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On becoming a transition person: Lessons from Opa

By Todd Wangsgard

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, May 10 2013 5:42 p.m. MDT

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Mahatma Gandhi suggested that people should focus first on improving themselves and then allow others to be inspired by their example, their determination, their integrity to values. These days we could use as many uplifting and positive role models as possible to lean on, learn from and emulate. By following Gandhi’s mantra, “Become the change you seek in this world,” perhaps you and I can become that uplifting story for others, as well as ourselves.

In the early 1930s my maternal grandfather, Kurt, was living the relatively simple, easygoing life of an adolescent Austrian amid the cobblestone streets of Vienna. His family had quite limited means, but he chose not to focus on what he didn’t have. Instead he saw the rich history and art by which he was surrounded. He sensed the global significance of the financial and cultural center that Vienna had become. He pondered the possibility of choosing and learning a trade that would allow him to become a contributing member of a struggling economy.

At 12 years of age, Kurt (the oldest of three children) was told by his parents that they could no longer afford him. They informed him that he would be leaving the bustling city to spend the upcoming summer working on his grandparents’ dairy farm, nestled in the pastoral setting of upper Austria.

Kurt loved the city. He had dreamed of attending a nearby vocational school and working with his hands in heavy industry. He eagerly awaited his anticipated return to the city following a busy summer on the farm. He would soon learn, however, that he wasn’t welcome back. His parents believed leaving him on the farm was a better choice for financial and practical reasons.

Kurt had other plans.

Unannounced, he returned three years later to the porch of his parents’ apartment in Vienna, eager to share his plans to return to school. As his mother answered the door, and before he could get in a word, she said (in German, of course), “You imbecile! You idiot! What are you doing here?!”

Kurt overlooked this less-than-warm reception and explained how he desperately wanted to attend school in Vienna. His parents made it clear that they would be unable to support him. Fortunately his excellent grades not only garnered him an invitation to study at a prominent Viennese technical college, but also earned an apprenticeship to cover his room and board. He created the circumstances necessary to fulfill a dream.

Opa (German for "Grandpa") went on to perform admirably in his studies. He became an accomplished and award-winning machinist in his industry. He was even recognized for a handful of his own inventions. Then suddenly, as with most all young men his age, he was drafted into Hitler’s war.

Late in World War II, my grandfather was captured by the Allies along the Russian front and sent to a British prisoner of war encampment near the Polish border. This likely saved his life. He would later recount that his time spent in captivity was more pleasant than the time he spent with his comrades. Kurt was a devout Mormon. For this, his own countrymen ridiculed him, hazed him and excluded him. At least while imprisoned he was fed decent meals and treated with a measure of dignity and respect.

Kurt survived the war and returned to his lovely young wife, Johanna, to start a family. They had two daughters while living in Vienna and eventually emmigrated to the United States in 1956 to start a new life.

My grandfather became the change he sought in his world. To me, he embodies the idea of a transition person — one who stops the pattern of negative behavior in family and/or social circles and instead replaces them with personal responsibility, a vision of a better future and actions to back that vision up.

Each of us has within himself the capacity to set aside our past, to refuse to allow our circumstances to dictate our future, and to chart a course for our friends and loved ones that resembles our worth and potential, instead of our history.

Who has been a transition person for you? For whom do you presently serve as a transition person? For whom can you choose to serve as a transition person in the future?

Dr. Todd Wangsgard holds a Ph.D. in leadership and organizational change and is a senior consultant for the FranklinCovey, Company. (NYSE: FC). Email: todd@toddwangsgard.com

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