In earlier eras, it was desirable for a man to be referred to as a “gentleman” by those who knew him. In it’s original use in twelfth century England it meant a “well-born man, man of good family or birth”, but over time it came to refer more to behavior and cultivation than social status.
I was walking through an old cemetery in Manhattan a few years ago and happened upon a gravestone that referred to the deceased as a “gentleman”, and it got me to wondering why we hear that word less these days and how we might bring it back. We all know men we think of as gentlemen. They usually are older – not necessarily old, but not very young either – indicating that becoming a gentleman is something developed over time rather than given at birth . I remember seeing one such man – recently deceased Green Bay Packer legend Bart Starr – many years ago and thinking how gentlemanly he was.
The irony of thinking of Bart Starr as a gentleman is that he was famous for excelling in a brutal sport. As the 200th overall selection in the 1956 NFL draft, he wasn’t pre-destined for greatness. But his leadership capabilities, fused with a great team and great coach, Vince Lombardi, enabled Starr to be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Starr recalled Lombardi addressing the team in his first pre-season with them (note how Lombardi refers to the assembled players):
“Lombardi quickly turned to us,” said Starr. ‘Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it. Nothing is perfect but we are going to relentlessly – and he emphasized relentlessly – chase it because, in the process, we will catch excellence.’ He paused and got even closer to where we were seated and he said, ‘I am not even remotely interested in being just good.’”
Many years ago I was at a professional event in Green Bay where Bart was the speaker. It wasn’t a huge event so it felt intimate – I was seated within a few feet of Bart. Before he spoke, the person providing introductory remarks mentioned the passing of Bart’s son, Bret, who had died not long before from a drug overdose. I happened to be looking at Bart at that moment and saw a brief but profound look of sadness pass over his face. After Bret’s death, Bart – generally a private person – chose to bring his family’s grief to the public as a way to warn others about the early signs and unrelenting scourge of addiction.
But aside from that one moment, the thing that struck me throughout the event was how much of a gentleman he was. His interactions with people after the talk were warm, encouraging, and dignified. You never had the slightest sense he viewed himself as a Great Sports Icon or any other lofty persona.
I want us to use that word more, and to compliment those men who we believe to be “gentlemen”.
Encouragingly, at an event this past weekend I learned of a club at a high school where local businessmen help senior boys learn “gentlemanly” skills. Referred to as the “League of Extraordinary Gentleman”, the students
“…learn skills like how to tie a neck tie and press a shirt, table etiquette and chivalry, the importance of sportsmanship and using social media in a safe way. They’ve learned how thank-you notes resonate in a job interview, the importance of eye contact and a good hand shake, mentors said. And future meetings will cover how to drive a nail, change a tire, jump a car, fillet a fish and grill a good steak.”
This underscores one of the hallmarks of being a gentleman: becoming a gentleman involves mentors. Our coarsening culture invites young men to model petulant sports stars or testosterone-filled movie characters. But being a gentleman requires not just certain life skills, but a breadth in knowledge and generous disposition toward others. Seeing that in action helps young men realize why those traits create leaders – as they did in Bart Starr.