Yesterday I attended the funeral of Vivian Landis, mother of my long-time friend Lise Landis. Vivian was 98 years old when she died, and by all accounts had a wonderful and rewarding life. She also played a big part in mine, by doing what she apparently did routinely: being kind.
Mrs. Landis, along with her late husband Paul, were, by sheer chance, placed in the position of being the Chaos Theory butterfly in the Amazon jungle that causes a momentous chain of events by flapping its wings. They exemplify to me why it is vital for all of us to strive to live using ethical values. We have often no idea what the results will be, but the odds are they will be more good than bad.
In 1972, I had been rejected by all of my choices for law school, though I had been wait-listed at Georgetown. However, it was August, the fall semester was looming, and no word from Washington, D.C. had reached me. Discouraged but resigned, I said the hell with it, and resolved to take a year off, perhaps to craft my thesis on character and the American Presidency into a book. In the meantime, I decided to join my parents and sister on what bid fair to be our last family vacation. Dad had planned one of his typical forced marches, this one through Reno, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, San Francisco, and Seattle.
I was having a great time, relaxing, enjoying the sights, when a ranger tracked us down on the Yosemite canyon floor. Our next-door neighbors in Arlington Mass. had sent a telegram forwarding a Georgetown telegram to the Marshall homestead: a slot for me had just opened up in the 1975 Class, but to claim it, I had to be at the Law Center to register Monday morning—and it was Sunday. And I was in California.
I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to law school at that point, but my dad was determined that I should take the opportunity. We cut short our Yosemite visit and drove to San Francisco, where I was deposited on a red-eye to Dulles. I had few clothes, and knew nobody in the District of Columbia or anywhere near it. Somehow, I was assured, my family would have a plan for me by the time I arrived. I was to call their hotel in Frisco once I had registered.
When I called, confused, dubious and a little frightened, I learned that my sister’s Harvard room mate, Lise, had contacted her parents in Bethesda, Maryland. I had never met them. They had volunteered to put me up in their home until I was able to find a place to live. As it turned out, they did a lot more than that. They let me sleep in their son’s (very nice) room (he was away in school), they fed me breakfast and dinner, they made me feel cared about and connected to a source of support while I was far from home for the first time in my life. Vivian Landis drove me 20 minutes to the first of my several public transportation connections every morning around 7 am, and picked me up every evening. In between were two horrible commutes that sometimes stretched over 90 minutes: without Vivian’s gratis chauffeur service, it would have been much longer.
I had no luck finding a place to live. The Landises were stuck with me for almost two months, yet they never made me feel anything but welcome. Even so, the commute was killing me, and also felt guilty to be imposing, through no fault of my hosts, who acted like it would be find with them if I moved in permanently. I called my parents and said that if there wasn’t a housing breakthrough soon, I was coming home.
Two days later I got a second helping hand from an unexpected source. A college classmate, the room mate of several friends but not someone I would have described as a pal, called me at the Landises. He had heard about my plight by chance, running into my mom, who worked in the campus housing office. He was working for the Nixon campaign, he told me, and touring the country recruiting “Youth For Nixon.” Why not stay in his apartment at the Watergate? He said he would be gone until the end of November at least. No charge, of course, and the subway ride from the Foggy Bottom to to the law school was about ten minutes. I jumped at the offer.
Well, the rest is history. I’m still living in the D.C. area, met my wife of 38 years here, made many of my best friends, established my professional satirical musical group and the Georgetown Law Center student Gilbert & Sullivan theater company that is still going strong (untold number of romances, wedding and offspring coming from that), started my ethics business, guided The American Century Theater for two decades, adopted a wonderful son. Yet none of it would have happened, in all likelihood, had not Paul and Vivian Landis been so generous, trusting, compassionate and kind to me, a stranger.
Chaos is among the two concepts (along with cognitive dissonance) that I find most invaluable in thinking about, championing, and analyzing ethics. When people are ethical and their ethics alarms are in working order, good things tend to happen, sometimes completely unpredictable good things, and more of them than anyone could have predicted.
Paul and Vivian Landis helped teach me that—well, them and “Jurassic Park.”
I will always be grateful and in awe of these two wonderful human beings who, through no effort of mine, came into my life when I needed them most. I intend to spend the rest of my own life trying to do likewise for others.