An Apprentice Goes To Sea

It was straight up 6 A.M. when my phone rang. On the other end was Morris Gordon, Director of Communications, Western Electric, in New York.

I was in Coral Gables, Florida, relaxing for a couple of days before attending my fourth annual Conference of Communication Arts held on the University of Miami campus, a magical gathering of some of the world’s best photographers, art directors, and editors. The event, intimate in size compared to most such meetings, was created and conducted by Morris and Wilson Hicks, former Executive Editor of Life Magazine.

Morris asked if I would like to join him, Wilson, and two others for a day of fishing off Key Biscayne. The two others were the owner of the boat we’d be on and one of his friends, a corporate executive. If I wished to go, he’d pick me up in thirty minutes.

Only after I’d said yes and hung up did I realize that I, a young and unknown journalist of modest means had been extended the privilege of spending a day with four extraordinarily accomplished and internationally connected men.

We drove to a private gated island and on to Kip’s exquisitely appointed home. As we walked through it toward the boat dock, Kip, with considerable pride, pointed out a large and recently acquired painting.

We boarded the boat and were soon far enough out to catch the big fish, but still close enough to be able to see the Miami skyline. Kip slowed to a stop, readied the fishing gear in the cockpit for the three men, then put out a spread of appetizers and drinks.

In the meantime, I reviewed my surroundings. Here I was, in elevated company aboard a beautiful boat cruising Florida waters under a stunning blue sky on a delightful 80-degree day in late April.

Then it hit me. What a great opportunity this was for me to get to know how such people think, talk, act, and maybe even what they believe. To do that, however, I knew I had to be my authentic self.

After spending a little time with the three men at the stern who by then had dropped baited hooks into the water, I went back inside to join Kip who had returned to the helm. I took a seat and turned toward him. “So,” I said, “tell me what you think I’d like to know about you . . . . and you can leave out the bad parts if you want to.”

He laughed, then began by explaining that when his dad was a young guy, he had looked at all those thousands of acres of pine trees in central Florida. That was back when much of the big money was being made on both of the state’s coasts rather than all the land in between generally considered to be much less desirable.

Kip’s dad, however, didn’t see trees, he saw dollars, and began buying as much timberland as he could afford. He was already making big money from timber sales when Kip, his only child, became a high school senior. He insisted Kip get a degree in business then come back and help him run the company. Kip followed through and true to the plan, the company’s land holdings, operations, and profits multiplied several times over.

Then one day, his dad told Kip he had decided to sell out, that it was time for him to sit back and enjoy life. Whatever the company sold for, he would keep half and give Kip the other half. Within only a couple of months, the sale was completed.

Kip’s receiving that much money, however, immediately affected his life. With their sudden wealth, he and his wife no longer felt the need for purpose, mission, or even goals in their lives. Everything soon began tilting downward, their marriage falling apart.

Desperate and bewildered, they rented a chalet in Switzerland and promised themselves they wouldn’t come down from the mountain until they’d hammered out a plan for managing both their sudden wealth and their lives.

“Lucky for us, it worked,” Kip said with a smile.

Soon afterward, we were joined by the others. From then on, the conversation flowed among all of us — all kinds of funny stories and serious experiences laced with opinions and flavored with future thinking.

In late afternoon, we returned to Kip’s house, then to the motel where I was alone with my thoughts. That’s when I wrote down what I’d learned while in the presence of those four truly accomplished people:

  • They were genuinely and humbly proud of not only what they’d done with their lives, but also how they’d done it.
  • They cherished personal relationships, the genuine and lasting kind.
  • They thought carefully before speaking, then articulated accordingly. To them, every word had meaning.
  • Their sense of values, whether personal or professional, clearly emphasized quality rather than quantity.

As brief as they were, those four characteristics have repeatedly proved valuable when I’ve been with or written about similarly accomplished individuals.

Looking back, I’m led to think that Morris believed it logical for him to extend the invite with the hope I would accept. His reasoning told him then what mine told me later: No price tag can be attached to such a memorable and one-time learning experience.