I have a friend, he's not someone I hang out with. He was good friends with my brother and another guy that I dated over 20 years ago. We know each other 'by association'.
Back then I knew him from the night club scene. He would be there with friends while I was waitressing. I was pretty sure he was at the Apprentice School at the shipyard. I knew those guys had to get up EARLY and I often wondered how they took such great advantage of happy hour and made it to the shipyard on time the next day.
Free Willy, as we will call him, was one easy-going dude. He was rolling through life and having a good time. I didn't take him very seriously, there was no need to. Also, he was friends with my brother...that inherently made his wisdom questionable.
Flash forward 13 or 14 years and my son is in 3rd grade with a beautiful girl. The girl's mom teaches at the school as well. She taught my youngest 1st grade and it may have been his favorite year ever. Turns out that the amazing teacher and sweet girl are Free Willy's wife and daughter.
Free Willy kept trucking and had gone on to build a great career at the shipyard. He has an older son as well and his lovely family lives in a home nearby.
I remember putting the pieces together and being so impressed. It's not that I didn't think Free Willy was capable of great success, I hadn't really given it a lot of thought. Free Willy so just so relatable: he was your 'average joe': he didn't seem to have started out with many advantages and was someone I could imagine standing in that same spot in that nightclub 20 years later, not much having changed for him.
I knew that what Free Willy and his wife had, they had because they planned, set goals, worked, and achieved. Free Willy set his course, and I guess at face-value while handing him beers it hadn't occurred to me that he had plans.
I was at a school event a couple holiday season's ago (our 3rd graders were juniors by this time) and bumped into Free Willy. The topic of conversation evolved to that of a mutual friend. I told him that for a variety of reasons I had been keeping the person at an arm's length. I asked about Free Willy's most recent interaction and he said he'd been in touch with the guy. He also discreetly mentioned that he'd paid a bill for the friend that day so his utility wouldn't be cut off.
I walked away feeling some sort of way. I could justify all the reasons I kept the person at an arm's length, but Free Willy had instead used his arm's length to reach out and help.
I watched recently from Facebook as Free Willy's older son finished time at the local community college and transferred to a very reputable 4 year state university. Free Willy's daughter had gone straight to a 4-year university. There are all sorts of reasons why the two took different paths--I don't know for sure. But every single reason I can think of involves the two parents treating their children like individuals, making sure they both feel supported, and giving them each a chance to achieve success on their own course.
I saw Free Willy lose a good friend to cancer. I've watched him hop in his vehicle to go help his mom after a storm. I've seen him grow more comfortable with and have an active relationship with God. I have seen his wife achieve amazing things with her education and career, and witnessed Free Willy's pride in her.
I hardly see Free Willy, but there is no doubt in my mind who he is, and I admire the hell out of him. I'm sure there are peaks and valleys for him, and I'm certain he can be a shit-head some days like the rest of us, but if you met him you would sense Free Willy's authenticity. You would know that what you see is what you get.
Free Willy is a good man. He's the kind of man I want to help shape my sons to be. He's a man who passionately loves his wife, he adores his children, he works hard, he plays and has fun, he is kind. He seems to try everyday to be a good human...in a low-key sort of way. I think part of the key of that is something that I admire when I see it in anyone:
Free Willy loves people.
They matter to him and he lets them know.
He inspires me. Free Willy makes me want to be a good human. He isn't heading campaigns or directing charities or head coach of the best team. He's Free Willy.
In a world where so many people are trying to be Instagram-famous or the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, I want to be clear:
I'd much rather my sons be the next Free Willy.