My Father’s Stunning Failure To Achieve

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A great memory from my last birthday was getting the chance to listen to and ask questions of my Dad for a few hours. I got to hear, in more detail than ever, the story of his life in the Army—from his enlistment (he volunteered during Vietnam, wasn’t drafted) as a private, to his honorable discharge a few years later as a lieutenant. I had to drag many of the facts out of him, because he’s more reluctant than most men to talk about himself. But after some persistent inquiry, he would tell it to me straight.

There are several scenes that fascinate me, tales of danger and distress (told always in my father’s subdued, under-glamorized way). There are lots of things I’d love to share. But I’ll get to a particular theme of the over-all story.

Dad enlisted and went to basic training. Sometime in the first months of his training, he was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was offered an appointment to West Point. While Dad underplayed this detail, barely mentioning it as he moved on, this was a real honor for an enlisted man. This would not only advance his career, pay, and prestige, but would actually have kept him out of the war. But he had volunteered during wartime. He wanted to be a combat veteran.

He also wanted to get married. He was engaged to my mother and at West Point you could not be married. That was a deal-breaker. He declined.

It astonished his superiors and baffled (and perhaps infuriated) some veterans in our family. He went instead to Officer Candidate School. He would go on to become an officer, go to war, and become a distinguished soldier. In Vietnam he served as a platoon leader in Delta Company and later as the XO (and briefly the acting Company Commander). He never lost a man though, before he arrived and after he left, this was not the case for those who commanded his platoon. His command was a rare interval of grace. He was considered unusually competent and lucky/blessed.

His men called him “Luke,” short for “Cool Hand Luke,” because of his easy calm in the middle of danger. When one of his men pointed his gun at the sergeant and it was reported to Lt. “Luke” Smith, he wasn’t exactly sure what to do. The kid was scared, he thought, so he walked up to the young soldier and held out his hands, silently demanding his gun. The soldier gave the gun up and Dad gave it to the sergeant and they carried on in the field, the rebellious soldier marching through the jungle with no weapon for a week. He never had any problems from that soldier again. The errant soldier could have been seriously punished, his record spoiled and his path marked. But Dad, though a believer in total depravity, has always been eager to see people at their best, to believe they will come around if given a chance. He has, it must be admitted, been wrong on that score many times. But his errors are usually on the side of grace.

When his tour was nearing its end, he was offered an opportunity to become a captain and have a job stateside if he would reenlist for only one year. Once again, there was an opportunity to increase his pay, his prestige, and enhance his career. Again, he declined.

There were lots of reasons. He had accomplished what he wanted to. He wanted to be a combat veteran in the Army, then he wanted to be home. They offered him a post in Kentucky, but it was not quite close enough to home. He wanted to go hunting, go to West Virginia football games, get a job, and teach Sunday School. He wanted to be a regular guy again.

He came home with a resume made for leadership. High school class president, captain of the football team, distinguished officer in wartime (having led hundreds of men in battle). He applied at the nickel plant and was offered a job in management. He had no desire to manage people. He’d done that. He wanted to not be in charge. He literally would rather be the guy sweeping the floors. He declined again, would not be a manager. He got the job he wanted.

He wouldn’t avoid leadership for long, and would be drafted into leadership again and again in life, as he always had been. He has never been one to seek it out, but it has always found him and thrust him forward.

But among the many things I took away from this opportunity to listen to my father, this theme was clear. He declined a lot of opportunity. He chose things that seemed less important, were less lucrative, and led to a quieter life (in a sense).

His life has been characterized by a genuine preference for reluctance, followed by simple confidence and high performance. In school, in football, in basic training and Officer Candidate School, in Vietnam, it was the same story. At the nickel plant he was a very reluctant president of the union (where he was told he was “just way too honest to be effective”) for a short period. He led as a missionary pastor in Africa, coming to a wounded church and being a bright spot in between two tragic failures. He started a Zulu church, taught and trained men. He is a pastor now. He’s been a good man, a good husband and father.

His life has not been wasted. God, for his own glory, has used Dad in –I say this with careful thought– thousands and thousands of lives for good. He has been, and continues to be, a herald of the Good News of Jesus. He is a quiet teacher full of grace.

He still loves simple things like gardening, yard work, West Virginia sports, studying, reading, and spending time with his family (including twenty grand kids). He still sweeps.

I guess my conclusion is simple. Many people, by many standards, would probably see my Dad as a kind of failure, as a person who failed to achieve all that could be achieved. He did not, in one sense, grab life by the horns. He never earned a college degree (though he was and is certainly smart enough to teach college–and actually has). He’s not the poster child for the american dream of achievement.

But he’s the best man I know. He’s been an exemplary father and has served people of many colors and languages on several continents. He is a beautiful man.

How many High Achiever stories have you read with the tragic footnote that the person lost their kids and ruined their families? Too many.

I’ll take my Dad. I’ll take him, receive him, for what he is and has been: a gift from a far better Father.


24 Comments

  1. Mike

    It sometimes sickens me at what the world calls a success. Heck I’ve never even met you but I could have guessed that you had a great dad just by what I’ve read that you’ve written.. I think that alone makes him a success. To come to the knowledge of who we are in Christ is all we can and ( maybe) should ask for and to be able share His love with others. Who could ask for anything more?

    Thanks again Sam. Great stuff and a reminder that” my life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.” I have a great dad too.

  2. Kathryn Ross

    Beautiful character sketch. Now, here’s a man I’d like to see an epic tale written about that’s turned into a blockbuster movie. Can we say goodbye to the comic superpower superheroes and get some grassroots reality back into our literature? Thanks for sharing.
    Joy to you! Kathryn Ross

  3. Marsha Panola

    What a lovely story of a man who has lived life true to what God has spoken into his heart about who he should be. It reminds me of one of my favorite Scripture passages, I Thessalonians 4:11-12, which says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”(NIV) Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. J.H. Friedrick

    I’m not a father as of yet, but I hope that someday my kids will be able to say that I pursued a quiet life and that I chose my family over “success.” Thanks for sharing.

  5. Scott McCausey

    Wow, powerful story and the nail has been hit on the head in these comments… We should do as God asks, not to bring honor to man, but to He who commissions. All too often we notice people trying to make a big deal out of “themselves” and it earns them a case of burnout and family hypocrisy. Use gifts as God directs and train up the next generation.
    I’d ask you Mr. Smith to have your dad share his testimony on my radio show, but it is obvious this legacy is best told right here through you, his son. God Bless.

  6. MargaretW

    Sam,

    This is wonderful. What a nice way to honor your father. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Carlo

    Hi Sam, this is a very inspiring piece.

    Although your dad declined many leadership titles, he was indeed a leader. I have learned that titles do not make you a leader. You do not have to be in a leadership position to lead; consider, you are always in a position to do good. Leadership means consistently putting forth your best effort. Leadership implies doing what you believe is right, in spite of, and your dad intuitively knew this.

    Great article Sam! I am subscribing to your blog, and feel free to check out my blog on leadership at http://wp.me/p1s2dU-38 and tell me what you think.

  8. Marsha Panola

    Yes, Lona, that is a special passage to me. It is interesting to note that it is the quiet life that takes the ambitious effort to achieve; the noisy, chaotic, life of thoughtless busyness is what just happens if we don’t guard our hearts against the screaming voices of the world. We really need, so much, to sit, often and long, alone with God and just listen. God is the only one who can show us who we really are, who He created us to be. So many lovely things are born in those quiet places; so many things can be seen there that we will miss if we don’t sit still and let God speak into our souls.

  9. Amy

    What a lovely post about a lovely man!! I learned things about your dad I never knew. What a sweet tribute to your father and a reminder of what really makes a man successful! He must be so proud of all his kids and grandchildren!

  10. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    I just got home from spending a day away from the internet (which was great). But I got home to find these kind and perceptive comments. I am a bit too beat to interact with each, but wanted to say thank you. I appreciate you all taking the time to read a long post like that about somebody most of you don’t know. I hope it was encouraging.

    I wish you all could meet my Dad. He’s a treasure. Since I’m being so revealing, here’s a small bit of a poem I wrote about him a few years ago.

    But what a man is this man

    What glorious decency
    
What acceptance I have felt
    
What unmatched dignity


    Whose art is loving people

    And it’s a rendezvous with grace
    
When you see the wrinkled, worn and graying

    Wonder of his face

    I do think that the general impression of my Dad on those who have been around him is “a rendezvous with grace.”

    I love my flawed, sinful, wonderful, beautiful Dad.

  11. Natalie

    Funny coincidence that i am wearing this decade-old Puerto Rico tee shirt as I read your post. And i am honored to know your dad. I whisper into all my kids’ ears that they are my favorite. I often tell my son “not just no, absolutely not!” and I see roses in a vase and remember the time I house-sat for your parents and had a fresh bouquet at my bedside table, his doing. What a great man, indeed. I always felt he could look right inside my heart, encourage me in a moment right where it was needed most.

  12. Becca

    My husband read this before I got the chance, and he said it was great. It is, Sam. ‘Such beautiful work here.

    Men like your dad are my favorite kind of all. I get so frustrated with some of the goofy models of “Christian” leadership advocated in mainline Western bookstores. If I remember correctly, some of the titles go like this:

    _Moses on Being an Alpha Male_
    _Dominate like Samson (Plus Ten Bonus Exercises for Philistine Abs!)_
    _And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: iLEAD like Joshua (And Steve Jobs!)_

    Bleh.

    One of my favorite all-time Bible verses is Psalm 16:6. It talks about being content with the boundary lines we’ve been given. The older I get, the sweeter a little Wendell Berry plot of land, comfortable old clothes, familiar smiles, sincere prayers, children who trust you, and simple memories become. Your dad is a hero.

  13. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Thanks, Natalie. That’s very sweet and it sounds just like Dad.

    Very kind, Becca. Hilarious. I’m going to write all three of those books. I like your conclusion. Sounds like a good vision. You are always so thoughtful.

  14. JWitmer

    SD, a great sketch, and an healthy lesson in choosing the important, simple things over celebrity and human accolades. Thanks for sharing it.

  15. CapeJim

    Appreciate your telling us about your Dad, Sam – and you didn’t need Industrial Light & Magic(tm) to do it! 😉

    Seriously, you got me thinking about my own Dad, who also wasn’t into ‘showy’ or the things the world calls ‘famous’ or ‘successful’.

    Don’t confuse fame with success.
    Madonna is one;
    Helen Keller is the other.
    – Erma Bombeck, author (1927-1996)

  16. heartland frugalista

    Very powerful. Please know that your dad didn’t talk about it much for a reason. The people who truly face trauma and combat are the guys (and women) who are forever affected. They don’t talk about it. I also did a lot of questioning, as my family was there. I wrote about it here:
    http://tinyurl.com/64au22b

    I wish you peace this Fourth of July.

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