I can’t help but crack a smile every time I sit down to write a column for The Michigan Daily, and oddly enough, it’s because of my grandpa. I beam from the “your grandpa would be so proud of you” comments I get from my family each time I do something deemed as following in his footsteps, like writing for the college newspaper. I radiate when I hear the voice inside my head making jokes about word choice and how to fix a run-on sentence. But that voice is not my conscience, nor is it my “internal writer” — that voice is the familiar, loud, powerful, strong, intelligent and creative voice of my grandpa.
My grandpa, Mickey Charles, was the founder and pioneer of Dial Sports, one of the earliest pay-per-call services that provided frequent score updates on games. He dedicated his career to sports data collection and betting. However, his heart undoubtedly lied with journalism, creative writing and photography (we always joked his middle name was “camera” because he was never given a real middle name), because he wanted to capture the people and places he thought were beautiful with the most authenticity. He took countless photos of my grandma laughing as the sunlight hit her face. He captured numerous pictures of my sister and I playing together with smiles that showcased the innocence of childhood. He encapsulated many photos of the myriad of places he visited that captured his adventurous spirit. His passion for both sports and art, interestingly, combine to describe my grandpa for exactly who he was. At 6’4” and at the center of the sports industry, he would intimidate in any room. Yet at the same time, he was patient and sensitive with his art, and equally so with his family, with me.
Even in my grandpa’s final days, he didn’t lose sight of his passions, his wit and his motivation to change the world in the small ways he could. Despite having approximately 100 friends on Facebook, he would post as if the world was reading. He would write his posts in a way that revealed the love and pride he had for my grandma, his kids and his grandkids. He posted about politics to inform, not to judge. He tip-toed around controversy by using his humor to bring people on polarizing sides together through laughter.
With this foundation, the words “your grandpa would be so proud of you” inevitably came to serve as a form of validation of the highest degree. Throughout my entire life as a student and budding professional, I have strived to follow the path he has unknowingly laid out for me: To approach the world with care but ambition, creativity but ferocity. My grandpa did it all: He played college basketball while studying business and went on to successfully obtain his law degree. He made his most significant mark in the sports industry through creating the FCS legacy awards in college football’s Division I subdivision, which included bringing both entities of athleticism and education together by honoring academic achievement through these awards. He accomplished even more, including supplying more than 29 million pages of sports data content (statistics, real-time scores) a day. If you could name it, my grandpa covered it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in real-time, on a global scale.
Though I already think about my grandpa every day, over the past few months his legacy and persona have been the center of my thoughts when I reflect on the world we live in today. With every decision I make, I try to ask myself not only what my grandpa would do but if my grandpa would truly be proud of me. This measure of morality and empathy is more meaningful and accessible than solely pondering if my actions are just.
These questions have become increasingly relevant as I struggle to handle and respond to the new challenges our tumultuous world presents each day; the Bay Area in California looking like Mars because of raging wildfires, the police brutality and racism that have always existed in this country and are now prompting new waves of protest and the innumerable hardships COVID-19 has caused for millions of Americans.
In times like these, it is crucial to reflect upon our own privileges while also thinking deeply about how to help impact change in the world. It is a long and tedious journey of educating and involving oneself, and not everyone will be able to immediately engage in social justice issues in a meaningful way. Yet, through observing my grandpa’s impact on both the sports industry and in his day-to-day interactions, I recognize a sharp tool that can help build the foundation for a productive, honest ally and activist: humility.
In his humility, my grandpa had the ability to never be the loudest one in the room, but to make sure his presence was always felt. In today’s climate, this has been particularly important in understanding how I can serve as an ally but not take up space that is not meant for me. With the recent GEO strike that is currently commanding our campus’s attention, I recognize the importance of listening to those directly affected, to see how their suggestions may be better than the current system. I know that it is my job to first read their demands, learn about the background behind the strike and attend teach-ins so I truly have a comprehensive understanding of the situation — then, perhaps, I can engage in and speak out on the issues at hand.
And with discourses that are tense, such as those around the strike, I have learned to be open to perspectives greater than my own. We are a part of an ever-polarizing society, where disagreements occur often — especially in the political sphere with an upcoming election. Understandably, it can be difficult to engage, and even more difficult to listen attentively to a conflicting perspective. Yet, just as my grandpa utilized Facebook and humor to bridge gaps of political misunderstanding, I attempt to employ my own creativity and compassion in the more rigid interactions with my peers.
This is not all to say that I’m perfect, that my grandpa is perfect or that humility can solve all the world’s problems. But it is my grandpa himself who taught me to admit when I have had a mishap, particularly in judgment, instead of hiding from it. He has inspired me to use my mistakes as ammunition to work that much harder on myself for the benefit of the people I surround myself with and the communities I encompass and hope to help.
As I finish writing this piece, the faint sounds of EDM music and fall wind drift through my window, and my grandpa’s voice rings through my ear again with unresolved feelings. While my grandpa is congratulating me for all that I have done, he is also encouraging me to understand that becoming an honest, engaged individual is not a linear process, but rather as a process I need to work on my whole life. Though he seemed to do it effortlessly, he really had to try to be the best listener and most humble person each day, exemplifying to me that it is OK to be a work in progress — it is even natural.