Things My Father Taught Me: James B. Stewart

When I learned I’d be able to attend the university of my choice, my father familiarized me with the work of one of its most famous living alums, Mr. James B. Stewart, then front page editor of the Wall Street Journal. My father had a vested interest in Mr. Stewart. They grew up in the same town in western Illinois, one year apart in age. Though in their formative years they’d never met, years later, after meeting Mr. Stewart at an alumni event in New York, we arrived at the conclusion that he and my father had once been neighbors, and my aunts would occasionally look after him.

In the years that followed, he’s become a mentor to me, there with career advice or a critical ear. Also in that time, I’ve read almost everything Jim has written and always utterly in awe. And for his part, he has graciously kept me in mind when considering wardrobe updates, including, if I remember correctly, a lengthy e-mail exchange while he considered an upgrade to his eyewear. Eventually, he did settle on one of my suggestions: a classically styled tortoise shell frame.

He attacks life’s tasks with this level of care and precision. I followed along in 2011, as Jim, a classically trained pianist, delightedly participated in many areas of the production of Heart of a Soldier, an opera inspired by one of his more recent works.

Needless to say, to ask someone I consider a valued mentor to write about his father for my blog appeared at the outset to be too daunting. However, upon receiving his piece, I am glad I asked. After reading a bit about his relationship with his father, it’s clear his dogged pursuit of a job-well-done may have derived from his father’s attempts to encourage perfection: sartorially or otherwise.

And so it is without further ado, I share Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times columnist James B. Stewart’s “Things My Father Taught Me.”

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james-stewart-superJumboMy father was not an especially good teacher, though not for want of trying. He’s start out with the best of intentions, but he could be impatient and irritable when things didn’t go according to plan, which they rarely did.

He tried teaching me to drive his massive Cadillac on the narrow paved road of a nearby cemetery, but that ended when I scraped a bush and scratched the finish. I actually failed my first driving test. Boy Scout knots was another failure. He took me for numerous golf lessons on the practice tee. I’d start strong, but eventually be overwhelmed by his barrage of tips.

But some of his attempts were great successes. He dressed well, and took pride in his appearance. I don’t suppose he was as handsome as John Hamm playing Don Draper on “Mad Men,” but that’s how he looked to me. And he actually worked in the advertising business and made frequent trips from our Midwestern hometown to what he always called the “agency” in New York.

When I was a junior in high school, a girl a year ahead of me asked me to be her date to the prom, which was a formal affair open only to seniors and their guests. I rented a formal jacket (pale blue) with black satin lapels and black trousers. It came with a pleated white shirt, studs—and a loose bow tie. Until then, the only kind of tie I’d worn was a clip-on.

My father had his own tuxedo, and a white dinner jacket for summer. I’d never seen him tie the bow tie, but he was contemptuous of the clip on. His philosophy was, if it was worth wearing a tie at all, then it should be tied properly. He told me that tying a bow tie was easy: all you had to do was tie your shoe, except the knot was around your neck rather than on your foot. He had me untie my shoe, then re-tie it. By twisting the knot a little, you could see how it could look like a bow tie.

He took me to the bathroom mirror and stood behind me, looping the tie around my neck. He deftly tied it, then undid it and had me try. At first it was hard to find the opening for the loop, but I kept thinking of my shoelaces. After two or three tries I got it right, which seemed to please him immensely. He beamed and waved as I headed off for the prom—in his Cadillac, now that I’d passed the test and had my license.

That lesson stuck with me, and I’ve tied countless bow ties in the ensuing decades, and taught many others using the same approach. Tying a bow tie may be a small thing, but the deeper lesson that stuck with me has influenced me all my life: if something is worth doing, it should be done well—or at least to the best of your ability.

James B. Stewart

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