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Harris Sherline: Confessions of a Family Patriarch

From clueless youth to clueless family leader, and sharing lessons learned over a lifetime

As the youngest child in my family, I was often favored by my parents as I was growing up, and looking back more than 70 years later, I can see how resentful my older brother probably was — although I was obviously too young at the time to appreciate his feelings.

I had two siblings: a sister, who was three years older than me, and a brother who was 4½ years my senior.

The age difference with my sister was such that, when I was a small child, she often acted as a sort of surrogate mother to me, helping our own mother do chores around the house, cooking and taking care of her baby brother. As a result, I almost viewed her as a second mother.

My brother died in June 2010, and as his two remaining children tried to deal with the aftermath of his death, I realized that, suddenly, without any warning or preparation, I am now the patriarch of our branch of the Sherline family.

My brother was a member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, who are now leaving us at the rate of more than 1,000 a day. He served four years in the Navy during World War II and saw significant action in the South Pacific, including four major sea battles.

I’m not sure what a patriarch is supposed to do, other than being the oldest male in the family, but whatever it is, if it involves anything other than giving advice, I’m probably not qualified or prepared. And, what sort of advice might I be qualified to give?

I’m not completely sure, but the following are some of the things I have learned over the years, in no particular order:

» MYOB: In the words of Dear Abby, “Mind your own business.” Don’t offer unsolicited or gratuitous advice. It’s often misinterpreted as meddling and can lose friends faster than almost anything I can think of.

» Get a good education: I have a college degree (bachelor of science in business administration, plus graduate studies), and it was probably my most important accomplishment. Not just because of the things I learned but, at least in my case, because it provided a foundation for additional learning that later became necessary for advancing my career both in business and as a CPA.

» Recognize the importance of believing in a higher power: For some people, that means a belief in God and practicing a particular religion, for others it may just mean recognizing that we are not here by accident. Some see it as a “higher power,” as members of AA call it. Whatever your own view may be, it’s important that you respect and value the religious views of others in your family, your friends, and the community in which you live.

» Work hard — very, very hard: There’s no substitute for hard work. Contrary to what appears to be the attitude of many young people today, hard work, including long hours, is still a necessary ingredient in success.

» The world doesn’t owe you a living: Don’t expect anyone to hand you a living or success. Your accomplishments or lack thereof will speak for themselves. You choose.

In the words of Winston Churchill (1874-1965), “Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” (Sir Winston Churchill, speech in 1941 at Harrow School)

» Live up to your responsibilities, whatever they may be, as a parent, sibling, employer or employee, or as a member of your community. Just getting by doesn’t cut it, unless you simply don’t care.

» Try not to “sweat” the little things: We all have enough to deal with in our daily lives without getting worked up over minor issues. Nothing will kill a relationship faster than constantly picking at small matters, especially with your spouse or close friends.

» Don’t argue “politics” with close friends or loved ones who don’t see the world as you do. It invariably results in bad feelings.

» Lead when necessary: If you have responsibilities that require leadership, lead. Don’t try to just get by. Whether you like it or not, you have obligations to others in your life. It comes with the territory, especially as you get older, so accept it and act like a grown-up. Unfortunately, I know a number of elderly people who have allowed themselves to slip into a self-indulgent, woe-is-me attitude.

» Learn to manage money: The ability to manage money is perhaps the most important ingredient in success. Knowing how to manage money provides a basis for understanding pretty much everything else that takes place in politics and the world around us.

» Stay active: At least as active as you can, in spite of your aches and pains and the other physical limitations that come with advancing years. At 83, I continue to be as active in several groups or organizations as my health and physical limitations allow, such as Rotary.

» Continue to read and study: You can never learn enough, and reading is an important ingredient in keeping abreast of the constantly changing world around us.

» Nothing stays the same: Things change, and not always for the better. So, learn to expect and deal with the unexpected.

That’s about it. No doubt I overlooked some sage advice that perhaps I should have given, but if you learn to at least follow the observations I’ve made above, I believe your chances for a successful and happy life will be significantly improved.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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