The Accidental Legacy


In the mid-1980s, after several years of working very long hours and regretfully neglecting my family, I became the senior vice-president and CFO of Maccabees Mutual Life Insurance Company in Southfield, Michigan. My career aspirations were coming to fruition but other dimensions of my life were suffering. My three children were young and needed a father, and I knew that my wife, Sue, was carrying almost all of the parenting burden.

Since my actuarial training was a way to leverage my success to a broader network of industry contacts, I’d begun volunteering on a variety of industry and professional boards and committees. I served as an officer and ultimately as president of the Michigan Actuarial Society; I also eagerly agreed to serve on a number of committees and task forces of the American Council of Life Insurance (ACLI), a trade association representing hundreds of insurance companies nationwide. Involvement with the ACLI enabled me to network with some of the top professionals in the insurance industry. While those contacts proved to be valuable, this level of industry service only exacerbated my work/life imbalance. I was away from the family even more and even more guilty.

ACLI committee meetings were almost always held at its corporate offices in Washington, D.C. Typically, I flew from Detroit to Washington the evening before an event, attended the meetings the next day, and returned to Detroit that evening . . . until one Thursday in May 1984 when this pattern finally changed for good.

It started ordinarily enough: Late Thursday I flew into Washington for a Friday meeting of the Actuarial Committee. I checked into my hotel near the Capitol, where someone recommended that I have dinner at “The 1789,” a historic restaurant in nearby Georgetown. After packing the documents I needed to read for Friday’s meeting, I caught a cab to Georgetown; I was multi-tasking long before the word found its way into the popular lexicon.

As usual, I watched the city go by through the windows of the cab, pondering tomorrow’s meeting. It was a rainy, somewhat cold evening, but the restaurant was quaint and warm. The meal was wonderful and the ambience was rustic but elegant. Since the dining room was too dark to read the documents I had brought along, I found myself intermittently deep in thought or observing others—in despair over my lack of productivity.

A few tables away was Bob Johannsen, a member of the Actuarial Committee who would be attending the meeting with me the next morning. He was eating with a girl of about thirteen or fourteen. As I waited for my dessert to arrive, I began to worry about all the work I wasn’t doing, but realizing the futility of this, I decided to shake it off and simply go say hello to Bob.

“Hi, Fred! So good to see you,” said Bob warmly. “I’d like you to meet my daughter.” Bob explained that he made a practice of bringing his children with him on business trips. “We stay an extra day or two to do some sightseeing.”

I listened intently. They both looked so happy. What an excellent way for a busy executive to spend some quality time with his children. My daughters were nine-year-old Heidi, five-year-old Dena, and three-year-old Denise. Bob was just as busy as I was, but here he’d found a way to add at least one element of balance to his life.

When I returned to the hotel, I immediately called Sue and told her about Bob and his daughter. “What would you think of sending Heidi to Washington tomorrow? She and I could do some sightseeing over the weekend.”

“That’s a terrific idea!” said Sue. And she made the flight arrangements while I arranged for two more nights at the hotel.

I could hardly wait. After Friday’s committee meeting, I rushed to the airport. At the age of nine, Heidi was understandably apprehensive about traveling alone for the first time, and I could see the nervousness on her face when she walked off the plane with her airline escort. But once she caught a glimpse of me, she broke into a broad smile. Not only was she relieved but she was finally going to have some time alone with her dad.

I had been to Washington several times, but this was Heidi’s first time. We planned two days of visiting major tourist sites: the Vietnam Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and Ford’s Theater where Lincoln was assassinated. The weather was quite nice, so we did a lot of walking, and when we got to the Lincoln Memorial, Heidi begged me to race her up the steps.

“Here’s an idea,” I said, smiling. “How about if I stand here at the base and time you running up and down?”

Heidi thought this was a great challenge, and when she returned and I told her how long it had taken, she insisted—positively humming with unbounded youthful energy—on running it again in an attempt to beat her previous time. What fun!

At the Vietnam Memorial, I searched the Wall for the name of my junior high and high school friend Arnie Sarna, who had been killed in the war. When I’d heard about the Vietnam Memorial, I was not particularly impressed with the design. But searching for Arnie’s name and seeing hundreds of linear feet of personal notes, flowers, and memorabilia placed at the base of the Wall was something else—I couldn’t move.

“Why are you crying, Daddy?” Heidi asked, turning to see what I was doing.

I struggled to explain the war and the loss of my friend to her, and suddenly I realized how moved Heidi was. This was important. This was very good—for my daughter to share something so profound, for her to witness me reflecting on something so true and deep.

Here is another deep truth: When I’d boarded the plane for Washington the previous Thursday, I never could have imagined that a seemingly coincidental encounter with Bob Johannsen and his daughter would initiate a practice that would endure for the next twenty-five years—resulting in at least a hundred trips, impacting hundreds more people than my family (but I’ll get to that in a minute).

Starting with that first trip with Heidi in 1984, I began taking each of my five children on annual trips alone with me for that special one-on-one bonding time. When the kids were young, a trip up the road to a local hotel for two or three nights was an exciting adventure. As they became teenagers and young adults, we sought out more educational and cultural experiences; the trips got more exotic and often included travel across the country or even overseas. But in each case, the important thing was not where we traveled, but rather the fact that we did it together.

And this trip-taking practice birthed yet another practice: I would eventually talk about this practice of taking trips with my children hundreds of times to thousands of New York Life employees and agents throughout my career—inspiring hundreds of those employees and agents to adopt the same practice with their own children.

Seeing how this single event impacted my career, my family, and my personal happiness, I now realize that God arranged that providential meeting at “The 1789.” I also recognize that God knew how the effects of it would ultimately play out over the ensuing years—multiplying the benefits exponentially as I shared our experiences. Even today, years after my retirement, the most frequent comment I receive in emails and holiday greeting cards from members of my extended family at New York Life is a thank-you for sharing the stories of those trips because so many of them adopted a similar practice with their own families.

During eight of the last eleven years of my career, New York Life achieved the number-one market share position in the sale of life insurance in the United States. We achieved many other distinctions and number-one rankings during those years, but I truly believe my greatest legacy to the company was more about my faith and my family values—values that inspired others—than any of those corporate achievements.

For Reflection

He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their parents
— Malachi 4:6

Triggered by a providential meeting in a Georgetown restaurant in 1984, I started a family tradition that would positively impact my life, my family’s life, my career, and the lives of hundreds of others. Only God could have arranged that fortuitous meeting, and only God could have known that it would lead to the bonding of hundreds of parents with their children. And only with God’s help did I recognize that my real legacy at New York Life Insurance Company was not its financial success and global prominence but rather the family values I shared with the New York Life agents and employees.

Are you struggling as I did with balancing your career aspirations with your spiritual life and your responsibilities as a spouse and parent? Have you developed coping techniques that will allow you to spend more time with your family? If you have developed such techniques, have you shared your family traditions and practices with your friends and colleagues in the hope that they may benefit by adopting similar traditions? I am sure Bob Johannsen did not consciously convey to me his practice of traveling with his daughter in order to influence me or anyone else. But by sharing his practice with me, he positively influenced my life and, indirectly, the lives of thousands of others through my storytelling.

The disease of workaholism and the drive for success by worldly standards is a temptation that can overcome you, as it overcame me. Don’t let your ambitions for career success drive a wedge between you and your family. The book of Malachi is concerned with the coming of the Day of LORD, and God’s judgment on the people. Thus, the prophet’s words about parents and children are able to express the danger of neglecting the bond between parent and child, and also share the hope that the prophet’s words, although they come from a human messenger, will yet have the power to bring the hearts of parents and their children together, and make room for God’s mercy.

Like the parents in this passage, I too received a life-changing message from a human source; by God’s hand, Bob Johannsen became a divine messenger to me in that providential meeting in the Georgetown restaurant.