Little Details (1/7/10)

New beginnings

Jan. 7, 2010

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Success, it appears, can be achieved with the aid of a soccer ball and a well-read book. As we start 2010, I share a story of new beginnings.

Przemek needed friends. The young Polish émigré arrived in Massachusetts following a slight detour in Libya. His new home, a leafy suburb southwest of Boston, was a far stretch from bustling Warsaw or North Africa.

As the new kid in town, Przemek reached for the familiar: a soccer ball and a book. He signed up for a summer league. Athletic ability coupled with a seeming immunity to summer’s intense heat — a skill honed in Africa — eased his transition. He scored goals and friendships while practicing burgeoning English skills. He started high school in the fall with a few friends tucked in his back pocket.

Przemek’s family left Poland in 1980, slipping through a small opening just before the communist government clamped down on pro-democracy efforts. At 15, he packed his bags for an uncertain voyage, leaving behind his childhood home and a close circle of friends. Materially, the family was reasonably well off with an apartment in Warsaw and a country farmhouse. Politically, communism’s noose tightened around them.

An opportunity surfaced for Przemek’s father, a well-regarded surgeon, to work abroad. There was a slight hitch: The position was in Libya, a nation ruled by renegade Muammar al-Gaddafi. Weighing their options, the family opted for a two-year stint on the African continent. Libya offered exotic Saharan terrain, glimpses of Islamic culture and a roundabout path to the West.

The family lived in a compound with other expats — a sort of Polish neighborhood nestled in the desert. Przemek’s father worked for the Libyan health service. Parents ran an informal school, instructing their children in history, literature, math and science. Recess consisted of hours and hours playing soccer and tennis in blazing sun.

Driving trips outside the compound included visits to pristine, undisturbed Roman ruins. Remnants of the ancient empire emerged from desert sands like sun-bleached bones of a once-mighty beast. There were no ticket agents, no lines to stand in, just amazing edifices of columns and stone. Rome crumbled long ago, leaving its indelible mark on the African landscape.

What book did Przemek work his way through that first summer in America? It was Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic, “How to win friends and influence people.” Looking back, I’m struck by the intuitive wisdom of the then 16-year-old finding his way in a new country.

Borrowing a copy of Carnegie’s book from Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, I’m nose deep between the pages. I offer a sampling of Carnegie’s time-tested tenets:

Six Ways to Make People Like You:

• Be genuinely interested in others

• Smile

• Remember, a person’s name is the sweetest and most important sound to him or her

• Be a good listener

• Demonstrate genuine interest in what the other person cares about

• Make the other person feel important — sincerely

Carnegie’s book continues with guidelines for influencing others and being a genuine leader. His initial focus was on business applications to help individuals advance their careers. More than 15 million copies later, readers from all walks of life use his book to forge human connections.

Today, Przemek is a well-established American citizen, raising a family and pursuing his profession. Learning to play fairly and make friends seems a timeless recipe for success. Happy New Year.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or