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Humbled by greatness

Rick Ryckeley's picture

During my time spent on this Earth, I’ve been lucky enough to meet three extraordinary people that changed my life forever. Until last month — last month, I met a fourth.

If told, each would be surprised they’ve had such an influence. After all, to them, they were just going through life doing what comes natural. For you see, what separates them from the crowd is not just who they are or what they do for a living. With each, their true greatness comes from humility.

It’s what makes them four extraordinary gentlemen.

The first would be my dad, but not for the reasons one might expect. Yes, he helped raise five children, sent four to college, and continues to help us whenever asked. But his humility comes from other events that occurred in his life — his personal tragedies.

Four times his ankle was broken playing college football while on scholarship. Yet he never quit and still graduated on time.

Over the last 55 years, he’s been married twice. Both wives succumbed to the same dreaded illness.

He saw his oldest son perish at a young age.

At 85, two knee replacements and a pacemaker haven’t slowed his three-day-a-week visits to the local gym. During his lifetime, he amassed a small fortune, and during retirement, he lost half of it on an investment gone wrong.

Through all the years, never once have I heard him complain about cards dealt to him. When asked why, his answer was simple: “Bad stuff happens to everyone. You can’t control that. The only thing you can control is how you react to it.”

The second extraordinary gentleman is my father-in-law, the nuclear physicist. Yep, his IQ is off the charts, but you’d never know. He’s just a regular guy. When I asked him for permission to marry his daughter, he welcomed me as an equal into the family. Never once has he made me feel inferior, although it would be easy for him to do so. I’ve witnessed him talk to folks in a crowded room with ease and without making anyone feel uncomfortable.

I’ve learned from him if you’re super smart, you really don’t have to tell anyone. They already know. The really smart people are humble.

Still, at 76, my father-in-law cleans out his gutters with a leaf blower while walking on the steep roof. I was gonna tell him that wasn’t too smart of a thing to do but thought better of it.

Luther is the third extraordinary gentleman in my life. We had a chance meeting seven years ago at the local coffee company on the corner and been friends ever since.

In his past life he was a rocket scientist. For over 30 years, he worked on all the NASA space rockets, finally retiring at age 50 to travel the world with his wife.
It’s not every day one meets a rocket scientist, but being a rocket scientist is not what makes him extraordinary.

It was six years before I knew about Luther’s past occupation, and for good reason. He talks mostly about his grandchildren and travel.

You see, Luther and his wife moved from Texas after retiring. They followed their grandchildren to the small town of Senoia. He never misses their ballgames, takes great joy in babysitting when they aren’t traveling, and walks to local fishing ponds for hours of enjoyment with them.

I learned from Luther it’s not what you do for a living that defines you. It’s what you do with life that counts.

Luther taught me how to be a granddad, whenever that time comes, something I will always be grateful for. When asked how he does it, he says, “Being a granddad is easy. After all, it’s not rocket science.”

Last month The Wife and I traveled to Nashville, Tenn., for a much needed operation. Seems, back in June, Humpty Dumpty here fell down and broke his hip. It took the best orthopedic surgeon in the nation to put me back together again.

We only found out afterwards he’s considered one of the best in the world. When not operating, he travels far and wide teaching others how to perform the techniques he pioneered years ago. Yet to speak to him, you would never know. When he left the room, The Wife and I were stunned. The well-spoken, gracious and humble man took all the time needed to make us feel at ease in our difficult time.

He taught me that even if you’re the best in the world, you can be even greater — simply by being humble.

It’s true, I haven’t experienced the great personal tragedies and lost fortunes of my father. A nuclear physicist, a rocket scientist, or world renowned surgeon I’ll never be.

As I look back on the past year and forward to the next, there’s something I can be. I can be more humble.

Years from now, maybe one day, someone will consider me an extraordinary gentleman.

[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, is in his third decade as a firefighter and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is His books are available at]


Rick, you nailed it. The truly great have a spirit of humility and are comfortable enough with themselves that they don't have to show off or brag. The insecure are the ones who have to toot their own horn. The truly great also have a willingness to help others get ahead as opposed to being threatened by oneupmanship.

Robert W. Morgan's picture

The other attribute of truly great people (and leaders) is that they don't care a thing about getting credit for a job well-done. In fact, they will go out of their way to deflect praise from themselves and emphasize the efforts of other members of their team. And they do think of it as a team - even if they happen to be the leader who has picked the team, trained them and pays them.

Nor do we see the actual classy and humble people refer to themselves in the third person. That stuff is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Like Rick's heroes, the ones in my life are well over 60 which either indicates they attain hero status late in life or perhaps true heroes are a dying breed - leaving us with the type of leaders who couldn't define or even spell humility if you spotted them the "i's" and all the consonants.

Live free or die!

NUK_1's picture

You've always struck me in your writings as being a pretty humble person who is confident enough to make fun of his own errors and mistakes in a humorous way. Keep the columns coming because yours is one I actually enjoy reading :)

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