Foundations and Attributes

Editor’s note: On May 18, 2018 Grove City College Chair of the Board of Trustees, David Rathburn, gave the following address to the trustees, administrators, faculty, trustee scholar winners, and retirees at Grove City College.

A year ago I stood before you uncertain of what the future would hold for me—I was truly in a fight for my life. As I reflect now on that time there are several things that stand out to me. Our abiding faith in God’s providence in our lives was evidenced to us in so many ways.

First, we were surrounded by the love and prayers of many we knew but many more we didn’t. Endless cards, letters, and emails from students, faculty, administrators, sports teams and folks from maintenance and housekeeping and all across the campus—even some people that had been retired for years reached out. Those thoughts, prayers, and words of encouragement lifted us up in the hard times and gave us the strength to continue through all of my treatments and surgeries.

Second, the knowledge that whatever the outcome, I was strengthened by God through my faith. Without question, God’s presence had a remarkable calming effect on me as I contemplated how my fight against Stage III cancer would end. I know now so much better what Christ meant when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Faith is not about everything turning out okay. Faith is about being okay no matter how things turn out.

Finally, that the research I did revealed to me the best choices in treatment plans and doctors and surgeons—many of whom shared my faith and confidence in God’s love for us.

I titled last year’s talk, “The Blessing of Cancer.” My recovery allows me to talk this year about what I believe should be the foundations of our lives, and the attributes that allow us to serve in whatever role we are called to serve. I call it, “The story of A’s and F’s.” Of course, in this academic community there is a vast difference between A’s and F’s, but not so for the perspective of this discussion.

For me, there are five F’s. I share them with you in my order of priority:

  1. Faith
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Finances
  5. Fun

From a foundational perspective, how can there be anything more important than our faith? It is our guiding light, our touchstone, and our filter through which we should view everything. If we put faith first, then we can find the purpose that God has for us in our life.

After faith, I believe the next foundation should be family. Biblically, we are commanded to honor our mother and father. No greater focus should we have in our lives than on our family. When we have choices to make, we all consider the impact on our family, as we should. Robert Gates, former secretary of defense and director of the CIA, told a family story at a recent event that I attended. During his daughter’s junior year in high school in northern Virginia, Gates was at the dinner table while his daughter was discussing her plans for the prom. She shared that she planned to go party-hopping after the prom and Gates immediately vetoed that plan. Instead, he told her, it would be fine for you to invite 9 or 10 couples to come to a party here at the house. You can have full use of the pool and the sauna. A few days later, Gates shared, the home-phone rang. He said that he didn’t normally answer the home-phone because anyone that wanted to talk to him called on his secure cell phone, but he decided to answer it this time. It turned out to be the mother of one of the girls invited to his house. She wanted to know what the arrangements were related to chaperoning the party. Gates related that he and his wife agreed that one of them would be awake at all times, and that they would regularly and unannounced check on what was going on. Well, that simply wasn’t sufficient for this mother. She demanded at length to know what else would be done to chaperone the party. Gates, now somewhat exasperated said, “Well, m’am, if I told you that there will be three CIA operatives armed with Uzi machine guns and six security cameras scanning the perimeter of the property, then would you be satisfied?” After a long pause, she said, “Oh, you are that Robert Gates—that will be just fine, director.”

So, there is faith, then family, and then for me, friends. Friends represent those that are most important in our life that we are not related to by blood or marriage—that are the brothers and sisters in Christ that lift us up when we have needs, that support us as we go through life, that pray with us and for us, that share our joys in life: in church, at school, at work, in the community and everywhere we are. Friends are an important part of who we are. My mother used to say you are known by the company you keep.

While some might disagree, I have finances, or the way you support your family, often through work, as my fourth most-important foundation. It is clearly important but we must keep it in balance in our lives. We can’t let this fourth priority overtake those that are above it in this list.

Finally, I strongly believe that we must find joy in our lives. In my terminology I call it fun because frankly fun starts with an F and joy doesn’t!

We should take enjoyment in what we do and if what you are doing in life isn’t fun then I contend that you won’t do it well and that your life will not be nearly as enriched as it could be. Even in times of stress we can have fun. Sometimes it makes us more effective.

Ronald Reagan was once in the Situation Room at the White House in a time of high stress over an international issue. He noted that the entire room was on high alert and tempers were getting frayed. He suddenly asked everyone if he had ever told them the story about his friend that was a florist back in Iowa. One day a customer called and asked the florist to deliver a nice arrangement to a good friend who had moved his business to a new location. When the customer got to the grand re-opening he went to look at the arrangement he had ordered and noted that the card said, “Rest in Peace.” Incensed, he went back to the florist to express his dismay. The florist said, “Well, sir, I understand that you are upset, but think about it from the perspective of the family of a man who was buried today with a floral bouquet and a card that said: ‘Best of luck in your new location.’”

Once we have established the foundations in our life we can focus on the attributes of success.

I believe there are three critical attributes:

  • Attitude
  • Adaptability
  • Ability

First and foremost, when I select people to be part of a team I think about attitude first. We all know how much more we enjoy working with or being around people that have a good attitude. Attitudes are contagious, and at my business I used to regularly ask people if their attitude was worth catching. Attitude transcends every bit of ability. History is replete with people that had great ability but bad attitudes—those people were seldom successful.

Adaptability is critical for organizations that want to be successful in the long-term. Imagine if the college hadn’t adapted to the computer age, where would we be today? Think about those people who were doing the very best they could making pay-phones. They could be the best pay-phone manufacturers in the world but that didn’t mean they would be successful forever because technology passed them by. We must not only be attentive to what we are doing but we must prepare to adapt to changes that impact our area of expertise. Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote in I Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

Finally, we must have some ability: For me, it isn’t the most important factor but it is the differentiating factor between those who have mastered the attitude and adaptability perspectives. We have the capability to improve our ability through training, learning, and experience. That is one of the most important things that we can do here at Grove City College: give people the training and education that allows them to differentiate their qualifications from others. We give them the ability they need to be successful in whatever they choose to do after they leave Grove City College.

My use of these foundations and attributes actually pre-dates the time I started to speak about them in public. They are the result of things that I learned first from great parents and then reinforced here during my time at the college. My time working for a Christian-owned business that carried the Hopeman name reinforced the power that faith, then family, then friends and finances, had in an environment where you enjoyed what you did and had fun. I learned that was true regardless of what I was doing in my life.

My ability to be successful at a young age was, in my view, due largely to the foundations I have spoken about, along with my attitude of “doing whatever the work required.”

I have been blessed in my ability to adapt to change and to sustain what I learned here as I worked to be successful—not just in business but in my faith, my family, and my friendships.

Life here will continue to change, just look at the great folks that are leaving us now: Bruce Ketler, Dean Stacy Birmingham, former chair Bill Birmingham, Stanley Keehlwetter, board secretary Art Schwab, and several others.

Each of them had a huge impact on this campus; we will miss their contributions. But we will adapt to them leaving as we have adapted to the departures of others that have gone before them. We must if we intend to continue to grow as a community and institution.

My prayer for us and this institution continues to be that we hear God’s call in our lives; that we focus on Him first and then allow the foundations in our lives to guide us to be the people that God wants us to be.

On Wednesday I head to Ireland to spend two weeks there with my oldest son, so allow me to conclude today with this old Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

God bless you all.

David Rathburn

David Rathburn

David Rathburn is the youngest Chairman of the Board of Trustees in the history of his alma mater, Grove City College (class of ’79). He is also President and Chief Operating Officer of US Joiner LLC and co-founder and Vice President of Gatewick Enterprises. (The opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Grove City College or its Board of Trustees.)

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