Tag Archives: Life Lessons

College Can Change Your Life

Tower Hall, San Jose State University (SJSU file photo)
Tower Hall, San Jose State University (SJSU file photo)

“College isn’t for everybody.” The first time I heard this was from my high school counselor who discouraged me from applying to San Jose State University. I heard it over and over again from teachers and other school leaders when, as president of the school board, I proposed making high school graduation requirements the same as college eligibility requirements.

That statement has some truth to it, but you have to make that determination on your own. Teachers, counselors, the school system, parents, family, friends, and society don’t have any business telling you if college is the right path for you. Unless your heart is set on a career that requires no education, I highly recommend that you give college a try.

Let’s get a couple of things straight first. College isn’t easy. It’s an exercise in determination, discipline, and hard work. It doesn’t guarantee a job and a high-paying career after graduation. That’s up to you.  What college does is open your mind and opens the door to limitless opportunities. During the past few months, I’ve had the privilege to speak to high school and college students about the value of my college education in a talk I call, “How College Changed My Life.”

I failed at my first try at college, so I went out into the world and tried to make a living without an education. I drove a forklift at a sheet metal company and worked in construction to quickly learn that I was miserable. I tried selling shoes, toys, and sporting goods to find out that the fastest path to management was a college degree. I coached middle and high school kids, but that didn’t provide a living.

So, in my mid-20s, I went back to college. This time I put my heart and soul into it. My goal was to be a high school history teacher and basketball coach. A funny thing happened on the way to that goal: I never got there. Studying history at San Jose State University blew my mind wide open. I became fascinated about how business, politics, education, and ideas changed the course of history. This fascination led to a career that has been a wild, but fulfilling, ride.

When I walked into Spartan Stadium on graduation day, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore. I loved kids and coaching basketball, but the college experience taught me that there was so much more out there than I could even imagine. I took a position as legislative assistant to a city councilwoman, not knowing what that meant. The research, writing, and public-speaking skills I learned in college were a perfect fit for the job.

My fondest memory of that first job as a college graduate was when the councilwoman led the effort to rename the central city park in honor of Latino icon César Chávez. I suggested that the organizing committee, which included Chávez family members, honor César by engraving his name on the face of the park’s marble stage. They agreed. I got goose bumps the day that city leaders and the Chávez family unveiled the engraving. I still get goose bumps every time I see it.

Since that experience, I’ve worked in business, served on the school board, and returned to local government. Instead of teaching history, I’ve been a witness to history. I was in Denver’s Mile High Stadium as a corporate executive when President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president in2008. As a school board member, I saw parents and students save high school sports and win the fight for graduation requirements to mirror college eligibility standards.

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “No one can ever take away your education.” A few years ago, I had a massive heart attack that nearly took my life. With a damaged heart, my ability to work 18 hours a day, play basketball, and ride roller coasters has been taken away. But, I can still read, write, research, speak, and share stories with anyone who’s willing to listen. I couldn’t do any of that without my San Jose State University education.

I understand that college might not be for everyone. Our world depends on people who work in the trades, drive goods to market, and provide services. These are honorable professions that deserve our appreciation. My parents worked hard without a college education, raised a family, and encouraged their children to reach for the stars. Even though they didn’t have a university degree, they knew we needed one to achieve our dreams.

Cultural and socio-economic conditions seven decades ago made it difficult for my parents to get a higher education. We live in a different age today. There are so many more opportunities than a generation ago, especially for Latinos. Society may be telling you that you’re destined to be a truck driver, receptionist, construction worker, or landscaper. That may be true. That may be your destiny.  But you ought to give college a try first. You never know what could happen.

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Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

Leadership Lessons from a Hall of Fame Coach

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Coach Percy Carr (right) on the night of his 800th victory at San Jose City College.
(photo courtesy of City College Times)

When walking into the basketball gym at San Jose City College, the first impression is that the place is literally spotless. If you show up around 3:00 PM, you’ll likely see Coach Percy Carr sweeping the floor, as he has for the past 38 years. It doesn’t matter that custodians probably just swept it; Coach Carr wants to make sure that the floor is in perfect condition for practice.

In 38 years at SJCC, Coach Carr has won over 800 games, the most in California history, and led his Jaguars to 34 playoff appearances, 12 conference championships, and 8 state championship games. Despite this success, there are no banners hanging in the gym trumpeting his accomplishments.  That’s just Coach’s style.

In addition to his success on the floor, Coach Carr founded the Creative Athlete Retention Response (CARR) program at San Jose City College. The CARR Program offers athletic and academic advice to all SJCC athletes. Ninety-seven percent of SJCC basketball players go on to a four-year university. In 1998, Coach Carr was inducted into the California Community College Basketball Hall of Fame. I was fortunate to sweep the floor right next to him as one of his assistant coaches from 1989-1991

Throughout my career, I’ve been around some amazing leaders, and Coach Carr tops that list.  Working for Coach was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. The lessons I learned from him have helped form the core of my own leadership journey. This season, Coach welcomed me back to the Jaguar family as the public address announcer for home games. Watching him working up close again has reminded me of those lessons.  I call them the “Four Be’s of Leadership.”

  1. Be Excellent

Many of the players that come to play for Coach Carr are from inner-city neighborhoods with few positive role models. Coach provides these young men with the highest quality of equipment and facilities. The locker room resembles a facility usually seen only at top-notch Division I universities. He’s a stickler about personal grooming, good manners, and study habits. He gives and expects excellence from his players outside and inside the gym, 24/7.

  1. Be Prepared

Early one Sunday morning, Coach called me from the airport after visiting legendary UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian and watching his team play. Coach Carr learned a new technique to help players on defense stay a step ahead against speedy opponents. He asked me to meet him at the gym when he arrived in San Jose to demonstrate the move and prepare for the next day’s practice. Monday’s practice was seamless, and the Jags defense led the team to 28 victories that year.

  1. Be a Teacher

When young men first arrive on campus at SJCC, they have little experience managing life on their own. During my two years there, I watched Coach teach them how to navigate the financial aid bureaucracy, shop for groceries, and conduct themselves in public as respectable young men. He taught them how work effectively in a team environment.  And for a couple of hours a day, he taught them how to play basketball.

  1. Be a Winner

This year’s team is a classic SJCC Jaguar squad. They’re big, fast, and very talented. The team is also young, which resulted in a rocky start to the season. The team would take early leads in many games only to succumb at the end. They couldn’t find a way to win. Coach didn’t give up. He made adjustments, tried different line-ups, and convinced the young players that they could win. The Jags started to play like a well-oiled machine and sent Coach to the playoffs for the 34th time in his career.

Although it hasn’t helped my March Madness brackets, I learned a whole lot about coaching basketball from Coach Carr. Like his players, I spent only two years at SJCC, but left with a lifetime of leadership lessons. Working to be excellent, preparing for each assignment and project, being a teacher to those under my care, and striving to be a winner have guided me as a father, husband, community leader, and executive.

At the end of the day, Coach Carr’s leadership isn’t about basketball; it’s about inspiring young men and giving them the tools to be successful. His former players are now lawyers, doctors, teachers, coaches, and businessmen.  I’m sure this year has been an incredible experience for the players and the young coaching staff. They went to the playoffs, Coach is a step closer to 900 wins, and most important, the young men he leads are headed for a successful life.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #10)

(stock image)
(stock image)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. It’s the 10th excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”

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Before long, I was failing tests, or worse, just not showing up to class. I was losing confidence in myself as the cycle of going through the motions at school, not showing up for exams, and partying intensified. Every morning I awoke with doom and disaster lurking around every corner questioning myself for accommodating my dad’s wishes that I go to a four-year university.

Was Mr. Bailey right after all? Were college and a life of middle-class comfort not part of my future? What was I really trying to accomplish? One night while drinking at a friend’s house, a former high schoolmate, who I’m sure, was envious of me, told everyone there that I was wasting my time going to college because I was meant to be a working stiff like everyone else from the neighborhood. Drunk and depressed, I believed every word of what he had said.

When my third semester of college came to an end, my academic career at San Jose State collapsed. The bright future that my parents, teachers, and many others had predicted for me had vanished.  San Jose State University sent a certified letter to 48 Viewmont Avenue informing me that I had been academically disqualified from the university.  I had flunked out.  There was no cocoon to protect me; in fact, I had to find a way to protect myself from the cocoon.

With my self-worth completely eroded, I drove deeper into the abyss of self-destruction.  I quit working at Kinney’s for a higher-paying job selling shoes at the mall.  Drinking and carousing around town with Rudy and the guys intensified.  I looked for a job with potential opportunities for quick advancement and found work at the J.C. Penny department store at the same mall.

I worked hard and soon caught the eye of management as someone who could succeed in the retail industry.  All the while, I still hadn’t told my parents about the college failure, I was drinking and partying several nights a week, and my relationships with women were superficial and unstable.  As my self-worth further declined, I would soon be dating someone else, usually some co-worker at the department store, to cover up the emotional sting.

I quit working at J.C. Penney despite the apparent success and a promising future there.  For a short time, I worked on side jobs with Rudy at his father’s concrete construction company as a laborer during the day, and spent nights sitting at the local bar drinking with the hardened and grizzled construction workers.  I was depressed and seeking validation through alcohol and emotionless pursuit of women.  Sisi remembered that I was never home when she told me how I was “absent from [Sisi], and mom and dad’s life.”

She recalled many nights when my dad sat at his stereo listening to music through headphones and drinking as my mom watched movies on late night television while they worriedly waited for me to come home.  I never knew about this until Sisi shared the story years later, because my parents were always safely tucked into bed by the time I staggered into the house to throw myself onto my bed for the night.  My older brothers and sisters knew nothing of this as they had their own lives, their own families, and, with the exception of Steve, lived somewhere other than San Jose.

The Spanish proverb, “the night is always darkest before the dawn,” perfectly portrays that time for me as I had reached the lowest and darkest point of my life.  I had failed in college, foolishly entered into and walked out on several relationships, threw away what J.C. Penny managers thought was a promising career, and couldn’t cut it as a construction worker.  I begged the manager at Kinney Shoes to take me back so I could earn a little money to sort out my life.

With my parents, I confirmed what they probably already knew about my college failure; it was 100 times more difficult than when I told them about the Mr. Bailey meeting.  My dad stood and listened without saying a word, then shook his head in disappointment and walked away.  My mom looked at me with sad eyes and told me that I would find my way and they would be there for me when I needed them.

I had broken almost all of the values and standards that I learned at 48 Viewmont Avenue about how to conduct an honorable and successful life.  I had lost respect for myself and for others, especially the women I used to console my broken spirit, and displayed no desire to learn and improve myself, or to be compassionate, or to love unconditionally.  I was a defeated young man, barely into my 21st year, with no idea how my future would unfold.

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Next Wednesday: Fate steps in as I try to rebound from the darkest period of my life.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #5)

García Team #1 (clockwise from top: David, Patty, Steve, Barbara - Team#2: Me and Sisi
García Team #1: clockwise from top, David, Patty, Steve, Barbara – Team #2: Me and Sisi               (García Family photos)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the fifth excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”

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The protective shell my parents built kept the bad influences out by keeping us away from people or situations that could be harmful. At home, when my parents hosted family parties, a long night of hard-drinking would inevitably lead to tense conditions that could end up in a fight, and my mom would quietly usher us away from the party to our bedrooms.

When I was in elementary school, on my walk home, I would see some of the cool kids hanging out under the trees at the back fence of campus, and they would sometimes wave me over. I told my parents and they warned that under no circumstance should I ever venture out to the fence. As I got older, I realized that the boys were sniffing glue and paint to get high. Many of those kids joined gangs, dropped out of high school, and either died violently or found a permanent home in prison.

Not only did 48 Viewmont provide a cocoon for us, it served as a safe haven for relatives down on their luck or just hiding away from the miseries of the world. It would not be unusual for me to sleep on the couch in the living room so my bed could be used by a cousin, uncle, or aunt who needed a place to stay for a few days while they worked out whatever brought them to our house.

In true American fashion, my dad taught us to be independent, to think for ourselves, and to control our own destinies. We should be good people, he would say, and be there for others in need, but don’t count on others to be there for you, he counseled. Most of all, we should know that they, my parents, would always be there for us. They worked tirelessly to paste together a family budget, and we always had a hot breakfast in the morning, bag lunch to take to school, and dinner on the table when my dad came home from work.

The meals weren’t very healthy, but they filled our stomachs: any combination of chorizo or bacon, potatoes, and eggs for breakfast; bologna sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise on white bread, cookies, and an occasional piece of fruit for lunch; and tortillas, beans, and something fried with the bacon drippings or chorizo grease from the morning for dinner. On payday Fridays, we could count on a piece of chuck steak, fried chicken, or something exotic like spaghetti with hamburger meat sauce.

We could also count on our parents being at school and extracurricular activities. I can’t think of one back to school night or athletic event that wouldn’t include my parents’ attendance, even when there were competing activities like the 1972 World Series between Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds. That night, during the school’s open house, my dad found his way to the school office to watch the game with the principal and other dads.

My brothers and sisters all recount similar stories even though we were part of two families from the same parents. My four older siblings – David, Barbara, Patty, Steve – were born in the early 1950s, and my little sister Sisi and I came a decade later; I was born in 1963 and Sisi five years after me in 1968.  Together with the true baby of the family, my little sister Sisi and I make up my parents’ “second” family.  According to our older siblings, she and I had it easy.  I guess that’s the luck of the draw.

At 48 Viewmont Avenue, we had a clear code of conduct and value system from which we were expected to manage our lives.  My dad was no nonsense and no frills, who taught us, through counsel and by way of example, to work hard, play by the rules, and have respect for ourselves and others.  There was no variation from this formula.  Any lack of respect and decorum, especially in public, would immediately lead to a non-verbal response, a stern look with a furrowed brow followed by pursed lips, closed eyes, and a slow shake of the head in disapproval.

He also gave us the lifelong love of reading, learning, and music.  The tight shelf space in my parents’ bedroom was stacked with paperbacks and periodicals, every edition of National Geographic Magazine published since the mid-1950s was displayed on a homemade shelf for all to see. My dad would get home from work every day shortly after 5:00 o’clock with the evening edition of the San Jose Mercury News tucked under his arm, and we had to be prepared at dinner to be peppered with questions about the day’s world and local events.

Even as adults when we gathered around the same kitchen table for the holidays, he would sit at the counter looking into the kitchen with his whiskey and water and make a controversial philosophical or political statement and watch his educated kids flare up in a heated debate.  In the dining room, he had the record player and later cassette player in a place of prominence surrounded by albums that included Tex-Mex, mariachi, other genres of Mexican music, and the standards – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole.

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Next Wednesday: Chapter 1 continues with life at 48 Viewmont Avenue in east San Jose.

Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

Leadership is a Tough Business…What’s the Goal?

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Five years ago, I helped create the Latino Leadership Alliance (LLA) Leadership Academy in collaboration with Stanford’s Center for the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity to identify, develop, and support emerging leaders that work with Latino communities. Last week, the group introduced Cohort 5 of the LLA Leadership Academy and Stanford Leadership Institute, and continued to strengthen its role as a respected institution of leadership training and learning in the Silicon Valley.

The LLA Leadership Academy developed a model of servant leadership based on bringing together the business, community, education, and public sectors for the common good of the community. In addition to the intensive eight-month program, one of my favorite dynamics of the academy is the ongoing dialogue the cohorts have about the practical practice of leadership after graduation.

At last Thursday’s announcement event, one of the academy alumni posed a fascinating question. She was deliberating on an issue as a leader of a community group that appeared to be in conflict with her role at work and her personal values. Her thought-provoking description of the situation reminded me that leadership is a complex and tough business.

Although there have been leaders since the dawn of humankind, leadership as an academic discipline has only been around for about 50 years. The academic research has resulted in many schools of thought on business, organizational, educational, and political leadership.  There are common threads like trust, integrity, and the common good.  Unfortunately, however, there’s no silver-bullet to help resolve complicated questions around conflicting considerations.

As a corporate executive, I faced many decisions when company goals, a community group’s objective, and my personal beliefs were seemingly in conflict.  Adding to that soupy recipe are personal relationships and political considerations.  Once you stir it all up, it’s a thick stew that requires balanced deliberation to get to the right decision.  So how do you do that?  One question serves as a solid starting point when confronting these sticky situations: What’s the goal?

The question sounds so simple, but making difficult decisions is usually fraught with a complex web of potential winners and losers, advocates on all sides of the issue, and negative impacts if the decision isn’t sound.  If your goal is to save your own skin, then get out of leadership business.  However, if your goal is to take the best course of action, you must eliminate the noise that could cloud your decision.

Executive management deals with thorny choices on a daily basis.  One such decision I made in my corporate career stands out for me.  When I had secured a coordinator position for my department, the job description was going to be a dynamic on-the-job process because the position was new to the organization.  Therefore, the qualities needed for the role weren’t cut and dry, which made the decision even more complex.

After an initial round of interviews, two candidates stood out from a long list applicants. They had distinctive personalities, unique relationships within the company, and different skill sets.  Since I’ve never made a secret about my passion for providing opportunities to qualified and talented Latinos, the fact that one candidate was Latina and the other wasn’t complicated matters.

The lobbying for both applicants was spirited to say the least.  At the local office, managers and employees vouched for the Latina who worked there while higher-ups and department colleagues advocated for the other candidate who had previous experience in the department.  I had to consider how the decision would impact my personal relationships with the local team and my department colleagues, not to mention trying to keep my bosses happy.

It was a perfect storm where upper management and local office wants, and my personal beliefs seemed to swirl in conflict with each other. The whole purpose for creating the job posting in the first place disappeared in the cacophony of issues not related to the position. Since the pressure from upstairs and my department was stronger than that of the local team, I leaned toward hiring the applicant with department experience.

When I shared my thoughts with Sandra, which I always do before making a decision on complicated work matters, she counseled that I may be hiring someone for the wrong reasons. A sleepless night of tossing and turning ended when I finally cut through the noise and asked myself what I advise others to do in that situation.

With one simple question, I started a deliberation process that addressed the needs of my department, not the personalities or external desires of others. I had created the new position to coordinate employees in the field from the local office to better meet department needs and achieve company goals.  Out of that simple question came a simple answer.

I ultimately selected the person who met the company’s needs and reflected my personal values, the Latina from the local office. At first, the decision was met with skepticism from upper management and my colleagues.  But the new coordinator turned out to be an excellent choice and erased any doubts. I also learned a valuable leadership lesson: When confronted with a complex decision, cut to the chase and ask yourself, “What’s the goal?”

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Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

NEW FEATURE: Speaking Engagements

Speaking to a group of community leaders
Speaking to a group of community leaders

I’ve written about failing at my first try at college and suffering a health crisis that nearly took my life 25 years later. Both episodes resulted in life-changing transformations. I eventually earned a degree and had a dynamic career in executive management and public service, and after that awful summer in the hospital, I got the gift of time to reflect on my experiences. In the reflection process, I found purpose in life.

Growing up in a working-class family, coaching basketball at my high school alma mater, serving as board president of a large school district, working as a vice president of a major U.S. company, and serving as senior staff to public officials have provided me with a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes. These stories are my inspiration for writing East Side Eddie Report.com.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few life lessons about failure, despair, hope and the power of perseverance. The purpose behind creating East Side Eddie Report.com and writing Summer in the Waiting Room is to share these stories to inspire others to achieve their dreams and aspirations. With that in mind, I’m now available as a motivational speaker at conferences, corporate meetings, school activities, and community events.

For my talks, I draw from a broad set of experiences to engage audiences with inspiring, amusing, and colorful stories. My signature keynote address is called, “From Working-Class Family to Corporate Executive, Life in the ICU, and Beyond.”  In this speech, I share the inspiring story of persevering through failure, a life-threatening illness, and hopelessness to find success and redemption.  I’ve also developed a series of talks on the following topics:

  • How to Navigate the Executive Office and Achieve Success in the Corporate World
  • Creating Educational Equity to Provide Leadership for Diverse School Systems
  • Organizing and Empowering People for the Good of the Community
  • Be Your Own Advocate: Managing Personal Healthcare in the 21st Century

In addition to being an engaging keynote speaker for any breakfast, luncheon, dinner, or fundraising event, I’m available for presentations as a panelist, seminar presenter, or moderator specializing in corporate, non-profit, and education conferences.  My areas of expertise include:

  • Education Policy and Leadership
  • Executive Leadership
  • Healthcare from a Patient Perspective
  •  Coaching Athletics
  • Organizational Development

Speaking fees are reasonable and negotiable in order fit any budget.  I’m also available to speak to middle and high school students at no cost.

To learn more about speaking services and to schedule a speaking engagement for your next event or conference, click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab at the top of the East Side Eddie Report.com page, e-mail eddie.m.garcia@comcast.net, or call 408-426-7698.

Leadership Lessons: Reaching Out to Rivals

President Obama and Cuban Leader Raul Castro Shaking Hand at Nelson Mandela's Funeral (file photo)
President Obama and Cuban Leader Raul Castro shaking hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. (file photo)

When President Obama reached out and shook hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro last week at Nelson Mandela’s funeral the Republican leadership in Congress rushed to the television cameras to criticize the president.  The GOP’s shameful response to the president‘s display of graciousness during a solemn ceremony in honor of someone who epitomized forgiveness is exactly why Congress lacks the leadership skills to get anything done in Washington.

Had President Ronald Reagan declined a working relationship with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the world could have been consumed by nuclear holocaust.  Perhaps the most famous example of leadership by reaching out to rivals is President Abraham Lincoln.  He appointed campaign opponents to cabinet posts; then extended his hand in peace to Confederate rebels promising a post-Civil War America, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

One of the most difficult challenges for effective leaders is to be able to bury the hatchet with opponents to benefit those they serve.  True leadership embraces conflict and bridges differences for the common good.  When I served as a trustee on the East Side Union High School District, overcoming differences with a rival led to the approval of two of the most important district initiatives during the past half dozen years.

The district’s board of trustees appointed me in 2006 on a 3-1 vote.  Trustee Frank Biehl was the lone dissenter who vigorously argued against my appointment, so our relationship started off on the wrong foot.  Adding to that dynamic, he and I are from different worlds.  Frank is white, I’m Latino.  He’s the oldest son from a successful family business.  I’m the youngest son from an east side working-class family.  He’s pragmatic, I’m passionate.  On the board, we rarely found common ground.

Two years later, Frank was again the sole “no” vote on my reappointment to the board.  That term we started off on two wrong feet.  I broke the cardinal rule of leadership; I took Frank’s opposition personally.  Instead of looking for common ground, I sought out conflict with him.  The result was a lack of productivity on my part.

When the board took a preliminary vote to eliminate after-school sports, we again were on opposite sides of the fence.  As a former student-athlete I understood the value of athletics and proposed a plan that would restore funding to the programs.  After Frank’s initial vote to eliminate sports programs, he reconsidered and unveiled his own plan to save sports.  I didn’t like his ideas and prepared myself for a long fight.

My personal issues with Frank had trumped doing what was right.  Rather than fighting for student-athletes and their families, I realized I was opposing Frank’s plan because he had opposed me.  It was a valuable on-the-job lesson.  I learned that leadership shouldn’t be about me, it should be about those I serve.  I reached out to Frank and expressed my concerns about his ideas, and he did the same.  With his pragmatic approach and my passion for student athletics, we compromised and saved sports programs.

He supported my candidacy for president of the board a year later.  When I announced an initiative to make college entrance requirements the default curriculum for all students, Frank and I shared ideas and worked together for the good of students.  I spent that summer in the hospital and he came to visit me.  A personal rivalry had turned into friendship.  That fall, Frank and I joined a unanimous board in passing a historic policy that ensured that every East Side graduate can to go to college.

I learned a valuable lesson.  Leaders must overcome personal differences in order to make decisions that benefit those they lead.  Whether you’re PTA president, on the Little League board, a supervisor at work, or President of the United States, these three simple rules can help you avoid the pitfalls caused by personal problems:

  1. It’s not about you.  Your role as a leader is to serve others, not the other way around.  Your decisions will impact, negatively or positively, those you lead.  So make decisions with them in mind.
  2. Keep Your Eye on the Prize.  Why did you seek out a leadership role in the first place?  Probably to make things better or to make a change.  Don’t let personal issues get in the way of accomplishing what you set out to do.
  3.  Find Common Ground.  Rival leaders may share your vision to make improvements or change, but have different notions on how to get there.  Listen to what they have to say.  You may find that you have more in common than you think.

Leaders are like the rest of us replete with biases, emotions, fears, and dislikes.  Yet unlike the rest of us, they must overcome those personal barriers to ensure the common good.  Just imagine what kind of world we would be living in if President Lincoln didn’t have the courage to embrace his rivals to keep our nation united or President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev let personal philosophies keep them from the Cold War peace table.

Thanksgiving Reflections

My parents sitting at their kitchen table ca. 1990
My parents sitting at their kitchen table around 1990

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon last week I attended a funeral for a man named Chuck Gibson, my friend Laurie Mesa’s dad.  Like most people, attending funerals isn’t one of my favorite things to do, especially after burying my mom and dad more than a decade ago.  Since then, I’ve been to many memorial services to support friends and family, and I’m always inspired by the stories.  In just a brief time, those in attendance learn something special about the person being honored.

Chuck’s service was no different.  Other than being Laurie’s dad, I didn’t know him.  Nevertheless, I joined his friends and family by laughing, choking up, and feeling warm inside while listening to the anecdotes.  He was a family man, a good friend, and good neighbor.  He was a tinkerer and a handyman who could fix anything no matter how complex.  In that one hour, I came to admire Chuck for being a man who was selfless and always available to give a helping hand.

After the service, I went to visit my parents’ grave site at the same cemetery.  Standing for just a few minutes in the rain, I said a prayer and reflected at their grave markers, and thought about them on my drive home.  Although tales about my parents and people like Chuck won’t be told in history books, their small acts of kindness impacted people in ways they’ll never know.  One Thanksgiving, my parents did something that left an indelible mark on my life.

My dad was old-school and taught us, through counsel and by way of example, to work hard, play by the rules, and have respect for ourselves and others.  There was no variation from this formula.  My mom was the epitome of the warm and loving maternal parent.  She taught us unconditional love, faith, compassion, and perseverance.  Even during the last days before in her death in 2003, she remained strong in her faith and convictions.

While any indiscretion on our part would be met with my dad’s scowls and rebukes, my mom would react with gentle counsel and loving support urging us to do better the next time.  She was our biggest cheerleader encouraging us to be the best we could be.  Each morning she would remind us that every day was good because God gave us another day, after each meal she insisted that we say “thank you God,” and she encouraged us to pray the “Our Father” before bedtime.

Although my mom never had much herself, she would share what she had with others to make their lives just a bit better.  One evening, right after Thanksgiving, when I was about eight or nine years old, I remember a family calling at our front door.  A young couple, with a little girl sitting in a rickety stroller and a baby boy sleeping in his father’s arms, stood at the porch.  The man, in a whispered southern accent, explained to my mom that they were hungry and looking for something to eat.

It looked like they had been walking around for some time as the man was unshaven wearing dirty pants and shirt, and the woman looked tired with hollow eyes wearing a dress she may have made herself.  My parents invited them into the kitchen and shared the few leftovers from our Thanksgiving meal from the night before, which I’m sure my mom was going to use to make some fried concoction for dinner.  The couple gratefully ate at the small kitchen table like they were having a meal in a fancy restaurant.

After they finished eating, my mom packed a few more leftovers in a paper bag and wished them luck.  I don’t remember what we had for dinner that night, but I’m sure it was something like chopped up weenies scrambled with eggs and potatoes, our usual type of dinner on the days leading up to payday.  How that young family came to our door and why they chose our house I’ll never know.  I just know that my parents’ generosity that night was an incredible lesson in compassion and giving to others.

We always seem to wait until funeral time to celebrate the neighbor who helps fix the furnace on a cold winter night or a couple who opens their humble home to those less fortunate.  In an age of 24-hour news and instant communication, heroes rise and fall in the blink of an eye rarely making a lasting impression on people.  For me, it was good for the soul last week to spend an hour at a memorial service and a few minutes standing over my parents’ graves.

As families come together for Thanksgiving this week, I’m sure the dinner table conversations will include the latest about the NFL’s winners and losers, family gossip, and debates about politics.  In those exchanges, we’ll be looking for heroes and villains to explain why things are the way they are.  I’m sure that I’ll be a full participant in the banter, but I’ll also be sure to take a moment to be thankful for people like my parents and Chuck Gibson, the enduring heroes in our lives.

This is Fifty!

1st Annual East Side Eddie Golf Classic
1st Annual East Side Eddie Golf Classic

We gathered at Los Lagos Golf Course in east San Jose on a sunny and crisp Saturday November morning last week for what my cousin Tavo dubbed the 1st Annual East Side Eddie Golf Classic.  Despite the fancy name, it was really just 15 guys, family and old friends, getting together to play a round of golf for my 50th birthday.  After drawing names to make up the teams, our competitive juices kicked in as we headed to the first tee.

Just as I expected, the rowdy “golfers” heckled the first group that teed off.  So much for golf etiquette, it was the beginning of a typical day for this group of mostly hackers.   The next four hours flew by as we re-told the same old stories, all seemingly with new and exciting details to make them sound more adventurous to the nephews in the group.  We reminisced, laughed, and reflected on the tough times each of us had faced.

The day gave me a chance to look back and think about what I’ve discovered about living.  I came up with five “rules,” one for each decade.  They represent the roller coaster that is my life.  It’s been quite a wild ride, so take these rules as recommendations only at your own risk.

Rule #1: When You’re a Kid, Play and Dream BIG 

There were lots of kids in the neighborhood where I grew up.  We played basketball on my driveway, touch football on the street, and walked to the end of the block to play baseball at the neighborhood school.  I did fine by myself too.  When none of the neighborhood kids could play, my backyard and driveway would become a jungle, baseball diamond, and college basketball arena.  By the time I was 10, I had done it all: I had been a great explorer, all-American basketball player, and a hall of fame baseball star.

Rule #2: No one is THAT Special

When I was 12 years old, I was captain of my little league team and the winning pitcher in the championship game.  I always did well in school and was captain of the varsity basketball and baseball team senior year in high school.  Up to this point, everything was easy for me.  I entered San Jose State University full of life and full of myself.  Unfortunately, college wasn’t that easy.  By the time I was 20, I had flunked out of SJSU and began a downward spiral fueled by the self-doubt and self-loathing that comes with failure.

Rule #3: It’s Never Too Late

Through the dark times, my parents continued to believe in me, my dad in his “tough love” kind of way and my mom with unconditional love.  Sandra came into my life and became the third leg in the stool that would stand me up.  I went back to school in my late-20s as a reluctant student, feeling awkward in classes with teenage freshmen and thinking it was too late for me.  A wise professor, Dr. Randall Jimenez, told me that I would be 30 years old one day with or without a college degree, it was up to me.  I studied hard and worked tirelessly.  By the time I was 30, I was a college graduate.

Rule #4: Play Like a Champion

Playing like a champion doesn’t mean winning every game.  Champions work hard, capitalize on the talents God gave them, take risks, and get right back up after being knocked down.  During my 30s, I had two beautiful daughters with Sandra, bought a home, lost a job, started a new career, and lost three campaigns for public office.  I celebrated the successes and dusted myself off after each defeat.  By the time I was 40, I had a great family and a career on the rise.

Rule #5: “Here for a Good Time Not a Long Time” (title of hit song by county star George Strait)

Sandra and I had many plans for our life together and they were all falling into place.  Sandra was an elementary school principal, I was in executive management and president of the school board, the girls were doing well in school, and our retirement plans were right on course.  Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”  He got that right.  My heart attack brought our plans to a jolting stop.  George Strait has it right too.  My plans and ambitions have taken a backseat, and cherishing every moment of life is now in the driver’s seat.

Back at the 1st Annual East Side Eddie Golf Classic, two teams tied for first place at the end of 18 holes.  There was confusion about the scorecards, and the outcome was fraught with controversy.  What’s a tournament director to do in this situation?  I went to the obvious answer: a beer chug-off for the championship trophy.  With the mugs filled to the brim and the crowd gathering around the chuggers, all eyes were on the tiebreaker.  This is 50 and you know what I’ve learned?  We’re here for a good time not a long time.

Immigration Reform Will Strengthen American Values: The Fausto Peralta Story

Fausto Peralta with his daughters L to R: Shelley, Valerie, Sandra, Kimberley
Fausto Peralta with his daughters L to R: Shelley, Valerie, Sandra, Kimberley

For the past couple of weeks, cable television news coverage has been fixated on the latest in the Republicans’ irrational quest to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.  Their arguments are baseless and filled with the hyperbolic language of fear that only comes from voices on the right.  These ideological zealots have tried to repeal Obamacare over 40 times, filibuster it (kind of), held the federal government hostage with a shutdown, and now are holding congressional hearings about its webpage launch.  It’s almost too silly to take seriously.

On the periphery of this circus, President Obama has announced his renewed effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.  Second only to universal healthcare, immigration reform is perhaps the issue that will define the Obama legacy.  The GOP’s ridiculous preoccupation with destroying Obamacare may actually be a good thing for comprehensive immigration reform.  Keeping their focus away from immigration may give our nation a chance to discuss the issue without the typical exaggerated scaremongering from the Tea Party types.

The folks who vow to rid our country of affordable healthcare come from the same crowd that predicts the demise of American values and culture if immigration reform provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  You may remember when their 2012 presidential candidate suggested that government policy should make immigrants’ lives so difficult that they will “self-deport.”  Nice try Mr. Romney.  The reason his argument fell flat is because immigrants embody the very values and culture that make this country great.

Our nation’s values were born during the American Revolution and memorialized in the Declaration of Independence.   From Jefferson’s assertion that all people have a right to pursue happiness to the civil liberties outlined in the Bill of Rights, American values are based on concepts of human dignity and freedom.  Nowhere in those seminal documents do the Founding Fathers proclaim that proficiency in English, a hearty appetite for apple pie, or being descended from western European stock are requirements for American values.

The basis for the American value system is simple – the belief in freedom, hard work, and the opportunity to succeed without regard to one’s station in society.  At best, those who believe otherwise don’t truly understand this concept of American values or may be stuck in the romantic notion that Norman Rockwell’s America defines who we are as a people.  At worst, they are racist xenophobes who won’t accept anyone who doesn’t look or sound like their definition of an American.

To illustrate how they have it wrong, the life of my father-in-law, a man I greatly admire, comes to mind.  Fausto Peralta was born and raised in a small town tucked in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico.  He came to the United States nearly 60 years ago as a teenager.  He settled in California’s central valley where he worked in the fields picking cotton and irrigating crops.  He met my mother-in-law during the late 1950s, married her a year later, and moved to San Jose for a construction job and a piece of the American Dream.

A cement mason who raised four daughters in east San Jose, he worked in construction during Silicon Valley’s biggest building boom.  He beamed with pride when my wife Sandra told him that she took most of her classes at San Jose State University in Sweeney Hall, the education department building he helped build during the 1960s.  His daughters’ lives symbolize the power of the American Dream.  All four are SJSU graduates: Sandra is an elementary school principal, one sister is an engineer, and the other two are a tireless community volunteer and SJSU human resources administrator.

My father-in-law is more comfortable speaking in Spanish than in English.  He would rather have rice and beans instead of a hamburger and fries for dinner.  When watching television, he is more likely to click the remote to Univision instead of CNN or CBS.  Those who fear immigrants and hold the false belief that our nation’s culture is rooted in language, food, and television habits would argue that my father-in-law doesn’t represent America or our national heritage.

Oh, how they’re wrong.  For over 50 years, he has worked hard, paid taxes, financed the education of four children, voted in elections from LBJ to President Obama, and gratefully struggled in his pursuit of happiness.  About eight years ago, on a family vacation in Washington, D.C., I watched this proud American walk into the White House for a tour.  Based on the concepts outlined by the Founding Fathers, my father-in-law exemplifies what it means to be American.

The face of America may be changing, but the soul remains the same.  Some newcomers may choose mariachi over jazz, tortillas over wheat bread, and the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish over English.  Nevertheless, it’s clear that they believe in the values of liberty and justice that the pledge so eloquently brings to life.  They believe in the American Dream that my father-in-law embarked on over a half century ago.

To be sure, there needs to be a healthy debate about immigration.  I hope it happens before the peddler’s of fear divert their attention from trying to destroy Obamacare to alarming those Americans who unrealistically worry about the downfall of American values and culture caused by immigration reform.  The millions of people who, like my father-in-law, left everything behind to come to the United States already understand American values.  Passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform won’t lead to the decline of America; meaningful reform will make our values and culture even stronger.