Lessons Learned from the Greatest Generation
(Rev. Michael Gatton, Chaplain, USS LCI National Association, gave these remarks at the Association’s Nashville Reunion in 2011. Excerpted with permission.)
EVERY GENERATION LEAVES A LEGACY OF LESSONS TO BE LEARNED. But, there may never have been a generation who taught more valuable lessons than the one born between 1914 and 1929. You were the folks who grew up during the Great Depression. You are the men who went off to fight in the Big One. And, you are the men who came home from that war and built a nation into an economic powerhouse. You knew the meaning of sacrifice, both in terms of material possessions and of real
blood, sweat, and tears. You were humble men who never bragged about what you had done or been through. You were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed. You were our Greatest Generation.
Tom Brokaw gave you that name; and while it’s a bold claim, it has been earned. You weren’t perfect by any means, of course, but as a whole you were a cut above the rest. In Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he remembers his mother telling him the story of the day Gordon Larsen came into the post office where she worked. Larsen was typically a cheerful and popular member of their community, but that day he had stopped in to complain about the rowdiness of the teenagers the night before, which had been Halloween. Brokaw’s mother was surprised at his tone and asked him good naturedly, “Oh Gordon, what were you doing when you were seventeen?” Gordon looked at her squarely in the eye and said, “I was landing at Guadalcanal.” He then turned and left the post office. You were men who were surely mature beyond your years. Maybe it’s time we remember the lessons you have taught us and embrace once again the values of the Greatest Generation.
Lesson # 1: Take Personal Responsibility for Your life. While today’s generation often shirks responsibility as too much work, you relished the chance to step up to the plate and test your mettle. One son of a WWII Medal of Honor winner remembers of his dad and his peers, “For them, responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on, and anytime they could get a task and be responsible, that was what really got em’ going.” And when the Greatest Generation accepted responsibility for something, you also accepted all the consequences of that decision, whether good or bad. You were not a generation of whiners or excuse makers. Unlike today when individuals and businesses reach for a bailout or an easy fix, you took pride in personal accountability.
Lesson #2: Be Frugal. Is your house stuffed with doodads and boxes of stuff? Do you have a sort of pack rat mentality? Could it be because you grew up in the Great Depression where the next canister of oats or pair of pants was not guaranteed? You learned to live on less and be grateful for the things you had, no matter how humble. It didn’t take a new Wii to brighten your Christmas morning; an orange at the bottom of a stocking was enough to knock your socks off. This was not the generation that purchased Corvettes to soothe their mid-life crisis, nor the generation that equated success with the purchase of a McMansion. This was the generation that was thrilled to move into small suburban houses of 750 square feet — not as big as some of today’s garages. One of the mottos of the Greatest Generation was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
Lesson #3: Be Humble. Typical of your generation is the story of a son or daughter who finds a war medal stashed in the attic after dad passes, he having never told them about it. Even if your exploits had been brave and heroic, you rarely talked about the war- maybe because of the difficulty in remembering such carnage, but also from the sense that you had simply been fulfilling your duty, and thus had no reason to brag. Brokaw observes: “The World War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it. It was part of the Code.”
Lesson #4: Love Loyally. You took your marriage vows seriously. Brokaw wrote, “It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option.” Numbers bear Brokaw’s anecdotal evidence out: of all the new marriages in 1940, 1 in 6 ended in divorce. By the late 1990s, that number was 1 in 2. Yours was a time when there was no hanging out or “hooking up. Men asked women on real dates, and had serious intentions in doing so. When a particular gal caught a man’s heart, he proposed and they got hitched. And they were married for the next 60 years. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad today, if we didn’t think there was an escape hatch, and we knew that whatever bumps in the road we hit, we had to work through them together.
Lesson #5: Work Hard. In war you learned to focus on the objective at hand and not give up until that objective and the mission as a whole was accomplished. When you got home, you carried that focus over to the world of work. They didn’t fall into the fallacy that you had to find “your passion” to be happy. You seemed to find happiness in any job you did, because you weren’t just working for personal, self-fulfillment· you labored for a bigger purpose: to give your families the financial security you hadn’t enjoyed growing up. As soon as they graduate college, many folks today want the things it took you 30 years to acquire. But, you knew that going into debt was not the way to get the things you wanted. You understood that the good things in life must be earned by honest work.
Lesson #6: Embrace Challenge. You weren’t the Greatest Generation despite the challenges you faced, but because of them. Today too many shirk challenge and difficult pursuits, believing that the easier life is, the happier they’ll be. But you knew better. You knew that one cannot have the bitter without the sweet, and that true happiness comes from overcoming the kind of challenges that build character and refine the soul. The challenges you experienced made your joy all the more sweet because it was tinged with the gratitude of knowing how easily it could all have been taken away.
And, Lesson #7: Don‘t Make Life So Dang Complicated. If there’s a common thread in these lessons, it’s having a common sense and a level-headed approach to life. While today, we obsess about finding ourselves, or the perfect mate, or our passion in life, your uncomplicated approach t0 life is refreshing. You didn’t go on a diet, you simply ate whole food; you didn’t exercise, you worked around the house; you didn’t obsess about your relationships, you just found a lady you loved and married her. You always looked sharp, but never fussed with fashion trends. You didn’t mull over which appliance better suited your personality and image, you just bought the machine that worked the best. You didn’t think about how to get things done, you just did them. Instead of spending time navel-gazing your life away you just got up and went. So simple!
Thanks, gentlemen (and the ladies who love you), for lessons taught. YOU are the GREATEST!