Storytelling Leaves a Mark on Each New Generation

Dear Seth and Natalie,

I’ve been fortunate at my age to discover something that I really enjoy and maybe am even passionate about: teaching college students. It’s energizing and reminiscent of my days as a UW undergrad. To be a good teacher I have to learn new information and ideas and explore creative ways to enhance my students’ learning experience. I’m teaching them “organizational effectiveness and improvement,” but I’m really giving them tools to live more effectively and continuously improve themselves.

I share much of my business experience through storytelling—kind of like the imaginary bedtime stories you enjoy hearing over and over, except these are not fairy tales. Unfortunately, these days, there seem to be three bad stories for every good one I can find. I usually embellish the stories that I share with you to have a useful lesson, like, “And Goldilocks always drank her milk so that she’d have strong, white teeth.” Often you’ve fallen asleep before you benefit from that important point, but I try to keep my students from sleeping in class by shocking them with real stories from the newspaper. “Did you read about the guy who cheated thousands of people out of billions of dollars?” I’ll ask. “Was this an accounting mistake? What’s the issue here?” The students stare at me with startled, owl-like faces waiting for an answer to this not-so-profound ethical question.

My appreciation for storytelling came from your great-great-grandmother, Berta. She and my grandfather, Nathan, came to the United States from Budapest on December 12, 1946, the day of my second birthday. They miraculously survived the Nazi invasion of the Budapest Ghetto and arrived in America with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The second miracle was that they missed the airplane that they were scheduled to take from Paris to New York. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

My grandma and grandpa lived in our house in California until I was thirteen years old and took care of my sister, two brothers and me while my parents went to work. When I was about your age, when my parents went out on a Saturday night, we would cuddle up next to Grandma to hear stories of the “olt country.” She spoke a mixture of broken English, Hungarian and Yiddish that we learned how to translate, a secret language between grandmother and grandchildren that my parents had difficulty comprehending. The stories were elaborations of her real experiences, some very frightening, including descriptions of evil soldiers hunting for children who hid in the kitchen or the attic. We would nervously giggle, sharing glances of disbelief, at the idea that children could hide in the refrigerator or an old suitcase. At the last minute, their trusty dog, Voodas, like Lassie or Clifford, would always leap to their rescue, chasing the soldiers away and saving them all. Then we’d eat ice cream.

When it was time for bed and we were wild and noisy, my grandmother would grab her chest and yell, “My heart, my heart!” We would run squealing to our beds, lying still and quiet so she wasn’t sick or dying when my parents came home. In the morning, we’d find her sitting, perfectly healthy, at the kitchen table sipping hot tea as if nothing had ever happened. It was a clever trick that I hold in reserve to use on my students if I can’t otherwise control them.

So, it’s this heritage of many childhood stories and stories from my teachers and mentors lodged deep in my brain that I draw upon to share with you and my students. Some are funny or sad, some imaginary or real. But they all have lessons that will be handed down to the next generation, and I hope that next generation will learn something that will leave the world a better place. Hope to see you both soon, so we can cuddle up, tell stories and eat ice cream.


Opa in Madison

In addition to being the proud grandfather of Seth and Natalie, Marty Preizler retired in 2008 as president and CEO of Physicians Plus Insurance Corporation. He now runs a consulting firm, MPAworldclass, and is an adjunct professor at Edgewood College.

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