Because I write a lot about politics and government, sometimes I can get lost in the 40,000-foot-level stuff: Elections, laws, rules, and norms.
But the systems that govern our lives are ultimately driven by our values. And these days it feels like we’ve lost some of the ones that for so long seemed to keep our society glued together. Even if it was just at the edges.
When I think about this erosion of values in such a fast-moving, fast-growing world, I wonder to myself whether it’s even possible for us to recapture them. If so, it would need to start with the individual. But do we still even have a common definition of what it means to be a good person? Did we ever?
Then I think about role models in my own life; chief among them, a man named Marty Becker. I think about how many other lives he’s influenced, just in the way he conducts his own.
A compliment like this would embarrass the hell out of Marty — which is the first reason he’s top of the list. Humility is the bedrock trait through which so many other virtues flow. Marty has it in canyons.
I didn’t know this about the man when we first met in 1973, because I was a six-year-old kid watching him marry my Dad’s sister, Brenda. I was old enough to understand I had a new uncle. I had no idea what kind of impact he would have on my life.
Even back then, Marty knew who he was. He knew he wanted to build his career around his family.
As a young lawyer working at a firm in Chicago, Marty was spending three hours a day commuting from the suburbs. He knew it was not sustainable, at least not for him. So he took the risk of starting his own law firm in Skokie.
Commercial real estate lawyers didn’t do this back in 1978. It just wasn’t the business model. But Marty made it work.
In a way, he blazed a trail for other lawyers to set up shop in the suburbs. But that’s not why he did it. Marty was becoming a father, and he desperately wanted to reclaim those three hours a day that the commute was stealing from his family. It was one of the best decisions he ever made.
Marty and Brenda soon became the parents of a boy and a girl, Darcy and Andrew. Now aged 42 and 40, my cousins are two of the most well-adjusted and happy adults I know. Almost annoyingly so. Good thing I love ‘em.
When I point this out to Marty, he always replies with some version of the same thing: “Well, we got really lucky.” Humility. I remind him that kids like his don’t happen by accident. I watched him and Brenda put their children at the center of their lives, every day.
Not long ago, I asked Andrew if he thought it made a difference that his dad was omnipresent during his childhood. Andrew told me that everything he does as a father and husband is shaped by what he watched Marty do. Then he took it up a notch:
“I am one of only two lucky people on this planet that have the privilege of calling Marty Becker ‘dad.’ I have always respected one of his guiding principles, that success is not measured by financial wealth but rather the wealth one has built with family, friends, and life.”
As Brenda and Marty raised their kids, his business kept expanding. Marty excels as an attorney, not just because he knows how to expertly use the letter of the law on behalf of his clients; but because integrity is always at the root of his counsel.
A successful real estate developer named Ed Zifkin has been a client for nearly 30 years. When I asked him why Marty has been such a consistent asset, he zeroed right in on the integrity factor:
“Doing the right thing was always of the highest importance to me, and Marty and I shared the same ethics. He’s also a great listener. Marty is one of only two people with whom I had a professional relationship that went on to become a great friendship.”
I know so many people who describe Marty Becker in almost identical terms. Not least of them is my aunt Brenda. The act of marrying into the Golden family must have been a daunting thing for my uncle. It’s a clan full of big personalities who reflexively draw a lot of attention.
I’ve talked to my aunt about this at least a dozen times. She always points to Marty’s integrity and steadiness as the constants in their 47-year marriage. Brenda loves the fact that Marty never needs to be the loudest voice in the room, and that he always sets an example — just by being himself:
“It’s like an invisible blanket in how I live my life. Conducting myself in a way where I’m proud of who I am. Because of him, I’m more conscious of how I impact other people’s lives.”
My nickname for Brenda is “Rocky,” because she’s beaten ovarian cancer, ear cancer, and a brutal surgery that corrected a life-threatening episode of internal bleeding. She is basically indestructible. But right beside her, every minute of every terrifying day she survived, has been Marty. The quiet force taking care of business. Never a complaint. Only optimism and cheer. I would say he’s her “Adrian” if it didn’t sound so silly. You get the point: He’s an oak.
As important as all of these qualities are in a role model, for me, Marty’s sense of compassion is the crown jewel. It’s possible that I feel this way because I’ve come to him at some of the toughest points in my life. Not because he’s my uncle, but because of who he is.
Marty does not judge. His reactions are never knee-jerk. Instead, he listens. He thinks. He measures. And then he applies equal parts of his heart and mind to the problem at hand. For me, he is the buoying voice of reason that floats above all the nonsense and the noise. And after we talk, I always leave in a better place.
There’s one more thing about my uncle that I so respect: His willingness to help anyone who asks. I can’t remember a time where he’s said “no” to someone seeking his assistance.
What more can you possibly ask of a person?
Martin Becker was born 75 years ago today. I thank God he that he was, and I know scores of other people who feel the same way. Through his work, family, charity, volunteerism — and most of all by just being true to himself — he’s touched so many lives in so many ways. He’s still doing it.
There are lots of folks who spend their entire careers working to change the world at that 40,000-foot-level. It’s a totally admirable goal, to be sure.
At the same time, when we all try to live our individual lives with as much virtue and integrity as possible, perhaps the world slowly changes with us, whether we notice it or not.
One good person still matters one whole hell of a lot.