Inspired by a conversation with her grandfather, the writer reflects on what makes a meaningful life
Almost eight hundred years ago, when stonemasons and architects were building the beautiful cathedrals of Italy, a traveler walked up to a stonemason, the first in a line of three. He asked the man what he was doing, and the stonemason replied dismally that he was cutting stones. Then the traveler walked up to the second stonemason and repeated the same question. The man replied confidently that he was working to become the greatest stonemason of his time. The traveler then turned to the third stonemason and asked what he was doing. The stonemason turned to him and, after a pause, stated that he was a mason, and that he was building a cathedral.
You see, the first stonemason had a mundane relationship with his job. He simply did it to make money. The second stonemason had an ambitious relationship with his job. He wanted to achieve excellence, to be remembered for his work. But it is the third stonemason who represents what is most important. He wanted to make something that would last, that would impact the future and provide a place of peace and refuge for people around the world.
These three perspectives represent three different ways people relate to their work. Some people do a job simply because they have to; others do it because they want to be remembered for it. It is the rare few who do it because it will help and better others in the future. They don’t do it for themselves—they do it for the world.
When I first asked my grandfather, Tom Moran, to tell me about his career, he shared this parable. Then he paused for a brief moment to think.
“I had a lot of different jobs,” he began. “I started as a social worker. You know, working with people as a counselor, stuff like that. Then the local college asked me to work for one year in the administrative department. After that I just sort of kept working at the college, shifting from job to job. Eventually, I had the role of vice president, then provost.”
He explained that he liked to think of his job in three phases, working approximately fifteen years in each. The first phase was in student services and included counseling, student support, and financial aid. The second phase was in academic administration and included things like curriculum development and the running of the college. The third and final phase was teaching. He taught courses in history, English, psychology, and ethics.
“I must’ve taught at least eighteen different courses and developed, I’d say, twelve of my own,” he said. He described his job as “very comprehensive.” And he thinks of his work as central to his life rather than as just a career. When considering his relationship with his job, he likes to think that he made an impact on the college, that he improved the educational system and helped make a quality school where young people could discover their place in the world.
As a little kid, I never quite understood what his role within the college was. I always knew that he did something other than teaching. I’ve come to understand that having gone through so many varying roles within his forty-four years of working at Plattsburgh State University, he shaped the college in many ways. He created a positive learning environment for so many students, and went on to make the college experience better for everyone with his extensive knowledge and kind demeanor. Over the years he has shown me multiple gifts and tokens of remembrance gifted to him from students and colleagues, each of them coming with some hidden meaning—a story involving a quiet student turned lifelong friend or a wise colleague sharing advice with a younger version of my grandfather.
She said to lay our heads on our desks and just listen to the calm, rolling sound of the thunder.
One of my favorite stories of his time at the college was told to me on a stormy summer night. We were sitting on the couch in his and my grandmother’s beautiful Victorian house, which was right across the street from a long line of train tracks—ones with cargo trains that whistle through every morning and evening and that overlook the beautiful, mountainous landscape of Lake Champlain. He looked out of the window at the balmy evening sky, which was starting to rumble with a few thunderclouds.
“This reminds me of when I was in early second or third grade,” he said softly. “It was a warm summer afternoon, and our teacher was writing on the chalkboard, when all of a sudden she turned around and peered through the window. She told all of us to drop our pencils and look out the window.
“‘What do you see?’ she asked. When nobody answered, she told us that a summer storm was coming.
She said to lay our heads on our desks and just listen to the calm, rolling sound of the thunder. She said that ‘there is no such thing as beautiful as a thunderstorm on a summer evening or afternoon.’” He repeated the phrase slowly, savoring it.
“I’ve remembered that phrase ever since that day,” he continued. “One day, when I was teaching a college class on a similar summer afternoon, the same thing happened to the sky. Rolling thunder clouds began to slide into the sky, and the sound of thunder rippled through the room.
“‘Stop what you’re doing, everyone,’ I said, walking over to the window. ‘Look at the sky. A storm is coming. Everybody lay your heads down on your desks. Listen to the thunder. There is no such thing as beautiful as a thunderstorm on a summer evening or afternoon.’” There was a small pause.
“Wow,” I remember saying. “That was beautiful.” He nodded in agreement.
“Ever since that day in second or third grade, I’ve always remembered to stop and listen to the sound of a storm on a summer evening.” This made me want to close my eyes and listen to the sound of thunder. And I could imagine a classroom full of students closing their eyes as well, listening to the beautiful sounds.
My grandfather had many influences on his teaching and other work at the college. When asked which one came most prominently to mind, he said that he had so many people in his life, in and out of the college, that had positively influenced him and his knowledge of the world.
“Of course, I could say my parents. My parents were wonderful people who taught me so many things, and if I could have chosen my parents before I was born, I would have chosen them. But I think you mean a deeper connection, someone who I think of as a sort of mentor, who inspires me. And in that sense, the first person that comes to mind is the leader of the college, Dr. Edward Redcay.”
He told me that Dr. Redcay, referred to as “Doc” by his friends and colleagues, helped to build the college and transform it into a first-rate educational institution like the ones from which he had received his master’s degree and PhD. Dr. Redcay received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth, his master’s degree from Yale, and finally went on to earn his PhD from Columbia University. He worked for a time in Washington, D.C. with Eleanor Roosevelt on school segregation. His research was eventually used by the Supreme Court in their decision to integrate schools.
When he was on his honeymoon, his wife, Lillian, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. They ended up moving up to the Champlain Valley because the mountain air would be good for her lungs. Dr. Redcay began working at SUNY Plattsburgh, the state college in Plattsburgh, New York. He, in the words of my grandfather, “fell in love with working at the college” and was then determined to turn the college into a university at the level of the Ivy League schools from which he had graduated. He shaped the college, turning it into an educational institution most notable for its courses in business administration, nursing, psychology, criminal justice, and more.
“Dr. Redcay stands out to me because he did what I aspired and still aspire to do at the college. He built a strong educational learning system out of a state university and turned into a mentor and great friend to me. After his wife died and he was an old man, we had him over all the time. He came for Christmas, was the subject of a school project for your mom, and even came to do a presentation for your mom’s class. He gave everybody cookies with a red K on them. That was his symbol, a red K.”
Upon learning about Dr. Edward Redcay, something about the man—perhaps his long list of accomplishments and the impressions he had made on the college, perhaps the sound of his personality or his profound love for Lake Champlain—reminded me of my own grandfather. Like Dr. Redcay, my grandfather is a kind, wise man.
When asked, my grandfather said that, for him, the two most important things in life are to have a meaningful, enjoyable job that combines your passion with your knowledge and to live in a beautiful, inspiring place. In his words, “Part of my sense of the way we create meaning is the way we connect with people, prepare for the future, and appreciate the beauty of life, of the universe. This is what education does. A famous painter, who actually created a lot of paintings set in Lake Champlain, Rockwell Kent, said a phrase that I think directly aligns with my personal values. It goes, ‘No task is too small for me. I want to paint the rhythms of eternity.’”
After my grandfather said this, we both paused to think. There is some rhythm to the universe. He and I are drawn to writing and paintings because of how each can capture a moment, a feeling so innocent and beautiful. They can capture the rhythms of eternity.
Perhaps this is what makes me associate Dr. Redcay with my grandfather. They share similar values. They see the world through a similar lens, with an appreciation for education and beauty. They sought to make something that lasts, to leave the college better than they found it. They are both the third stonemason.
When my grandfather graduated with his undergraduate degree, he was merely a dishwasher at the college. But he rose to “build a cathedral.” He rose to start a family of caring, intellectual beings. He rose to shape and brighten the minds and souls of so many people, colleagues and students alike. He rose to become a gentle, affectionate man with an appreciation for the “rhythms of eternity.” He rose to be my grandfather, more than just my mother’s father who happened to have a successful career at the local college, but a mentor. He did, indeed, build his cathedral. And a beautiful one too.