During my decades of punditry at the Weekender, the Lake Placid News and The Virginia Gazette, I have written more than 2,000 columns. They have been based mostly on interviews and encounters, with knowledgeable local residents as well as notable visitors to our town whose comments on politics, economy and a host of other topics translated into reflections on current events.
Some readers of my column have been asking whether the "picking of the brains" of so many exceptional individuals had an impact, on me. While I was pondering this question, I recalled an episode dating back to my earliest years in journalism. I was a cub reporter at a large, daily newspaper in Budapest, Hungary. We, the young reporters, were in awe of the senior columnist at the paper. He was interviewing all the rich and famous who visited Budapest, called the "Pearl of the Danube." between the two World Wars. Among the frequent visitors were Edward, the Prince of Wales, Count Ciano, Mussolini's son-in law, Maharadjas from India, and a host of other high-profile personalities.
When, the columnist was asked whether dealing, on a daily basis, with so many powerful people and their stories didn't make him jaded, he, confessed, at times, he longed, just to "get bored."
A chance encounter with a former fellow student, who was known for his blandness, provided him with that opportunity. Joined by the host's equally bland wife, they spent the afternoon talking about nothing but mundane things.
On the way out of the house, he noticed a shelf with nine army caps, neatly lined up. Unable to resist his journalistic curiosity, he asked about the significance of the caps.
"Oh, those are just reminders of World War I. There was an attempt for a mass escape from our prisoners-of-war camp. It failed. We were lined up, and every tenth-man was executed. I was the ninth, in the row," he said.
I have also found that stories of ordinary people often leave a more profound message that the one told by or about celebrities.
A case in point was my breakfast interview with Bernard Rapoport, at the Chickahominy House. The son of Russian immigrant parents who settled in San Antonio, TX, in the early part of the 20th century, he grew up in a family where "what we talked about was education and more education," he said.
"My papa, a pushcart-peddler, never in his life made more than $4,000 in a year. He just wasn't a good businessman. But he had great integrity and a tremendous sense of fairness and doing what is right."
Rapoport also remarked that he was brought up by a "wonderful mother who told me that I was the smartest person who ever lived, the most honest, and the best son. What I am saying is that she defined me."
Getting a college education seemed mandatory, but it wasn't easy. To pay for his tuition, Rapoport held down several jobs. "Nevertheless, the University of Texas provided me with a wonderful opportunity to gain an education, and all for the price of $1,440, my expenses for four years," he recalled.
Rapoport never forgot his debt to his alma mater. He donated $20 million to the University of Texas and kept giving $1 million more every year. But his generosity to his alma mater was just one aspect of his feeling of obligation to "do good." According to Fortune magazine, Rapoport has been listed for years as one of America's 40 most generous philanthropists. He centered his support on education, social justice and liberal causes.
As the founder, of the billion dollar American Income Life Insurance Co., he himself became a multi-multi millionaire. "The only justification for making a lot of money is to give it away to support worthwhile causes." he used to say.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.