opportunity as an observation.
In any event, the bank did well and there is now a fifth generation counting this principle as a life value.
I am guessing that most people have at least one (and maybe many) memories of encounters with parents, teachers and friends that helped to determine their character. I have plenty of others, and plenty I likely overlooked.
In my case, Rabbi Fisher taught me to be conscious of my own arrogance, a very personal lesson. In David’s case, his grandfather offered him a remarkable way to create an expectation in any transaction that benefits both parties.
In both cases, a couple of old guys – one from West Texas and one from Chicago – remember these lessons with gratitude. And probably wonder how we can pay them forward.