By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes. I believe it because I lived it.” –Ted Sorensen, 1930-2010
Ted Sorensen graduated from the University of Nebraska, from which he earned undergraduate and law degrees. He left Lincoln in July 1951, with sights set on Washington, D.C. and a hoped-for career in public service. He had no contacts, no appointments, no connections. He carried no letters of introduction. Aside from an early hitchhiking trip to Texas, Sorensen had never been out of the Midwest. He had yet to drink his first cup of coffee.
This mild-mannered, bright young man would become a speechwriter and confidant of President John F. Kennedy.
Sorensen spoke of luck, changes in fortune, and encounters with heroes. Life is never simple. It has its ups. It has its downs. The start of a new year prompts reflection on why Sorensen’s words resonate so deeply.
Luck. I was lucky to be born in America. This is the greatest gift my parents gave me. I was lucky to be spared the trauma of a childhood marred by war. My father and mother experienced fear, hunger, displacement and the sheer brutality of living under German occupation in Poland. Trauma leaves a mark on the psyche not easily removed.
Growing up working class in Massachusetts, I was lucky my parents took on less-than-glamorous jobs to send me to Catholic school where nuns in black habits taught me proper grammar. I was lucky I loved school and that learning—except for mathematics—came easily. I was lucky to encounter teachers, and later professors, who encouraged me. I was lucky to grow up in a church community which formed a surrogate family. My blood relatives—grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins—were all trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Changes in fortune. I remain indebted to a nameless United States Army Chaplain at Bergen Belsen. The former concentration camp was transformed into a displaced persons camp after World War II and my father, who’d been a slave laborer in Nazi Germany, was liberated by Americans. Dad lived at Bergen Belsen for nine months postwar and, after a failed attempt to be approved for refugee status to Australia, made his way to the chapel at the camp. The chaplain intervened, securing a slot for my father on Marine Flasher, the first refugee ship to arrive in Boston after the war.
Another change in fortune. I was accepted to a very prestigious graduate school. Can you picture the ivy? Let’s say I’d have had to assume significant debt to attend. Let’s further say I attended my second choice school—a Public Ivy—with a tuition fellowship. Let’s finally say that I met my husband, a fellow graduate student, three days after I moved to town.
Heroes. My parents remain my heroes for their courage to leave their homeland to build a life in America. That took guts, sacrifice and more hard work than deeply-rooted, multi-generational Americans are sometimes able to grasp. My teachers, professors and mentor-bosses are also my heroes. The best ones taught lessons impossible to find in textbooks. Some of my best friends, my husband included, are also my heroes.
Life is not always fair. Our job is to view the “hand” we are presented and play it to the best of our ability.
How has luck impacted your life? What sudden changes in fortune have you benefited from? Who are your heroes? These seem questions worth pondering—and acting on—at this, the start of another year.
Happy New Year!