Even as a child I realized that my great-grandpa Edi Freunthaller was the “coolest dude” in the small Austrian town where I grew up. Actually, the word dude hadn’t been invented when my great-grandpa already raised the bar for senior coolness.
Born in 1881, great-grandpa had retired as a school principal long before I was born. I had heard people say that he knew everything because he read the newspaper daily. This was supposed to be a joke, but it was true that he kept up-to-date with the news until he died, almost 100 years old.
For almost seventy years, great-grandpa played the organ at church, every Sunday. He also walked there, by foot, even in freezing temperatures. Twice, he allowed me to climb the narrow stairs to the choir balcony, even though non-musicians weren’t allowed up there. He wanted me to see his beloved instrument from up close.
I was scared that somebody would see me.
“Don’t worry.” He laughed. “What are they gonna do? Throw me out? Who’ll play the organ?”
Little me had also discovered that, in reality, he was the boss of the church, not the priest. A few times, when great-grandpa felt that the sermon was too long, he waited for the minister to pause for effect and said “Amen.” The priest heard it.
Sometimes, we walked home together even though we lived in different houses on different streets. Everybody we met along the way greeted great-grandpa most respectfully. On one such occasion, he talked to a woman I did not know. Saying good-bye, great grandpa said, “And, please – extend my respects to the family.”
“Who was that?” I asked when the lady was out of sight.
“Oh… I don’t know.”
“But, you know her family.”
Great grandpa snickered. “Well, surely she has a family.”
Today, that’s called people’s skills. Great-grandpa mastered it in the Seventies, long before every other entrepreneur wrote a book about it.
Great grandpa’s witty astuteness was one of a kind.
For many years I wondered why he was so clever and so confident until I discovered that he was a war hero.
He never mentioned the two world wars. His oldest son, my grandfather, was killed in Russia during World War II, his younger son barely survived the Battle of Stalingrad. Great-grandpa himself had fought for the Austrian Emperor, during World War I, also on the Russian Front.
I only discovered his “real story” by accident.
As a teenager, I questioned the necessity of brushing teeth twice per day and said to my mother, “Well, I hope all of this brushing leads to my teeth looking as good as great-grandpa’s when I am his age.”
“Great-grandpa?” my mother mused. “He has fake teeth; he lost his own in Russia when he was suffering from scurvy.”
My silly remark led to me finding out that great-grandpa had been interned in a Russian prison camp during the winter of 1916. It was a hastily assembled camp that had no fence. The commanding officer had told the prisoners, “If you want to run – Run! At least, we’ll have more food. As for you: You are going to die out there. There is nothing out there.”
Austrian prisoners of war in Russia, c. 1915
Of course, great-grandpa knew this to be true. The most famous Russian war tactic is their scorched earth policy. That’s how they defeated Napoleon, and they used the same technique during World War I. Still, after contemplating the situation for while, great-grandpa and his best friend decided that “if we have to die, at least we’ll die free.” And, in the middle of the night they walked out, toward Austria – 2,000 miles to the west.
The walk to freedom took more than two years and they arrived only after the war had already ended but they achieved what seemed impossible.
THIS was great-grandpa’s secret.
He had experienced that real commitment, people’s skills, and “walking the walk” can lead to success even in the direst circumstances.
After he came back, he kept on walking. Even though everybody in my hometown would have shuttled him wherever he wanted to go, great-grandpa insisted on walking every day till about two weeks before he died. Teeth or no teeth – he lived to celebrate his 98th birthday.
As a child, I once asked him why, without fail, he walked one mile every day. Great-grandpa’s answer was, “Walking helps you to think freely. When your feet move forward, your brain dances.”
This revelation impressed me immensely. Eventually, I learned that he had discovered what so many great minds know.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking” which was probably why he walked every day. So did Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Dickens, and Albert Einstein, and more recently, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey.
So walk the walk – It’s one way to reach your goals.