This is the story of three wise men. They do not come bearing gifts of gold and myrrh and frankincense. Their gifts are service, intelligence and integrity. They don't have exotic names like Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa. Theirs are ordinary names: John, Raymond and Roy. But there is nothing ordinary about them.
All three are World War II veterans, a part of the Greatest Generation. One lives in northeast Georgia, one in deep south Georgia and the third resides on the coast. Two are business entrepreneurs; the other a retired college president. One is 90. The other two soon will be. All three are strong family men, devout in their faith and still have a zest for life. They also have something else in common. All three have had a profound influence on my life.
John Jacobs is from Gainesville and is a successful media executive. He turned a small radio station in Gainesville into a broadcasting and Internet conglomerate now operated by his children. At an age when he could be enjoying the financial fruits of his labor, John remains a "go to" guy in the Gainesville area. More institutions in Hall County than I have space to list owe their success to this man's willingness to share his time, talent and tithes, not for personal glory but because he believes in giving back.
Dr. Raymond Cook of Valdosta turned my life around. When I was a freshman in college and ready to drop out of school, I found myself in Dr. Cook's literature class. To say the man can teach is to say Michael Jordan can dribble a basketball. I was totally mesmerized by him. Thus, when asked to analyze the poem "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer, I decided to wing it and impress him. Bad idea. This normally kind-natured man peeled my hide in front of the class.
I cannot tell you specifically what is wrong with "Trees" today, but take my word that it lacks something. I still have the scars to prove it.
When Dr. Cook finished with me and got me to admit that I didn't have the foggiest idea what I was talking about, he looked at me sternly and said, "Mr. Yarbrough, from now on, think before you speak." It may have been the best advice I ever received and saved my career more than once.
Four decades later, after reading "Tuesdays with Morrie," I looked up this good man to tell him what he meant to me. I am pleased to say that we have become fast friends and e-mail correspondents. He still dispenses wise counsel. We just don't discuss "Trees."
Roy Hodnett, like John Jacobs, is a highly successful and self-made entrepreneur. He operates Hodnett-Cooper, a real estate firm headquartered on St. Simons Island. Admittedly, it has been a rough time in the real estate business, but Roy Hodnett has managed to steer his firm through the tough times where others have failed. Some of that is due to a shrewd business sense he developed while pulling himself up by his poor bootstraps. Much is due to how he treats people. Whether you are a U.S. Senator or a cranky customer, it doesn't matter. He treats everyone with kindness and respect. His handshake is as good as any real estate contract you will ever sign.
I have more sunsets behind me than sunrises ahead, but I hope I am never too old to learn. From John Jacobs, I have learned that to whom much is given, much is expected. Dr. Cook taught me that talking is best done only after a good deal of thinking. Roy Hodnett has shown me that one can succeed in business and be a kind, gentle person at the same time.
Ironically, I don't think John Jacobs, Raymond Cook and Roy Hodnett have ever met. That's a shame. They would enjoy each other's company immensely. What is important, however, is that they have made this a better world by their being here and they have made me a better person by sharing with me their talent, their wisdom and their goodness.
Thank you, wise men.
E-mail columnist Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org.