On Tuesday, November 19, Austin Prep welcomed 24 seventh and eighth grade students as the newest member of the Austin Prep Chapter of the National Junior Honor Society. The five pillars of the Society are scholarship, service, leadership, citizenship, and character. I delivered congratulatory remarks on the pillar of character as illustrated by the life of Welles Crowther, the heroic subject of our summer community read of “The Red Bandanna.” I have included my remarks as this week’s Middle School Blog post.
Mr. McLaughlin’s Remarks for the 2019 NJHS Induction Ceremony
"If you aspire to great things, begin with the little ones." Our sage patron, Saint Augustine, penned these words over 1500 years ago, and his wisdom still holds true today. The small things that you do every day matter. The idea is a universal one. For example, Laozi, the father of Taoism, wrote “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” We also hear this in the Gospel of Luke: The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” In short, the little things matter – and are predictive of bigger things, like how you’ll respond when pushed to your mettle.
This evening, I would like to reflect on the life of a young man who can help us to understand Saint Augustine’s quote. A man who did a number of little things right every day, and who, when presented with the ultimate choice of how he would live the final minutes of his life, selflessly fulfilled his destiny and became a hero.
On May 14, 2014, at the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, President Barack Obama had this to say of this hero: “And then there came a voice. Clear, calm, saying he had found the stairs. A young man in his twenties, strong, emerged from the smoke, and over his nose and his mouth he wore a red handkerchief… He called for fire extinguishers to fight back the flames. He tended to the wounded. He led those survivors down the stairs to safety, and carried a woman on his shoulders down seventeen flights. Then he went back. Back up all those flights… bringing more wounded to safety. Until that moment when the tower fell. They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandanna.”
"Welles Crowther was just twenty-four years old, with a broad smile and a bright future. He had a big laugh, a joy of life, and dreams of seeing the world. He worked in finance, but he had also been a volunteer firefighter. And after the planes hit, he put on that bandanna and spent his final moments saving others.”
Early in the book, “The Red Bandanna,” we are introduced to Welles and his trademark red bandanna together. When Welles was about seven, his dad initially gave him a red bandanna to keep in his back pocket to use if he had to blow his nose at church. From then on, Welles always carried a red bandanna in his pocket – and the red bandanna transformed into a reminder about the kind of guy Welles was. In his athletic activities with the Valley Cottage Indians Welles was described as “the try-hard guy, the striver, the kid wringing out whatever ability he had through practice and will.” Welles put in effort every day – the small things mattered, angmd those little things empowered him to do big things in every field. The red bandanna was a reminder of that for him. He carried it everywhere, whether in his hockey or lacrosse helmet, in his work as a junior firefighter, or when he arrived in Chestnut Hill as a student at Boston College.
The red bandanna even made its way to Wall Street where Welles climbed the ranks of the investment firm of Sandler O’Neill. His colleague Natalie McIver sensed that Welles was different - and it wasn’t just because of his red bandanna. As we read in the book “he didn’t have the air of a man passing through or biding his time. The work was demanding, and that suited Welles just fine. The hours were often long and stressful, but Welles showed little wear. Even in the busiest weeks, he kept his sense of wonder about where he worked, at the nerve of the financial world, 1,126 feet up in the sky”
We go on to read that “Most people in the office had no idea he carried it, or what its origins were. But those like Natalie, who worked close to him in those first few months at Sandler, recalled it clearly. Whenever someone needed something extra done, said Natalie, some deadline beaten, some thorny issue solved, ‘Someone would just say, ‘Hey, Wells, can you do…?; Anything. Fill in the blank. ‘Hey you’ve got to solve this, fix this trade report…’’ In a dramatic gesture, Welles would reach for the bandanna on his desk or in his pocket, lift it above his head, and wave it in the air. ‘He would say, ‘This is where the magic comes from’’ Natalie recalled. Other times ‘I’m a superhero.’ And once, facing some tall task, he lifted the bandanna, stood up from his chair, and made a preposterous declaration that Natalie never forgot. ‘I’m going to save the world.”’
Welles’ attitude – his enthusiasm, optimism, and willingness to not only give things a try but to solve problems and persevere when things were tough – are attributes that we can look to bring into our own work as students and teachers at Austin Prep. The small things matter – as Saint Augustine wrote “If you aspire to great things, begin with the little ones.”
Welles did save the world – for a dozen people, he was a savior – leading folks out of the 78th Floor Sky Lobby in the South Tower down the stairwell and eventually working alongside the Fire Command Post in the Main Lobby when the South Tower eventually collapsed less than an hour after the plane struck it.
In his final moments, Welles wasn’t thinking about the Pythagorean theorem, lines of Shakespeare, or the war of 1812. I’m sure he learned about all of those things at Boston College, but that knowledge did not define him. Rather, he drew from the deep well of his character, one that had been formed and forged in the furnace of his heart over a lifetime. That is what we strive to do with you at Austin Prep: to ignite and kindle that flame in your heart that will be your beacon in this life. It is my prayer for you and all students that the fire is lit and that it will burn brightly.
Our summer reading book concluded with a charge and a dream that I’d like to close these remarks with this evening: “Welles didn’t know it – nobody did – but in many ways, he had been preparing to save those lives in the South Tower his entire life. His instinct had always been to be a helper, whether he was cleaning the Empire Hook and Ladder Company No 1 fire truck at eight years old, preventing a friend from getting in a fight in high school, or filling out his application to become a New York City firefighter as an adult working on Wall Street. On September 11, 2001, Welles made a choice that was second nature to him to help as many people as he could. And that choice is something everyone can learn from.”
"We all face choices every day. We choose how to treat our parents, our siblings, our friends and peers. We choose when to speak up and when to be silent, when to fight and when to make peace. Often, these choices are small and might seem trivial. But they make us who we are. Welles’s final choice was to help. The next time you see a red bandanna, remember Welles – and imagine what the world would be like if we all chose to be helpers.”
-by Michael McLaughlin, Head of Middle School