What's Still Great

Fathers and Money

Gratitude and regrets as Father's Day nears.

By 6.15.09

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Now for a few thoughts on fathers and money. 

My father's father came to the United States as a small child in the late 19th century. His father abandoned the family. When my grandpop was 15, he borrowed his older brother's birth certificate and joined the U.S. Army. He became a cavalryman and fought in the Philippines against the Aguinaldo uprising. When he came back to America he was a skilled tool and die maker at Ford Motor and then at GE. He was unemployed during most of the Great Depression and lived with extreme frugality on my brave grandmother's wages as a department store clerk and his odd jobs.

My father, a certified genius, entered Williams College, one of the best colleges in the nation, at 15, in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression. He worked his way through at every kind of odd job including washing dishes at a fancy fraternity that did not admit Jews. He was never bitter about it, just grateful he had a chance to go to a fine college in a terrible depression.

My father lived with severe personal discipline through school, served honorably in the Navy in the War, worked like a Trojan all his life, never lived in even slight luxury even after he had become a famous and well-to-do man. In their old age, my parents, by then wealthy by some standards, lived in a one bedroom apartment at the Watergate, and slept in the same bed they bought at Macy's when they got married in 1937. When they went to McDonald's their luxury was one chocolate shake and two straws.

So, when the stock market takes a dive, when my ill-considered mountain of real estate tumbles, when I learn I won't be able to live like Donald Trump in my later years, I try look at my life through my grandfather's and father's eyes. What I am going through is a joke compared with what they went through. Now, I am well aware that there are people in Michigan and elsewhere who are going through really bad times like my father knew and my heart breaks for them. But for a lot of us, when we think of how great we have it even in a recession, how we still have too much food, air conditioning, color TV, our dogs and cats, Social Security, unemployment insurance -- and how our grandparents and some of our parents did not have any of those things, we have to look at the world through our fathers' eyes, and be very grateful for what we have got -- and for the America our fathers bequeathed to us.

But there is a little bit of a problem.

After that windup, it occurred to me to think about how good a role model I am as a father to my 21-year-old son and his wife, as well as to the many children of friends who ask me about life.

I have the terrible feeling that I am not a decent role model at all. The main problem is that I am extremely extravagant. Wildly so in many ways. You cannot imagine how many cars and how much real estate I have. It actually gives me nightmares to think how extravagant I am. At the same time, I absolutely love bargains and will go a lot out of my way to find them. That's not the problem. I am almost 65, and my life is mostly over. The problem is I have been shamefully indulgent towards our son -- although not even close to as indulgent as my wife has been. If my son has any habits of thrift at all, he has picked them up as rare examples, probably from his wife's family.

Naturally, I do not feel good about this. If I could have my life to live over, I would have made my son work for money, make some kind of effort to get a car or a plane flight. He is now in a place where he will have to learn, despite my bad examples, the habits of prudence my father learned from dire necessity. I really do not know where my habits of extravagance came from. My sister is extremely sensible about spending. Maybe my parents were too indulgent to me. Maybe as I got older, it became too easy to make money. Maybe I am not really as extravagant as I think I am. After all, I have never even been close to the neighborhood of poverty -- a neighborhood, as my father used to remind me, "You don't want to live anywhere near or even drive by." Maybe it's just that I earn a lot and spend a lot. Anyone else out there with the same problem?

Still, as Father's Day dawns, it occurs to me that somehow I missed a big lesson I wish my son could have learned from me.


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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.