Indianapolis, IN – “This conference is about you, what you do with what you learn here, and whether you decide to share what you learn here to make things better where you live,” Dr. Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy, told attendees at Wednesday’s Opening Session. The true test of this conference is in your behavior, your attitude, your willingness to work within your organization to make things better for those citizens unwilling or unable to do it for themselves,” Onieal noted. “Whether you choose to share your knowledge and inspire others is up to you …. You will gather the best tools, techniques, and processes anyone can find to help you help others. But whether that happens or not, is completely up to you,” he emphasized.
Onieal challenged the audience using a football game as an analogy. He distinguished between “players” and others who may be present at the “game” (the attendee’s life):
- “There are 22 football players on the field, who will try to change the score. At the same time, there will be players on both teams, sitting on the benches, telling everyone else what to do, commenting on their team and the opposing team, trying to get the coach’s ear, cheering on their team-but they can’t change the score unless they play.
- “At the same time, there are 60 thousand fans in the stadium, drinking beer, yelling and screaming, shouting epithets, saying bad things about the players and the coaches-but they can’t change the score.
- “At the same time, there will probably be 60 million people sitting at home, watching the game on television, drinking beer, yelling and screaming, shouting epithets, saying bad things about the players and the coaches-but they can’t change the score either.
- “Only the 22 people on the field and in the game can change the score. The rest sit on the benches, in the bleachers, and on the recliner.
“My question to you is, ‘Do you want to change the score?’ “
Onieal brought home forcefully that one person could make a difference. He cited a story told by Paul Harvey, the radio commentator, about Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion, whose real name was Joey Barrow. As a teenager, Barrow took violin lessons because his mother believed that that was the only hope he had “for making something of himself.” He was taunted by his classmates, who called him a “sissy.”
One day, after having been provoked into hitting a class “bully” in the head with his violin, another classmate, Thurston McKinney, decided it was time to intervene. He took Joey to the gym and taught him how to spar in the boxing ring. Joey had to forgo his violin lessons because he needed the 50 cents his mother gave him to pay for the violin lesson to rent a locker at the gym. Joey accidentally hit McKinney so hard that he knocked out McKinney, who actually was the Detroit Golden Gloves Champion. When McKinney got up, he told Joey to throw away his violin. In five years, 23-year-old Joey became the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. He changed his name to Joe Louis because he didn’t want his mother to know he had stopped taking violin lessons. She, of course, learned about it years later.
Onieal said the lesson is the following: “The people who make a difference in your life are not those with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They aren’t the champions; they’re the ones who care about you. They’re the Thurston McKinneys of this world.”
And, Onieal asserted, “There are no bigger or tougher Thurstons than you in this audience. You help people all the time. But,” Onieal added, “life is much more than that. Sometimes, it’s simply about you, how hard you work and train, your contributions to the department, what you do for your family-in other words, how you live your life.”
Audience members were encouraged to ponder what success really is and what constitutes “success” for our loved ones. One way to “sort out the important things of life,” Onieal suggested, is to write your own obituary based on the road you are traveling today, which would probably include accomplishments, successes, and positions in organizations. “As soon as you’re done,” he continued, “you’ll probably tear it up and write another one.” The new version, he said, would include things such as character; being an exceptional partner, parent, or friend; and helping others in your work or avocation. It also would be enlightening, he added, to have your spouse, child, or a close friend write your obituary. Reading those obituaries from time to time can help you keep things sorted out, especially in tough times, Onieal said.