I have been spending a lot of time lately working at home in my study. (OK, OK — the study is actually just the spare bedroom with a piece of wood across two filing cabinets for a desk, piles of unorganized papers everywhere, and the litter box in the closet. Even Hemingway had to start somewhere).
My desk is barely visible under the mounting stacks of paper. From certain angles, the piles resembles the New York skyline. Spring cleaning seemed long overdue and I’ve been trying to wade through everything, deciding what to toss and what to keep until next year when I begin the process anew.
One of the things I discovered this go-around was a letter written to me by my older brother John, dated August 25, 1971. That August was a special time for both of us. I was about to leave Chicago for downstate Illinois to attend college. I had thought at the time that I wanted to be a teacher and Eastern Illinois University was known for its education program. Meanwhile, John was preparing for his first year of law school in Iowa.
John decided to mark the moment by sitting down at his typewriter and sharing a few brotherly thoughts. The opening paragraph gives you some idea of the letter’s tone:
Dear David, I decided to take a few minutes to chat with you on the eve of your college career and the night before “opening day” at Drake Law School.
Chat? Oh-Oh. Here we go.
John was concerned about me. There was a time when he had hoped I would follow in his legal footsteps. My older brother tried his best to convince me to attend a small private college as he and my other brother had.
Eastern Illinois University was hardly ‘the Harvard of the Midwest.” It was a regional, public college. The Viet Nam war was waging and any of us who could sought refuge in a student deferment. One of my best friends from high school was already on campus. Plus EIU offered me a full four-year scholarship to be on their speech team. I accepted without hesitation.
John knew he had lost the battle when I chose Eastern, but he still hoped to win the war. His letter was a sincere attempt to encourage, motivate, and inspire me to excel in college.
Why not start on the top at Eastern and finish there, rather than working from the bottom up as in high school? David, I know you can do it!
John threw in his “Four Cardinal Rules of Study.”
Never cut classes.
Take comprehensive notes (if the professor sneezes, take note).
Learn the teacher.
My brother also wrote to warn that my first quarter of college would be the roughest.
You will see many upperclassmen goofing off and talking a lot of B.S. about courses, teachers, local girls, etc. Ignore it. Stick with a highly discipline study program and you will be rewarded.
The letter ended with a reminder to call Mom and Dad regularly and to remember the Congalton tradition (“Work Hard”).
Years later, the letter from my brother sounds pretty corny and I still smile whenever I read it. In fact, when I started teaching college, I always read the letter out loud to my students on the first day of class. We all had a good chuckle at the somberness of John’s well-meaning counsel. But John had the last laugh. Older siblings typically do.
Following graduation from Drake, he went on for a graduate degree in law from Harvard and is now a top maritime attorney. Those four study rules have served him well. John makes more money yearly than I will make in a decade. I’m sure there’s no cat box in his study.
Did I listen to my brother’s advice? Not exactly.
Actually, not at all.
My role model that first quarter at Eastern was more Dan Quayle than Daniel Webster. I scored high in speech tournaments, but consistently ignored all of John’s advice. I was rewarded for my lack of effort with a “B,” and a “C” and an “F” on my first report card–three grades that spelled out academic probation.
Things worked out. They always do. I never quite got the hang of those golden rules suggested by John, but four years later, I was getting straights “A’s.” I guess I figured out some rules of my own.
I ended up tossing many of the old letters I came across that afternoon in Los Osos, but I’ll keep this one from August 1971. I have a feeling I’ll always keep it around. Siblings never want to listen to each other, much less accept unsolicited advice.
Yet even though we hate to admit it, there remains a special sense of comfort in working at a desk, made from a piece of wood, on top of two filing cabinets, near a cat box in the closet.
And being reminded that there is someone who is looking out for you.
Someone who cares.
San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (April 1990)