American Grandpas

We recently joined my maternal grandpa at an event in his honor at Northern Arizona University. While I am very proud of him, it also occurs to me that there is an intercultural angle to this moment: his story, when contrasted with that of my paternal grandpa, illustrates how culture manifests in different ways for different people. In this two-part blog series, I’ll explore the stories of both of my American Grandpas.

Eugene was born in rural Nebraska during the Great Depression, to Ruby (his father) and Hazel. I know little about his childhood except that it was hard. But what he lacked in material comfort, he made up for in mathematical ability and ambition.

When he graduated from high school during the early years of the Cold War, mentors took the first-generation college student under their wing. Eventually, he earned a Master’s Degree and a PhD., and embarked on a career in higher education. It wasn’t easy, especially while raising three kids, and it required paying his way with jobs that didn’t suit him, like driving a Texaco oil truck. Slowly but surely, however, his American Dream came true: After serving as a department head and dean, he became president at Northern Arizona University and then at Wichita State University.

When I was growing up, many family interactions centered on his job. We spent weekends at university functions; while other children were watching cartoons, we were at banquets learning to make small talk. We took family photos for university programs, were put on the spot to tell jokes to local dignitaries, and knew to be on our best behavior at tailgating parties and parades.

To my child’s eye, he was the grandpa who wore shoes with tassels, and whose office had a solid wood desk and a private bathroom. The one who saw the world, who gave speeches, who was respected, and who had accomplished something. He was also a distant figure on a pedestal – someone busy and important, who had to be shared.

As an adult, I have a broader perspective. I see the man behind the suit and appreciate how he helped prepare me for the work I do today – in content, form, and encouragement. Among many other things, he was the one who introduced me to Chinese food and the concept of guanxi, who showed me the power of dialogue and compromise for navigating difference, and who modeled what it meant to be an engaged, intellectual citizen.

American Culture

While his story is unique, it also reflects typical American cultural values.

First, there is egalitarianism – a belief surely informed by his humble upbringing. Wherever he went, he was most interested in individual people, and he spoke with the same humility, grace, and dignity whether he was talking to a farmer or governor. He never apologized for having climbed so far beyond his circumstances; he also never seemed to wonder whether he should have made it to a bigger league. Perhaps it is because, in his understanding of Christianity, what mattered was not the glory that you could attain for yourself, but how you helped the community right in front of you.

He also keenly perceived the possibility of self-improvement. He optimistically believed in the power of education to unlock individual potential, and strived to break down barriers so that those who were excluded or marginalized could fully participate.

These values were undergirded by a firm belief in hard work, which wasn’t work for work’s sake, but a recognition that sustained effort was required to make the most of opportunities. If anything frustrated him more than those who put obstacles in others’ way, it was those who put them in their own way. Indeed, he had a very strong sense of personal responsibility; for him, an individual shouldn’t waste time hoping for change if they weren’t willing to go the extra mile to make it happen.

And in his own work, he did go the extra mile. He was a future-oriented builder, a starter, and an agent of change. When something was needed that didn’t exist, he created it; when something needed fixing, he took the initiative and did it. Whether it was passing a Martin Luther King, Jr. resolution over the objections of the state, researching and implementing equal pay policies, launching a local theater company, or starting the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Northern Arizona University, he had the vision, the will, and the commitment to get it done.

Still, as for many Americans, this belief in the power to change and shape fate was counterbalanced by pragmatism – a sense that the best application of our talents and efforts was where they would most pay off. I had always seen him as a scholar, but in his truest form, he was an administrator whose job it was to manage competing priorities, conflicting visions, and limited budgets. For him, the key was to separate the pipe dream from the possible, and take the most productive road to get there. And get there, he did.

2013, With my grandpa. Copyright 2017, Melissa Hahn.

Conclusion

My grandpa Eugene was, in many ways, a prototypical white, Anglo-Saxon protestant man of his era. He was born late enough to miss the Second World War, but early enough to ride the wave of post-war prosperity that amplified his diligent efforts. He mastered the rules of “foreign” professional and social strata and achieved greater success than anyone in his family. Yet this came at a cost, and later he cautioned me against burning the candle at both ends. He taught me to appreciate the little things, to cultivate a sense of wonder, and to pick my battles and let things go. As Aristotle is supposed to have said, “Everything in moderation – even moderation.”

It was a great pleasure to join my family in honoring my grandpa last weekend – not the figure in the motorcade or university hood, but the fully human person who has endeavored to live his life to the fullest. The one who embodied the American legend of pulling himself up by his bootstraps – but who, unlike so many of his generation, never became cynical about those following in his wake. And it is this combination of sharp mind and tender heart, more than his title or his accolades, that makes him love him more.

It is also what makes him my American grandpa.

Are you curious about American families? I write about culture from a personal perspective on this site from time to time, and I’m happy to share if you have questions.

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