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When you do something right, do not seek recognition for it.
That was the essence of a comment that Dean Smith made to John Feinstein about not wanting to be remembered for helping to desegregate restaurants in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1958. Feinstein, an author and sportswriter for the Washington Post, had covered Smith for years and got to know the man personally.
Remembering Smith for NPR on the occasion of his death, Feinstein noted how Smith entered a lunchroom with a black man who was a member of Smith’s church. This was a risky move for a young coach to do in the segregated South, and years later Smith’s pastor related the incident to Feinstein. When Feinstein recalled the story to Smith, the coach was disappointed that his pastor had noted it. When Feinstein pressed Smith as to why he would not be proud of his actions as a young man, Smith replied, “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing, you should just do the right thing!”
Far be it from me to disagree with Coach Smith but I believe it is important to recognize people for doing the right thing. A self-effacing character such as Smith who won two NCAA titles and made 11 trips to the Final Four never wanted a fuss made about him, even asking the University of North Carolina not to name the arena in his honor but rather for the players. In this instance UNC did override Smith’s request.
Smith was a righteous man who stood up for causes larger than himself politically and as a coach for his players. He radiated integrity and so remembering him now for the good things he did is a way to honor his memory. Reporters around the nation hailed Smith as a good coach but an even better man. President Obama, who awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, noted Smith’s triumphs on the court but also cited his involvement in Civil Rights, his recruitment of UNC’s first black players and his 96% graduation rate.
Now is also a time to remind us that we do live in a world that is shaped by good men who do good things. Too often if we focus on the news we learn more bad than good in terms of conflict between people, nations and religions. Digesting such evil day after day it is easy to fall into the trap that evildoers outduel the righteous.
Very often I am asked in interviews about the sad state of the world, specifically the fact that there seem to be too few role models or good leaders. I always disagree. Certainly those who make headlines are executives who make mistakes that end up costing their companies millions. Daily we witness the gridlock that paralyzes national and state politics because elected officials favor partisanship over governance. It is easy to turn cynical.
That said I try always to mention the good example of leadership we have all around us. Everyday we see men and women of good intention struggle against the odds to do what is right for their businesses or their organizations. These are people who teach by their example. Like Dean Smith they don’t seek recognition; they seek to make a positive difference.
For that reason remembering a man such as Smith who did the right thing is to hold a light up against the darkness. In doing so we illuminate a path forward where good deeds are noted, not to the benefit of patting people on the back but for the reason of reminding the rest of us that we can do better because good men and women show us the way.