Seated in the front pew of Maple Valley Presbyterian Church on a Sunday in late November, I listened to a sermon delivered by Pastor David Diehl. It was a good one. His words were drawn from many sources but grounded in simple lessons. The Thanksgiving message was focused on the wonder of life’s blessings and how each of us has been enriched by others. As the sermon drew to a close, he laid down a challenge – think of a person who’s touched your life, in a small way or large, then write a letter of gratitude to let them know you remember. Perhaps to a parent, or uncle, aunt, teacher, boss, friend, or some hero who has no idea you still care. Every good action demands a deadline. Pastor David suggested this week or better yet why not today?
Meditating upon the homily, I considered my life’s journey in search of a juncture when someone’s action set me on the path I followed. Several candidates no longer walked the earth, never knowing how they helped me in a time on need. It felt sad for it was no longer possible to say, “thank you.” There’s nothing like feelings of guilt as inspiration to be a better person.
A week later, I’d done little more than imagine the letter that could be written. Good intentions though admirable, produce few results. A wise uncle regularly reminded, “The longest journey begins with the first step.”
My school boy days came to mind. There were plenty of kind and thoughtful teachers at the four Enumclaw schools I’d attended. Many were influential. But which of many made a significant impact on my life? A decision was made, my letter would be to Mr. Hanson, who taught a one-semester class in economics at Enumclaw High School. It took some time to compose what I wanted to say but finally mailed it a week before Christmas.
I didn’t hear back from Mr. Hanson. Unbeknownst to me his health was failing. A few months later news reached me that Wesley A. Hanson lay dead at age 75. While golfing with one of his sons, Mike told me how my letter found a treasured place in his desk during the last months of his life. He’d read it time and again. It was a bittersweet revelation.
So, here is my sermon – far shorter than Pastor Diehl’s and lacking in eloquence. Write a letter to someone precious in your life. Let them know you’re thankful and still think of them. For this is what Thanksgiving is all about – giving thanks. Here’s what I wrote:
December 18, 2006
Dear Mr. Hanson:
It was the autumn of 1969. The previous summer witnessed the moon landing of Apollo 11, the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charlie Manson family, Woodstock, and my 16th birthday. I could now drive. Soon the fall semester of my junior year would arrive and among my classes were English, advanced Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish 3/4, Typing, and a new offering – Economics. The class was taught by a certain Wes Hanson, the father of a friend of my brother. Word had it that Mr. Hanson convinced the educational powers that be, allowing him to teach an informative one semester class to supplement the usual world history and contemporary problem classes. Late in my sophomore year, I signed up for Economics on the conviction that it would be a college preparatory class.
The next four and one-half months proved most enlightening. Mr. Hanson taught in his very likable style peppering instruction with stories from his days dealing with farm products in the great American plains. Each Friday was a 25 question test in true / false or multiple choice formats. Each Monday, the test results were returned and my paper was usually found to have 24 or 25 correct answers. By the end of the semester, not only had I earned an A, but also an enduring respect for the subject and the man who taught us. It would prove to be a lifetime love.
Over the next several years I read newspapers and magazines, closely following the economic issues of the day, from Milton Friedman’s proposed negative income tax for replacing welfare, to the heady days of August 1971 when President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls. During summers after my junior and senior years, I had a job selling Popsicles and ice cream bars from a three-wheel Cushman scooter in the suburban neighborhoods of east hill Kent. From my cousin, Dan Silvestri (who owned the business), I learned that long hours of selling ice cream and a sliding 20-24% commission scale would net me $25 to $30 per day. Working almost every day of the week has merit, because you never have time to spend your earnings, especially living at home during high school summers.
With my bulging bank account of a couple thousand dollars earned during two summers selling ice cream; a daily job filling the coal stoker at my dad’s downtown Enumclaw building; writing weekly newspaper stories for the Courier-Herald; and working at Palmer Coking Coal on Saturdays, I headed off to the University of Washington in September 1971.
I took typical introductory classes, not quite sure what to study. I liked the idea of making money and had my one semester background in high school economics to prove it. I also had a cousin in the Popsicle business who told me stories of his own ups and downs in the stock market.
So, as any prudent (impudent?) 18-year-old would do, one day I rode a bus from the University district to downtown Seattle then marched into the local Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith office. There I opened an account with one-half the earnings from my various high school jobs. Four months earlier, Merrill Lynch became the first New York Stock Exchange brokerage firm to offer its shares to the public. It was the name I knew.
My cousin Dan provided me with a ‘tip’ so I bought 100 shares of Pan Am stock for about $10 per share. Each day, I dutifully read the stock tables in the Seattle Times or P-I. My heart jumped or sank with every 1/8th or 1/4th point movement. Several months later with Pan Am safely in the mid $14s, I sold and pocketed a nice three hundred dollar profit after commissions. I was hooked. Making $300 in the stock market was a lot easier than working 12-hour days selling Popsicles.
It was the spring quarter of my first year of college. Among the several survey courses one took as a freshman, I selected Introduction to Economics. It was taught to 600 dozing students in a huge auditorium that college administrators called a classroom. It was a standard course for many (hence the size of the class) and a requirement for a number of majors, mainly business. Thanks to my half semester in Mr. Hanson’s class, I excelled in Econ 200. So, of course I took Econ 201 (Microeconomics), the second of the two-part introduction to what’s often termed ‘the dismal science.’ Again, I did well.
My pragmatic nature calculated if I found a subject easy, that should be the subject for me. I continued with classes in economics and sure enough by next year was majoring in Econ. During one of those classes, students were given cut-rate subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal. It’s the newspaper I read to this day. To make a long story short, I studied hard, did well, and graduated with a B.A. in Economics, magna cum laude.
Some philosophers and historians believe an individual is little more than a floating cork in an ocean of tides and currents too strong to resist. They call this determinism. Others contend each individual is capable of free will and even small events in a person’s life can have profound affects, not only on one person, but upon history. Though acknowledging the former, I’ve found life much more interesting by subscribing to the latter. I believe one small event – taking a semester course in economics from a high school teacher I highly respect – had a profound influence on my life.
Another high school subject that proved fundamental was Mr. Worthington’s humanities class. There we learned that ancient Greeks thought four questions worth asking: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” and “What is the meaning of life? I’ve spent most time on the second question.
In trying to answer “Where I came from,” I’ve written a letter to a person who may not know how big of impact his high school class had on one student. Mr. Hanson – you are that person; your high school course was that impact; and I was that student. Now, I can’t claim one student, taking a class and going to college to major in economics is going to change the course of human history. But what I can tell you is how very grateful I am to you for that class you taught 37 years ago. And for the energy and enthusiasm you put into a subject you loved. And for the difference you’ve made in my life.
Though, I admit that my preoccupation with all things ‘economic’ wasn’t always my smartest choice. It too often diverted my attention from more important things in life. Perhaps I took too long to fall in love. But when I did, it was with the right girl, at the right time, and our marriage has brought forth three delightful boys who are the apples of my eye. No one would suggest I owe this all to you.
But, I want to say thank you for one very small thing you did, a very long time ago. Because you might not have otherwise realized how you made such a very large impact on this person’s life.
You are one of my heroes . . . and you probably didn’t even know it!
Yours truly . . . and truly a student of yours,