A Guy Named Joe

Hands down, my favorite movie of all time is the one where Spencer Tracy plays a hotshot World War II pilot who flies on instinct and hot coffee. He also has a knack for showboating on every bombing mission he’s sent out on until the day comes when he doesn’t come back.

The defining moment in A Guy Named Joe occurs when he meets Lionel Barrymore, the commanding officer in a place where all good flyers go. Tracy’s character has had to learn the hard way the code of the true flier, that “no man is really dead unless he breaks faith with the future and no man is really alive unless he accepts his responsibility to it.” Tracy’s responsibility, his mission, was not only teaching Van Johnson to fly but inspire him to excellence.

The film’s title was taken from a phrase used by General Clair Chennault who originated and commanded The Flying Tigers in 1941. Chennault referred to any member of his squadron who was a “right chap,” as “a guy named Joe.”

I met Joe Phipps several years ago, first as a new resident to the community where I lived, later as a friend, finally, as a teacher whose extraordinary power changed the way I looked at myself forever.

At a particularly low point in my work, I confided to Joe my frustration with clients who consistently wanted more juice from a lemon that had already been squeezed too much. Joe gently confronted me with, “Why aren’t you working on yourown stuff, Jim?” When I recited a litany of excuses, he simply wouldn’t accept what he saw as unrealized potential. “You’re a writer,” Joe told me, “write yourself out of it!”

Joe saw conviction where I saw doubt. He affirmed faith where I felt fear. Joe was like a spark plug. In his eyes, I saw no uncertainty. In his voice, I heard no hesitation. The energy and conviction with which he spoke inspired me to step outside my fear and “…live up to the best you are capable of and don’t try to live up to an impression of how you think, or anyone else thinks, you should be.”

One aspect of responsibility – the pursuit of excellence – carries an ethical component when others count on our effectiveness at a given task. Striving for excellence not only requires doing’s one’s best, but acting diligently, and persevering in overcoming obstacles. It also means demonstrating a commitment to improve our knowledge, skills, and judgment when it comes to carrying out our responsibilities.

However, if one can not only rise to the level of his or her own excellence but inspire another to do so, that is truly an extraordinary gift.

Joe spent so much of his own time helping others realize their excellence that I never fully understood, until much later, how little time he had left. In his last days of life, he once again, confirmed for me a courage and commitment to reach for the best inside myself.

Joe’s strength became my strength. His conviction became my conviction. And that strength and conviction shall remain with me always. As a matter of fact, I like to think that Joe’s standing beside me now, like the Spencer Tracy character. Of course, I’m the rookie with all the potential still trying to get out of my own way. All I have to do is listen.

“You know what to do, now, do it. You know who you want to be. Now, be it.”

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