Small Deeds Done Are Better Than Great Deeds Planned

May 31, 2005
Lately there have been a number of days spent by yours truly enjoying a pursuit that my children have come to call "chilling out".

Lately there have been a number of days spent by yours truly enjoying a pursuit that my children have come to call "chilling out". With a great deal of effort, these days are now generally confined to Saturdays and Sundays. I guess that what I have doing is the modern version of stopping to smell the roses.

However, let me warn you that it is difficult to smell the roses when you are gazing at them through a television screen. Once again my Sunday evening was spent watching the movies of yesteryear. To me there is something particularly comforting about spending time with those shows which were popular during the faraway days of my youth.

Each week I strive to bring some reason into the world. Perhaps the current state of the world provides the reason that is why I write as much as I do. Once again this is my goal for this week's visit with you.

You may wonder from whence the title for this week's visit came. The idea came from a movie that I was watching on the Fox Movie Channel. While watching the poignant closing scenes from the movie, "A Man Called Peter," those words literally jumped out at me from my television set.

The movie is a biographical portrayal of the life of Peter Marshall, late Chaplain of the United States Senate. The words form a part of the last prayer created by him before his untimely death on January 26, 1949, at age forty-six. I would like to thank the folks at the In Touch Ministries' website for providing an excellent commentary on his life. Their words allow me to share with you some thoughts on his life.

It has been my experience that the more you know about a person the better able you will be to understand their lives and their words. A Scottish immigrant, Peter Marshall was a man who lived his beliefs. Very early in his life he made an irrevocable decision to live his life for the Lord. He set to work with every fiber of his being to do just that. He lived a life doing something in which he believed most fervently.

One of my favorite books in my office library is entitled, "The Prayers of Peter Marshall". It is a compilation of the many prayers created by him in his years as a Pastor. It is still available from There were 88 copies of this 1954 edition in the used book section. It holds a tremendous amount of guidance and direction from a truly great clergyman.

Many times during my service as an assisting minister at Hope Lutheran Church in Freehold, New Jersey, I turned to Marshall's words for guidance. Let me share the full text of this prayer with you.

"Deliver us, our Father, from futile hopes and from clinging to lost causes, that we may move into every-growing calm and ever-widening horizons. Where we cannot convince, let us be willing to persuade, for small deed done are better than great deeds planned. We know that we cannot do everything. But help us to do something. For Jesus' sake, Amen" (Marshall, 1954, p. 243).

As I reviewed these words a thought came to me. Are each of us doing something, or are we just talking about what we intend to do? As a person living a life of service, let me ask you, who are hopefully also living lives of service, a couple of questions. Are you doing something? Do you believe in what you are doing?

Your answers to these two questions are critical. How many times have you gone through the motions when completing a task, rather than pouring your heart into it? I believe that our generation has coined a critical phrase to cover this though. Did you do the job, or just mail it in?

A fire service buddy from Illinois called me the other day. His name is Ken Folisi and he served as a Battalion Chief in the Lisle-Woodridge Fire Department. He called me to tell me that he had retired and then shared some of his plans for the future. As you might imagine, I was pleased to hear from him.

Ken and I have been buddies for more than 20 years now. I first met him during a two-program series of courses I taught for the National Fire Academy at his fire station back in 1985. Over the years, which have seemed to have passed all too quickly, we have shared a variety of ideas, thoughts, and concepts about being with others and leading people. It has been my experience that Ken has always worked to put the needs of his people ahead of his own.

During our telephone conversation he shared a critical thought with me. He said that he believed he had accomplished all that he could in his department and felt that it was time to move on to a world filled with new challenges. He had worked hard to prepare his troops and felt confident that he left the department a better place than he found it. Knowing as much as I do about what a great department Lisle-Woodridge is, I suggested to him that he could rest well knowing that he had done a good thing.

According to Ken the key to his success involved living according to a philosophy he had developed during his rise through the ranks. He told me that it was important to stress that every person has their place in the world and that everyone has a calling. He worked to learn as much as he could about his team members and then he employed them in a manner that used their strengths and played against their weaknesses.

What a tremendous philosophy. It was Ken's thought that while you may not be Einstein, you could be considered a great success in being the person who kept Einstein's lab clean and running smoothly. Think of how much harder Einstein's work would have been had there not been people to keep his world neat and orderly.

As we chatted, Ken started me thinking. He and I agreed that success did not come from achieving great rank or acquiring great wealth. We agreed that the setting and achieving of goals that make a difference in our daily lives is the key.

Let me share a few words about a friend from my days with the Newark Fire Department that tells of life lived according to the tenets Ken's philosophy. Robert Langevin was a swift boat veteran of the war in Vietnam. He joined the Newark Fire Department in the same 1974 recruit class as my brother Bob.

Bob Langevin lived to be a Newark fireman. He never aspired to be an officer. I do not recall him ever sitting for a promotional examination. His goal was to become the best fireman on the job. He spent almost his entire career in one of the busiest companies in the city. He held a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of firefighting skills. As a matter of fact, had the city not eliminated the position of Chief's Aides, Bob Langevin would have been my aide.

He was the best truck company fireman with whom I ever worked. He possessed an instinctive ability to be at the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. Bob also shared what he learned with the new men as they came on the job. He was that type of informal leader that men followed naturally. On one occasion Bob even saved me from getting my butt kicked by preventing a fight.

He set his goal. He met his goal. Bob was a fireman's fireman. He left the Newark Fire Department a better place than he found it. Bob's life was the personification of Peter Marshall's prayer, and Ken Folisi's philosophy. Bob had a place, he did his job, he loved his job, and he was really good at it.

As was stated earlier, Marshall died before his final prayer was read. However, before he died, he asked another pastor to deliver his words for him. They were delivered and have worked their magic for quite some time now. Think of the effect that this one small deed has had. Here we are, more than 55 years after his death, learning from the legacy he left for us.

A great deal of my time here on Earth has been spent thinking about those things that I can do. While it might seem like I have done a lot, a great road still stretches out in front of me. There is so much that I want to do.

Many of the things that I would like to do are controlled by other people. Some of those folks share my thoughts and beliefs, while others do not. As you know, I have written many times about building bridges. I have also written about those people who take great job in tearing down the work of others.

For that reason, I have adopted a new policy. It is my intention to work toward doing those things which can be undertaken, implemented, and accomplished by me. This is not to say that working with others is out of the question. No, I would never act like that. It is just that rather than spending time waiting for others to act, or climbing over their walls of ignorance, I am going to act independently. Remember thought my friends, I am not a loner. Should someone else wish to come along for the ride it would be my pleasure to have their help. I can always use a little company/

The spirit of Peter Marshal has moved me to decide to see what I can do to affect changes in our fire service on the small scale. As these things are accomplished at my level, I will share them with you. My world is no different than yours. If things work in my world, there is a good chance they will work in yours.

My goal for the past several months has involved the sharing of knowledge with my fellow travelers in my local area. A number of courses have been offered that were targeted to younger fire people in the departments with which I respond. My buddy Nolan Higgins from the Freehold Fire Department convinced me to do this, and we have labored together to make it happen.

We surveyed the younger people who were moving into positions of leadership within our region and decided that the application of a bit of knowledge to the regional mix would be good for us all. Nolan and I decided to provide this generous gesture for a very selfish reason.

These younger folks will be working with us at fires for the next several years. We agreed that it would be really neat if something that I taught could keep us out of trouble. So far courses have been taught in firefighting strategy and tactics, leadership, staffing and funding, as well as problem-solving.

A number of these future leaders do not occupy employment positions which would require them to acquire supervisory skills. Some were being thrust into leadership roles for which they were singularly unprepared. How often have you elected a nice guy to be an officer in your fire department and discovered that they lacked the skills to function effectively?

Our success to date has been on a somewhat limited scale. There are many things competing with my classes for the attention of the target population. I understand this. Patience is critical to the doing of small deeds. At this point, you may be asking yourself what you can do that will make things better for your fire department. Let me offer one small example.

Does your fire department have an official mentoring program? Do they assign senior members to guide the new members in their journey towards productive membership? Some departments do this, while others leave this important function to chance. Does the fact that your department lacks a mentoring program prohibit you from making friends with a new member and helping them to become a helpful and useful member? I sure hope not.

This is but one small deed you can do which will provide a long-term benefit to your department. You can create a positive force between you and the new member. What is the worst that can happen? You make a new friend. More than that, you can help to create an effective firefighter. As time goes on, encourage your friend to become a friend to other new firefighters as they enter service with your department.

In this way, your small deed done can be the seed from which future department successes will grow. There are so many areas where just a little effort can go a long way. The problem is that no one steps forward to provide that little bit of effort toward the common good.

The world would be a much better place my friends if each of you reading my words this week stepped forward and did one small deed. Think of the thousands of good deeds which would begin dotting the landscape of the American Fire Service.

I am not asking you to become an expert in anything. I am not suggesting that you travel the world as a fire service evangelist. There are those who perform that task every day, like by dear friend Billy Goldfeder. What I am asking you to do is simply live a life in accord with the Boy Scout Slogan, which simply states, "Do a Good Turn Daily." Or as Peter Marshall would urge you "do something."

There are people who have devoted their lives to fire service. There are also people who have merely been in the fire service. Which of those sorts of people would you prefer to be remembered as? What would want to leave as your legacy: attendance or diligence? The choice is yours.

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