Those valuable lessons are contained in two mini-stories about a successful 80-year-old man, my uncle; Gene Kazan.
Gene was a child of The Great Depression: the 1930’s when over 25% of the American workforce had no job (versus less than 5% today). Many families lost their savings and lost their homes and some had to give their children to others to raise who could better afford to feed and clothe them and keep a roof over their heads.
By the millions, men “rode the rails,” meaning they jumped illegally on to railroad trains and rode them aimlessly to town after town, looking for work, any work. Tens of thousands of families lived in “Hoovervilles,” little make shift camps named bitterly for President Hoover, as they struggled to survive.
Gene and his parents and older brother (my father) lived in an apartment, and his father worked for the government so they had a dependable income. Being a kind-hearted woman, his mother used to feed many a hungry man who’d just gotten off the rails, and was looking for work.
Story No. 1: One day in 1934, she had a special surprise for little 7-year-old Gene. The two of them would go to the movies, and afterward, to Clifton’s Cafeteria, a nice self-serve restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, and a big favorite of his.
After the movie, they walked across the street to Clifton’s, and as they were about to enter, they saw a forlorn looking woman, with her face and hands pressed against the glass watching people enjoy their meals.
Gene’s mother approached her and said, “Are you alright?” The woman sadly replied, “I’m alright but I’m hungry.”
Downstairs in Clifton’s was their ‘low end’ basement buffet. “That buffet,” Gene’s mother told her, “is just a quarter.”
“But I don’t have a quarter,” the woman responded, with a dejected look on her face.
“I understand,” Gene’s mother said in a gentle tone, as she took this woman’s hand and placed a quarter in it. She then added more change so that when this woman finished her meal, she could ride the street car home.
The woman hung her head for a moment, and then slowly walked downstairs into the basement, embarrassed for being so poor and so desperate.
As little 7-year-old Gene looked at this woman and at his mother, it made a powerful impression on him, and as you’ll see, has affected his behavior these last 73-years.
Story No. 2: In 1942, Gene is just 15-years-old when he learns his mother is dying of cancer.
“She called me in,” he told me last year. And as she looked at him she said in anguish, “I will not be here when you are 16.”
And then she said, “I hope I built enough value within you that when you look at yourself in the mirror every day, if you are satisfied with what you see – that is all that is important. Do not care what others say and do. Set your own standards and live by them.”
And a short time later, she passed away.
Once again she had made a very powerful, life-changing impression on Gene.
As the years went by, Gene worked very hard, and took considerable risk in building his business and he became quite successful.
And he was compelled to act on the lessons from these two mini-stories. Regarding the first story, for many years, he has gone to the grocery story to buy far too much food, lovingly prepare it and then take it to family and friends and to others in need. Around Gene, no-one would go hungry.
Regarding the second story, for those in need, a financial angel has always mysteriously turned up. For example, a few years ago, a long-time employee, a poor man from Mexico struggling to support his family had his ancient, run-down car die. A brand new one awaited him and his family.
With Gene it was done as always, with no fanfare, no ego gratification, he just did it. And I believe as his mother advised him on her death bed, it was so he could look in the mirror and feel good about the person looking back at him.
So to summarize those valuable lessons: The first is: Don’t allow others to go hungry. If you see a down and out, homeless person on the street, you can buy them a meal, or you can contribute to a church or mission that feeds the homeless. There but for the grace of God goes you or me.
The second is: For less fortunate families than yours, contribute either directly as Gene does or indirectly with gifts such as for “Toys for Tots,” or in financial contributions. You could make a big difference in a child’s life today that could provide fond memories for a lifetime.
What makes these lessons so valuable? They are opportunities for you to make the world better and if you act on them, you can bring greater joy and meaning to your own life.
This year, we celebrated Gene’s 80th birthday in a fancy Beverly Hills restaurant and although he insisted on paying for the celebration, he asked just one thing of his guests. Instead of giving him gifts, please make a donation to the Hollenbeck Youth Center in East Los Angeles, to help others in need.
Hollenbeck is located in one of Southern California’s poorest areas and that kind gesture raised thousands of dollars for them.
Just the other day I called him and Gene was completing 6-hours of preparing and cooking nearly 20 pounds of his well known fancy meatloaves, with hot gravy and preparing fresh baked bread and fresh vegetable side dishes.
“If God didn’t want me to do this,” he said with a chuckle, “Why did He put ground chuck steak on sale?”
Soon after we spoke, Gene began his food deliveries to family, old friends and to new friends as well. And as he served the food, it came with love, a big smile and a funny story or two. “It makes me feel very good to do it,” he said later.