How to Meet a Hero and Be a Hero
“Never meet your hero” is a microphone-dropping expression.
Whatever happens, you risk being disappointed, they say. Like seeing a peacock up close, heroes just don’t look so magical in the bright light. Sometimes that’s the fault of them being human; sometimes it’s the fault of the stratospheric expectations we have for every dimension of their life.
This is what people say, but you don't have to believe it.
“Hero” here is being used liberally, and not in the “saving a flaming busload of school children” sense. Bruce Springsteen or Sandra Day O'Connor might be your hero. Your distant uncle or your 12th grade English teacher might be your hero. And you might be a hero to someone because of what you’ve done, given, or who you are.
There are only two books by living authors that I read so many times that their authors became heroes to me. The first book I read 35 times when I was in college. When I graduated, I wrote the American author to thank him, but never heard back.
The second book I read more recently, and have reread my notes of it at least 20 times since. I wrote the French author to thank him, but never heard back. After a couple more tries with a couple other email addresses, I got a short thank you.
My family and I were going to France for a conference over Thanksgiving. In spite of the “Never meet your hero” advice, I emailed this man a couple weeks before we left. I asked if he would like to meet for coffee, lunch, dinner, or whatever. He chose the “whatever” option in a very big way.
Day 1. He and his family took us to dinner
Day 2. Took us on his favorite "hidden surprises of Paris" tour
Day 10. Came over to our apartment for dinner and silly laughs
Day 12. Bid us farewell with a "good luck" college present for my oldest daughter
Here’s what stuck me. What I most wanted to talk about when I met him was his book (and others he wrote). I had 40 hours of questions and praise. Yet that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about for more than just a few minutes. He wanted to talk about marriage, delivering pizza (which we both did as teenagers), kids, ups and downs, faith, food, the 1754 French-Indian War, morning routines, board games, bike riding, . . . almost everything but his books, and that's why Alexis Beuve is a hero to me.
He made me meet him not as a hero, but as a person who had a lot of other meaningful dimensions to connect with. He also did so in a very humble and giving way. This had a much bigger impact on me than if we would have talked 40 hours about his books like I had originally wanted. It made the impact of his books on me even greater.
“All actual heroes are essential people. And all people are possible heroes,” said E.B. Browning. This is easy to forget. We forget to cut our heroes slack – hey, they’re just human.
We might also forget that we could be a hero to someone and we might need to be sure we act humble and human.
We might not be a flaming bus-saving headline hero, but we might be a hero to someone we don’t know. Being that humble, connecting, interested person will be your antidote to the “Never meet your hero” warning.
Related Readings on Heroism
Calling Your Mentor for Thanksgiving
No one has a cousin named Tarzan. No one has a best friend named Goat Boy. That’s because we’re not raised by apes or goats, but we're all raised, socialized, and helped by other people.
Some of these people are obvious: parents, close relatives, coaches, and some teachers. But a lot of others aren’t nearly so obvious. They might be that person who recommended we go to one school versus another, helped get us a job, helped lend a hand during a difficult time, or saved us from a desert island that one time by paddling through shark infested waters using only his right arm.
With Thanksgiving coming up, it can be a nice chance to hit pause and think of 2-3 nonobvious people who might have done a small thing that made a big difference in our life. Doing something as simple as this can do your soul good. On one extreme, it reminds us that we aren’t the self-centered Master of our Universe as we might think when things are going great. On the other extreme, it reminds us that there are a lot of people silently cheering for us when we might think things aren’t going so great.
What do you suppose would happen if you tracked these people down and game them a call? It’s four steps:
1. Find their phone number and dial.
2. “Hey, I’m ___; remember me? How are you?”
3. “It’s Thanksgiving. I was thinking of you.”
For about the past 30 years, I’ve tried to do this each Thanksgiving. It used to be the same 3-4 people (advisors and a post-college mentor), then a couple more, and this year I’m adding a new one. For some reason, I always look for an excuse why I shouldn’t make these calls. I always find myself pacing around before I make the first call. Part of me thinks I might be bore them, or they already know it, or it’s interrupting them, or that it’s too corny.
Yet even if I have to leave voice messages, I’m always end up smiling when I get off the phone. I feel more thankful and centered. Maybe they feel differently too.
Still, there’s some years I never made any calls, because I had good excuses. Maybe it was too late in the day, or they were probably with their family, or I called them last year, or I didn’t really have enough time to talk. I’m sure they had some good excuses – way back when – as to why they didn’t have time for me. I’m thankful they didn’t use them.
If you can think of 2-3 people you’re thankful for who might not know it, you don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving next year to tell them. They won’t care that you’re a little bit late or a whole lot early. It’s only 4 steps.
Some people have a rare aura around them. It's an aura or a glow that something is going to be different because this person is in the room. Or it's that something is going to be different because this person is in charge, or at the podium, or even at dinner with you.
Fred Webster had this aura. Some people saw it when he was a marketing professor. Some saw it when he was the Executive Director for the Marketing Science Institute (MSI). Some saw it when he started the Tuck Summer Marketing Executive Program, or when he was a volunteer fireman Etna, NH. Others even saw it when he was sitting across from them at a recruiting dinner. I think he had this aura around him all the time.
There's a great story that during WWII, Winston Churchill was attending one of Franklin Roosevelt's White House cabinet meetings in Washington DC. He was seated off to the side of the large cabinet table where all FDR and all of the cabinet Secretaries were seated. Roosevelt cheekily said to Churchill, "Winston, I bet you wished you were sitting at the head of this table." Churchill replied, "Anywhere I sit is the head of the table."
Anywhere Fred sat seemed to be the Head of the Table. At board meetings for the Marketing Science Institute, all of the marketing professors would crowd around CEOs. All of the CEOs would crowd around Fred. He was serious when the topic was heavy, entertaining when the topic was light, and always, always pithy and interesting. I had never heard of the words "turner of a phrase" until meeting Fred.
Fred grew up on a hard-working dairy farm in Upstate New York, not far from not far from Auburn. He must have done very well in school because a scholarship to Dartmouth and to Tuck followed, along with a PhD from Stanford, and an inimitable career of impact that continued long after he retired.
He did well wherever he was planted, but he also did well when working with wherever you were planted. At one point a veteran janitor at Fred's school commented that in 25 years as a janitor, Fred was the only professor who knew him and greeted him by name. Trees that grow in strong winds on dairy farms grow deep roots.
I used to write down the prophetic, or funny, or pithy, or interesting one-liners or stories Fred would say. They were Websterisms. They might be something he said in a meeting, executive education class, at lunch, or while passing each other in the hallway. I'd scribble them in a notebook because when I would reread them they would either make me laugh or think. After reviewing them over the years, some of them stick.
When I learned about Fred's passing earlier this month, I wanted to share what he meant to me to my three teenage daughters (who had only heard snippets about him over the years). After dinner, we migrated to the living room, as I scrambled off to find my book of Websterisms. Since I couldn't quickly find it, I had to wing it. Probably for the better. Instead of spending the rest of the night reading an endless list of funny quotes or insightful life lessons to three highly distractible teenagers, I spent it telling stories of what I remember Fred doing -- and being -- for other people.
I'd like to think that as they heard the stories, they saw the aura and the glow.
If you knew him, you might even see it in his photos.
Frederick E. Webster, Jr.
TUCSON, AZ — Frederick Elmer Webster, Jr. passed away on Tuesday, May 24th, 2022 in Tucson, Arizona with his wife Mary Alice and daughter Lisa by his side. Fred was born on October 22, 1937 in Auburn New York, the son of Fred and Evelyn Webster.
Fred grew up in Auburn, New York and met Mary Alice while attending Auburn High School. They were married for 66 years.
Fred was a scholar, teacher, father, and husband with a deep devotion to family, community and service. He was a class of 1959 graduate of Dartmouth College establishing lifelong friendships with many of his classmates. He continued his education earning an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in 1960 and a PhD from Stanford University in 1964. By the time he completed his work at Stanford, he and Mary Alice had three children; Lynn, Mark and Lisa.
Fred moved his young family to Tenafly, New Jersey for a brief time to explore the business world in New York City. He quickly discovered that the commuting life was not for him, and moved the family to Hanover, NH in 1965, where he began his career with the Tuck School. They moved to Etna, NH in 1968 and lived in an idyllic setting on 200 acres of land. Fred and Mary Alice and the kids had a small farm on the property with sheep, chickens, a few rabbits, cats and dogs. When he was not at the Tuck School or at the fire department, he was out in the fields on his tractor. He loved working the land and still found ways to work outside in the desert heat of Tucson.
He was a disciplined scholar and teacher. A professor of management, his area of expertise was marketing. He had a strong reputation in the field and was a pioneer in the areas he studied, making significant and enduring contributions.
Service to his community was deeply important to Fred. He served on many local and national boards. And everyone knew the importance of his commitment as a volunteer firefighter with the Etna Fire Department for over 20 years. His Tuck colleagues recall one day when a small fire erupted in Byrne Hall, he was the first on the scene and ready to go. He had spotted the smoke from afar, exclaimed to colleagues, “Well, that isn’t right!” and quickly dashed off to gear up. He also joined the Southport Fire Department in Southport, Maine where he and his wife would spend summers. Upon retiring to Tucson Arizona, he served as a volunteer with the Sherriff’s Auxiliary.
Fred loved cars. He drove several different models of Mercedes - all with the recognizable FEW plates. On his 50th birthday, Mary Alice surprised him with a 1937 Ford Woody. He spent many happy hours driving around town and to car shows.
A lifelong educator and learner, Fred continued to find ways to teach and research when he retired to Tucson. He was a visiting scholar and lecturer at the Eller College of Business at the University of Arizona, and he remained engaged with Tuck’s executive-education programs and marketing faculty colleagues.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Alice; daughters, Lisa Webster of Tucson, AZ; Lynn Webster Brink and her husband Russell of Sun City, AZ; daughter- in-law Annie Dean and husband Doug Jones of Falmouth, Mass; grandchildren, Bene Webster of New York City, Henry Jones of Boulder, CO, Maddie Webster of Tucson AZ, Nick Lane and wife Heather of Anthem, AZ, Kelly Lane of Phoenix, AZ; and great grandchildren Riordan, Declan, Damon, Madi and Maxine. Fred is preceded in death by his son, Mark.
The family would like to thank Traditions Hospice of Tucson for their compassionate care in Fred’s final 24 hours that allowed him to be home.
A memorial service will be held at Saint Alban’s Church in Tucson on Tuesday, July 26 at 10am.
If you would like to make a gift in Fred’s memory, please consider Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church, 3738 N. Old Sabino Canyon Road, Tucson, AZ 85750 or the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, 100 Tuck Hall, Hanover, NH 03755-9000.
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