Five young men, ages 18 to 23. Two college graduates. Two currently attending college. The youngest headed that way this fall. All good students. All excellent athletes. All standing resolutely before a large assemblage to pay tribute to their grandfather, Rob Neely, who passed away recently after a courageous battle with cancer. And what a tribute it was.
If the name Rob Neely sounds familiar to some of you, you might recall that a couple of years ago I told you about the substantial efforts of Wayne Hogan, the then-assistant athletic director at Georgia Tech, to secure a baseball for me signed by the Yellow Jacket baseball team to present to Rob following serious surgery. Neely had been a third baseman on the 1957 Southeastern Conference championship baseball team. (This was in the days prior to Georgia Tech’s move to the Atlantic Coast Conference)
Mr. Hogan and the baseball team went above and beyond the call of duty for my friend. The gesture meant a lot to Rob and to me.
Rob and I had a lot in common. We both grew up in working class families in East Point, south of Atlanta. We attended the same high school. Our weddings were a week apart. Our wives are cousins. They had two children, a son and a daughter. We have two children, a son and a daughter.
Beyond that, our lives could not have been more different. He was an engineering graduate from Georgia Tech. I was a journalism major at UGA. After a short stint at a couple of large companies, Neely decided he wanted to run his own show and bought into a heating and air conditioning business in metro Atlanta that has turned out to be a very successful enterprise.
I chose instead to take the corporate route and spent most of my career in the Bell System and its successor, BellSouth, retiring as vice president and then as a managing director of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.
We were different in a lot of other ways, as well. First, there was the matter of our personalities. I doubt Neely ever had an unkind word to say about anyone. Me? I can hold a grudge longer than a battalion of Navy Seals can hold their breath underwater. He was always upbeat, especially during the past two trying years.
I gnash my teeth over the most trivial of matters. He always seemed comfortable in his own skin. I have always felt like I had something to prove.
At Neely’s service, his five grandsons reminisced about what made their grandfather special to them. They didn’t mention plaques or awards or pictures with important people or political influence or high profiles or any of the kinds of things that have tended to be my definition of success.
Instead, the boys talked about his tradition of making them bear-claw pancakes on Saturday mornings at the family lake house. They joked about the fact that when the boat’s engine wouldn’t start, their grandfather would deem it no big deal, blaming it on “bad gas” and never seeming to get perturbed about it. Having his family together was the most important thing.
They told those assembled that in spite of the fact that his was a competitive business that demands immediate response to the customer’s needs, their grandfather somehow managed to take care of his customers and still show up at their football and baseball games and wrestling matches to cheer them on, often driving long distances to do so.
Even after his surgery and the resultant complications, he could still be counted on to be in the stands when the grandsons were competing.
The youngest told of one of the last baseball games his grandfather was able to attend. It was an important game. He arrived in the sixth inning. In the next inning, his grandson produced the game-winning hit. A thrill for the grandfather; a never-to-be-forgotten memory for the grandson.
As I sat and listened to these five young men talk about their grandfather, I thought about what defines a successful life. It isn’t about awards and plaques and who you know. Those things are short-lived and will be short-remembered. Success is about what kind of example you set for those who will follow you and where you put your priorities.
Rob Neely got it right. As his grandsons so eloquently reminded me, I still have a long way to go.