My father, these 50 years after his passing, still provides a powerful influence in my life.
Born in 1890 and largely self-educated, he had a contagious smile, a way with words and an unerring gift for motivating others. A former professional boxer and wartime infantry commander in France, he taught me a lot of things. One of them was to love books and enjoy reading.
The summer I was 13, Dad brought me two books: The Complete Works of O. Henry, and The Complete Works of Brann, the Iconoclast.
He suggested that I read with a pencil in my hand. Whenever I came across a word I didn’t know, I should underline it but continue my reading.
When I finished the chapter (or short story), I was to look up each underlined word, write out its meaning and make a point of using that word properly in conversation at least five times in the coming week.
“This way,” Dad explained, “you’ll own the word. It will be a weapon in your arsenal.”
On another occasion, when I was 14, Dad handed me a copy of a popular book: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
He asked if I’d mind reading it and advising him as to whether he should buy a copy for each member of his sales force.
Though conscious of the ruse, I went along, read the fascinating book and shared my conclusion with my father. Dad was not just a motivator. He sometimes was a con man. But I adored him.
When at 16 I graduated from high school, Dad handed me a magnificent pocket watch. It had cost, he confided, $50 — a fabulous figure in 1939, when most men’s trousers had a watch pocket and the watch I carried had cost $1.
I could have the glistening little treasure, he said, if I’d promise that each time I looked upon its face I’d remember the words inscribed inside its back cover. Carefully, I opened the back, and there were the words: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
What a relentless message for a watch. A thousand times it would flash before me as I checked the time in all kinds of settings… a state university, military compounds and battle situations. The message was inescapable.
Perhaps Dad’s most career-valuable lesson came after I’d returned from World War II filled with idealistic dreams of a brave new world and determination to bring it about single-handedly — and right now!
I’d served one term in the Texas Legislature, publicly crossed the speaker and the governor and probably made a nuisance of myself.
Having barely lost the race for reelection, I was uttering words of condemnation regarding three prominent local citizens who had thought me too “radical” and supported my opponent.
“Well, Jim,” Dad said almost cheerfully, “there is the challenge for you!”
He reminded me of Lincoln’s stated belief that the “only way” he knew to “destroy a political enemy” was to “convert him into a friend.”
“So there’s your challenge,” said my father. “Those are not evil men. If they think they don’t like you, it’s because they don’t know you. See how long it takes you to make each of these gentlemen into a friend.”
So I set out to do it. For one of them to like me, I first had to like him. I devoted my interest to each individually, learned of good things he had done, visited with him and actually found things to admire in each.
It was magic. My resentment melted. So did theirs. Within a year, I actually liked these fellows and each was a staunch supporter in future political endeavors.
This pungent advice from Dad became a practiced part of me. So have a hundred other things he said and did. With thankfulness and a million grins, I remember my dad.
Jim Wright represented Fort Worth in Congress for 34 years before resigning as House speaker in 1989.