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Commentary: A Pocket Watch

By William Holston

Dallas, TX –

His son's college graduation this spring caused commentator William Holston to reflect on his family history.

My oldest son Will graduates from college next month. At graduation, I plan to give him one of my most treasured possessions, a pocket watch that belonged to my maternal grandfather. Aire N. Carter was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1895. When he was 7, his father died of Scarlet Fever. Being the oldest son, he dropped out of school and went to work to support his family. He started as a helper at a sugar cane mill. During WWI, he enlisted in the Army and went to France, fighting in the Meuse Argonne Offensive. Then, he returned to Mississippi, eventually becoming a journeyman electrician at Ingalls Shipyard.

My grandfather was a hard working man, but was never wealthy. Still, education was important to him. He sent my mother, his only child, to an expensive private college. He told my mom every semester, "I don't know if I can afford this next year, but we can pay for it this year." When my mother got her first job as a school teacher, she bought a pocket watch for her father to thank him for the sacrifice he made to pay for her education. When he died in 1974, the year I started college, my mother gave the watch to me. Now, I'm passing it on to my son, in recognition of his achievement.

Each generation faces its own unique challenge. My father never graduated from college. His parents, who were sharecroppers in Alabama, lacked the resource to help him. My parents couldn't afford to do send me off to college. Consequently I worked my way through school, living at home and going to commuter colleges. I'm proud and grateful, that my wife and I had the ability to send our son off for a four year education at top notch private liberal arts college. My experience of manual labor while going to school was valuable, but I'm happy my son had a more fully realized college experience. While it hasn't been easy for my wife and I, it wasn't anything like the challenge my grandfather faced in sending my mom to college.

My son, like many, is graduating into a more uncertain future than I did. He faces a job search in a slowly recovering economy and a very challenging job market. Still, I wonder if he and his fellow graduates reflect on the advantages they have over prior generations. My grandfather couldn't dream of an elementary school education, much less college. My son is much better able to cope with a diverse world than my grandfather ever was. He was a self taught man, but was never able to shed the prejudices of his generation of Mississippians. My son has learned what it requires to get along with people who are much different from him. Through technology, he has access to information, and communication tools my grandparents could not even imagine.

I hope when Will, pulls out that old watch, it reminds him of the sacrifice and hard work of multiple generations that led to his opportunity for an extraordinary education. I hope he knows how proud my wife and I are of his diligence. I hope this gift reminds him that hard work, punctuality, perseverance and sacrifice are timeless ideals, and ones his ancestors understood and practiced. That is even more essential than that degree.

William Holston is an attorney from Dallas.

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