Life By What We Give

Generational HandsI used to have a large framed print in my office. It had an artsy photograph in closeup of a child holding a man’s hand. The caption read, in quoting Winston Churchill:

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

This past Saturday night it was my honor to attend with my wife the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards dinner at my alma mater, Le Moyne College. In particular, I was there to celebrate the honors bestowed upon Leslie Shaw, Ph.D. ’62, who was presented the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and Gabriel Bol Deng ’07, who received the Ignation Young Alumnus Award.

Les is the Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Co-Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Lab; Interim Director of the Clinical Chemistry Lab; and Co-Director of the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative at UPenn.

All of those titles may make your head spin a bit, so I’ll boil it down for you: among numerous notable accomplishments, Les Shaw is on the cutting edge of research that is finding ways to predict, and thus significantly slow the progression of, Alzheimer’s Disease. Can those advances be far from an eventual cure?

The research on which his team works is widely collaborative. That in itself is inspiring for those of us who have read And The Band Played On and know the competitive history of medical research. I had an opportunity to tour the lab facilities with Les a few years ago. While some of the terminology was lost on me, the inspiration he drew and the excitement and purpose with which he undertakes his work was palpable.

At a time when many of his contemporaries are retired from their chosen professions, Les Shaw is still working at his…with passion mind you…striving for a healthier world. This man, doing this lives-altering work, has also been married to his beloved Mary for more than 40 years and is a proud father and beaming grandfather.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Gabriel Bol Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, having fled his village at age 10 after being separated from his parents during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He stayed as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya for about 14 years before coming to Syracuse in 2001.

We are both alumni of Onondaga Community College and Le Moyne, Gabe earning degrees in math education and philosophy. When he graduated from Le Moyne in 2007, he was named Student Teacher of the Year…in part for the work he did at Onondaga Central, where I spent my own formative years.

In 2009, the acclaimed documentary Rebuilding Hope chronicled Gabe’s return to southern Sudan, with two fellow Lost Boys, to search for their families.

Gabe has founded HOPE for Ariang to build an elementary school in his native village of Ariang in South Sudan.HOPE for Ariang The families there also have fresh water from wells drilled thanks to his efforts. The Foundation continues to raise funds for supplies, teachers, teacher training, fencing to enclose the campus, and solar power equipment.

Of all the people I’ve ever met, I can’t think of anyone who displays better the simple beauty of the best we can be than Gabriel Bol Deng. For all the harshness and darkness he has experienced and the death he has seen, he fills a room with a genuine kindness and light every time I have been in his company. He is not an inspiration because he has done great things, and will no doubt do more. It is that he has done them against seemingly insurmountable odds…and that he has done them for others.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Most of the time, life isn’t as much about what happens to you, as it is about how you respond. We all have our struggles and we all have our obstacles. Some of us become prisoners of them, even letting them define us long after those obstacles appear to be gone. Others simply will not, defining themselves instead on what they do now.

I know with certainty that I am a better man for having been in the good company of Leslie Shaw and Gabriel Bol Deng, as I try to be just a little bit more like they are.

Striving to make a life by what I give.

Wikipedia: I is the ninth letter and a vowel in the ISO basic Latin alphabet.

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