What I Learned from Jim Schell

My grandpa, James Edward Schell, died on May 11. He was 90 years old.


I was thinking about writing my own personal obituary for him, but I think other people are better placed to reflect on his life, his accomplishments, and his greatness. He wrote an impressive story, leaving a small rural town in western Georgia to join the Great Migration, seeking success in the North, motivated by his unquenchable personal drive and desire to serve the public. He broke barriers during his career with the U.S. government and later in the private sector, and raised five children with big personalities along with his wife Doris. But the Jim Schell I knew was already accomplished, had already achieved success, and was ready to impart his wisdom.



This is some of the wisdom that he imparted on me.


Your time is worth something, and you have the right to ask for what you deserve. One of my earlier memories with Grandpa was the summer I went to New Jersey and stayed at his and my grandma's house. He paid me $3.10 an hour to help organize his office files (I was ten years old I think). He told me that I shouldn't settle for less because $3.10 was the New Jersey minimum wage at the time and that I shouldn't let people take advantage of me and settle for anything less.


Our world is cool, and you should go out and see it. Grandpa traveled all around North America, Europe and Japan. I think he is still better-traveled than I am and it's my job to go to other countries. I still regret not taking him up on a trip he offered me in September of 1998. He said he'd pay for my trip to Paris so I could help him with his bags since he was getting older. I turned him down - I couldn't miss the first week of eighth grade! That's when everyone makes friends! I didn't end up traveling to Europe for the first time for 12 more years. Now, I try to never turn down an opportunity to see more of the world if I can afford it.


Wear an undershirt. Grandpa moved his family of seven to California in the summer of 1968. From there his five children became quintessential Californians, complete with valley accents and a love for Disneyland. He never let California make his children or his grandchildren soft. He always hassled me if I didn't wear an undershirt. What was the point if it was always 75 degrees and sunny in San Diego? I learned in my first few cold winters and humid summers in Washington DC, Bologna and Madrid - an undershirt can keep you warm when it's cold and it keeps you from sweating through your clothes when it's hot. That preparation extended to other harsh realities outside of my suburban California bubble. Grandpa was one of the few people I knew growing up who was comfortable speaking to us about race and racism. Heck, he was one of the few black people I knew growing up. He helped prepare us for a world where the color of our skin made us different.


Our roots are important. So are the other branches of our tree. Grandpa was a historian and a storyteller. He believed in the importance of curating our family myths and recording our history. I loved sitting down and reviewing our painstakingly researched family tree with him. I made a version of my own when we went to a large reunion of his mother's family, the Winkfields, in 2009. Meeting these people who were also living the dreams of our shared ancestors was momentous for me.


Education is key. Grandpa prided himself on skipping grades and graduating from high school at 13. He graduated from the prestigious Morehouse University and he worked to make sure that all five of his children were able to pursue and take advantage of every educational opportunity they wished to pursue. He came to all of our graduations and proudly displayed graduation photos of his five children and then seven grandchildren on his wall. He loved to preside over interesting intellectual and political discussions at the dinner table and sought to pique his grandchildren's interest in the wider world with subscriptions to National Geographic. It worked. His children and grandchildren have all found success in their different pursuits and have had options because of the value he placed on our family's education.


Respect and admire your partner. Grandpa loved to tell the story of how he courted my grandma. He kept asking her to marry him and she kept saying no, so he restated the question: "Do you see any reason we should not be one?" My grandma replied no. Grandma would roll her eyes at this story. She rolled her eyes at most of his stories, but always with a smile on her face. I'm sure that my grandparents' marriage, like any other marriage, probably had its rough spots and challenges, but the pieces of the relationship that kept them together and happy with their lives for 66 years are the ones that stuck with me. They might disagree or bicker, but they accepted each other for who they were, they each kept their own separate identity (and strong personality), and it was clear that they greatly admired and respected each other. Grandpa always said he was very lucky to have married Grandma (he was), but he was 50% of the reason of his successful marriage, and I took notes.

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