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Making an Impact

Two very different men died last week.

The most well known was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a rare combination of political savvy and personal style.

When he announced that he would seek nomination as a Liberal Party candidate for Parliament, Trudeau (then teaching law at the University of Montreal) was described as one of "the most influential leaders of intellectual life in Quebec." Not many politicians start out with that kind of endorsement.

As Prime Minister he made his mark as much with style as with substance and there was plenty of both. He became Canada's (and one of the world's) most prominent bachelors, linked romantically in the press to the likes of Barbra Streisand and he talked of building a "Just Society." When he finally married, he did so in secret. He oversaw the patriation of the Canadian constitution. An often dramatic speaker who reveled in his Quebecois heritage and opposed Quebec separatism, and he did all with flair and style and immense energy.

If you want a measure of his popularity, you can look at the long lines of folks waiting to say "Adieu" where he lies in state. You can read the tributes in condolence books and editorials. But the most striking evidence of Trudeau's impact, to me, is that, on the eve of his death and fifteen years after he last stepped down from power, Pierre Trudeau was ranked by a Global News-National Post poll of Canadians as their first choice to lead the country.

The other man who died last week led a far more obscure life. His name was Frank Wills.

For most of his life, Mr. Wills, like most folks, worked at a variety of jobs. In his case they were mostly security guard jobs. Like most folks he had his ups and down. Like being arrested for shoplifting once in what he called a "mistake." And like most folks, he had his troubles.

In 1990 he returned home, to Augusta SC to care for his mother. They lived off her social security checks until she died in 1992. Wills said he had no money to bury her. So he donated her body to science.

Nothing remarkable. Very ordinary. But there was one moment when Frank Wills was involved in something that that changed history. That moment occurred on June 17, 1972.

That night, Will was working as a security guard. Part way through his shift, he found a bit of tape across the latch of a door in the building. He removed it, thinking that a late office worker had put it there to make getting in and out of the building easier.

Later that night he found more tape on the latch. Then he called police. When they arrived at the Watergate Office Complex in Washington DC, the police found five men in the process of burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters.

Security guard Frank Wills had helped put and end to the Watergate break-in, and, with time, the Presidency of Richard Nixon. He even got to play himself in the movie, "All the President's Men."

It's funny how the world works. Often, having a powerful impact has nothing to do with stellar education, or the best of breeding. Often that impact comes from being who you are and doing what you do.

One of the most influential, and unknown men in American history illustrates that. His name was Fox Conner, and unless you're a military history buff, or a you've recently seen the Mississippi Wall of Fame (where Conner nestles snugly between Jerry Clower and Will D. Campbell), you've probably never heard of him.

The basic biographical facts are as follows. Conner was born in Slate Springs, MS in 1874 and graduated from West Point in 1898. He served as Chief of Operations under General John Pershing in the First World War. He wrote the after-action critiques that became major plans for the Army that won World War II.

This is distinguished to be sure, but many men and women have had careers as distinguished. What set Conner apart was his impact on men such as George Marshall, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower and a battalion of others. He offered an example of practical learning, rigorous professional standards, and gentlemanly conduct that affected the lives and careers of some of World War II's top commanders.

From 1921 to 1925, General Conner commanded a Brigade in Panama, where Eisenhower was one of the young officers. Ike was bright enough, but not given to academic achievement. He especially disliked history as he'd been taught it. When he wound up serving under Conner, he was a bright, young officer, known to have leadership qualities, but lacking in understanding of the historical and social context in which military actions occur.

Conner loaned Ike some historical novels from his extensive library. "Did you like those?" he'd asked when Ike returned them, "Wouldn't you like to know something about the real history of the period?" And he'd loan Ike a book of history or biography.

The rode together on trail clearing trips through the Panama jungles. And they talked. And Eisenhower learned. And matured. Years later, this is what he wrote.

"It is clear now that life with General Conner was a sort of graduate school in military affairs and the humanities, leavened by the comments and discourses of a man who was experienced in his knowledge of men and their conduct. I can never adequately express my gratitude to this one gentleman, for it took years before I fully realized the value of what he had led me through. And then General Conner was gone. But in a lifetime of association with great and good men, he is the one more or less invisible figure to whom I owe an incalculable debt."

Some people change the world by being leaders of nations, like Pierre Trudeau. Some change the world by doing their simple jobs, like Frank Wills. And some, like Fox Conner, change the world by changing others through the power of their advice and their example.

Who are the Fox Conners in your life? For me there is surely my mom, dead almost two decades now, she still sits on my shoulder and I can hear her little sayings. "It's a fact, we don't have to argue about it, we can look it up." And my dad, with his love of history and stories and his roaring energy.

There is Irwin Hoffman, my English teacher at Bronx Science in my freshman year. He had us read a book a week, except we got two weeks each for Moby Dick and David Copperfield. My love of literature comes surely from that rich experience.

And there is Leonard Tompkins, my mentor who taught this white boy a lot about business and life in the brief time we worked together.

Who are the Fox Conners in your life? More important, are you a Fox Conner to anyone? The way most of us get to have the biggest impact on the world is to change other people through the power of our advice and our example.

Who, years from now, will owe you that incalculable debt?

This feature appeared on 2 October 2000.


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