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Walking the line

I’ve decided to incorporate a series of posts about people in my life who I admire, or who have been influential in some way – starting with my dad, Neville.  I’m pretty pleased that the title of this post[1] about my dad is an adaptation of a Johnny Cash song, one of his favourite singers.  Miraculously and with no creative input on my part whatsoever.

Basically, I think I know a lot of amazing people, and my life is not that interesting to write about on it’s own.  No really, it’s not.  On the one hand, I don’t know where to start.  I’m nervous, actually.  It’s my dad!  He is and does many things, where does one start?

My dad’s world – career-wise – was primary and secondary school education.  He was a school teacher and principal for 40+ years, though that doesn’t do justice to the conviction and loyalty with which he carried himself in the job.    He worked largely in country schools in Western Australia, and I’ll be talking mostly about St Joseph’s School in Northam here, which is the school I attended from age 5 to 15.

Looking dapper for family photos last year! (Colleen, mum, me, dad, Kerry and Janine)

Looking dapper for family photos last year! (Colleen, mum, me, dad, Kerry and Janine)

When I think about my dad, what I see and have experienced is a man who lives from what he calls ‘simple, old fashioned’ values and principles – including service, honesty, integrity and fairness.   He demonstrated these throughout his working life (he’s retired how) and of course continues to, especially as his own life has taken a dramatic turn in the last few years.

Oh and let’s just get this out of the way now – Nev’s no saint (sorry dad, you’re not).  He occasionally slips up on the application of these values, especially when watching Australian football (AFL), though he upholds the honesty part very well.   He’s extremely honest in his appraisal of the players’ talents (or rather, lack thereof).

So, ‘walking the line’ here I think really means committing to and expressing those values in everyday life.  It means deciding what you stand for, what’s you’re about – and then being authentic to that as much as possible.   I think many of us aspire to live up to this aspiration in some way (and do).  But there are so many excuses, temptations, disruptions and reasons not to live from our values and our hearts every day.

For my dad, I think a lot of his working life felt like a fight.  And that mentality can prepare you for many things, and it can divert you as well.  Sometimes it’s useful, other times it’s a burden; not every situation in life is a fight or has a downside.   Yet, he just keeps going, and that is the point here.  Things you believe in are worth fighting for, after all, aren’t they?

So, here’s a few things I’ve learned from the old man about living from your values – in this case, service, fortitude, honesty and integrity.

Service

When I asked him recently about some of the key things that helped him to stay focused and remain resilient after all those years as principal, here’s what he said:

“The essentials of being a {school principal}[2] are:

  1. 1.    Like doing it
  2. 2.    Do it well for the sake of others.”

Simple, effective and to the point – vintage Nev.  I hasten to add that he applies these principles to his parenting, and now to his ‘grandparenting’, where he takes much pleasure in teaching my nephew Riley to read, or as you can see in the photo, making makeshift go-karts with my niece and nephews on the farm where they live!

Dad and the kids - playing on the farm

Dad and the kids – playing on the farm

As a teacher and principal, he was all about enabling opportunities for others, particularly the students (but also young teachers).  His philosophy here was also simple:

“To give people a chance to be themselves.  That’s what I saw as being fair.”

That’s a a pretty amazing gift to give people, I think.  To him, this really meant ensuring that no one missed out, lessening any distance between the ‘haves and have nots’.  Basically, his key focus was not short-changing the kids in any way for being part of a small, country school.  Such an external label – however factual – was not going to determine the opportunities and education for the kids.  The students responded by giving everything an honest shot and doing the best they could with what they had.

This philosophy goes for everything from the style and cost of student uniforms (“that money is better spent elsewhere”) to establishing partnership programs with farmers to have students conduct practical science and ecology work.  Here, my dad established a program where students helped a local farmer to regenerate a degraded patch of agricultural land[3].  It was a successful example of building relationships in country schools.  Furthermore, students eventually took part in Australia-wide studies relating to salinity and agricultural land care.

Fortitude

I’ve often observed my dad as being the person who does the ‘dirty work’, the difficult jobs no one else wants, the ones that call for a steady hand and a clear head – everything from delivering devastating news to starting schools from the ground up in Northam and Port Hedland (and all that’s in between).    The tall and steady tree that no wind could blow over.  He takes it all in his stride, and in fact, I think he feels a sense of pride about being reliable and dependable.  And why the hell not, the rest of us are just relieved to have someone like him around who’ll take on those unpleasant and prickly jobs.

Honesty

My dad is fiercely committed to his values at both ends of the spectrum – steadfastly honest and with a reputation for doing well by people, and equally – someone you don’t want to get on the wrong side of!  Honesty is honesty to Nev, and he tends not to discriminate in its delivery.  His strong sense of justice means he’ll prepare for a fight if he has to, particularly for the underdog.  He’s also not afraid getting stuck into people who “deserve a good shellacking”, as Nev puts it.

However, the critical common factor here in both of these is dignity.   Someone might need to be pulled into line, but it’s still possible to treat them with dignity and respect in the process, however hard.  Sure, as a school principal for all those years, many a strong reprimand had to be delivered.   Some would run for their lives at the sight of Mr McManus walking down the school corridor!

And he admits his own mistakes (occasionally!).  My dad once ‘blasted’ a group of students for something then painfully realised he’d made an error.  After much thinking and with some initial hesitation, he apologised to the students, saying “Your free kick”.   Both the students and their parents were so astounded to even receive an apology, the parents rang to tell him so, and to thank him for showing such respect.

Integrity

Honesty naturally leads us to talk about integrity, but there’s subtle and important differences, summed up neatly by the Alliance for Integrity:

“Integrity in its bare-bones essence means adherence to principles. It is a three-step process: choosing the right course of conduct; acting consistently with the choice—even when it is inconvenient or unprofitable to do so; openly declaring where one stands. Accordingly, integrity is equated with moral reflection, steadfastness to commitments, trustworthiness”

I believe these principles are the substance of a person who seeks a life of service, fortitude and honesty – like my dad. The essentials that you may spend a lifetime cultivating, testing and refining, but that nonetheless remain a commitment, a desire, a yearning even.

For my dad, the foundations of his values and principles have been essential to his family, friends and the many people he has reached in many communities over the years.  I now observe how essential this foundation is as my dad experiences his toughest life challenge yet right now – cancer.   When your world shakes everything out and leaves you feeling undone (which, I can only imagine my dad is experiencing right now), we must return to and build on the strength and substance inherent within each of us, the unshakable part.  For my dad, I observe that as being these core values of service, integrity, honesty, fortitude – for him, the fighter within.  My dad may or may not feel comfort or strength from that.

Dad and Sophie, his youngest granddaughter, taking good care of my dog Lola together.

Dad and Sophie, his youngest granddaughter, taking good care of my dog Lola together.

Nev says he’s getting shaky on his feet these days, his memory is shaky, eyesight shaky.  However, I would like to honour and acknowledge that unshakable part of my dad – the substance and humility that has served him and others all of his life, and continues to do so every day, in big and small ways.

Oh, and if you like Johnny Cash – check this out from the Rebelle Society for what we can learn from him about love, life and being your badass self (at the very least scroll down for his definition of paradise, it’s beautiful).


[1] More like an essay and a little longer than my usual goal of sticking to 500 words – a worthy exception, so please keep reading! 🙂

[2] {insert any profession here}

[3] As he’s quick to point out, it was of course a collaborative process with help from many others, especially the science teacher at the time, Mark Gargano.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rosemary #

    Hi Michelle, I think you’ve captured him beautifully. He and his brother (my own Dad) not only share a striking physical resemblance, but a moral and spiritual one too. I guess what I have watched and admired from both our country schoolteacher Dads is that fundamental belief in the dignity and worth of each person. Its hard not to imbibe that when you are served it in daily doses throughout childhood.

    I saw Uncle Nev when I was in Perth just recently. A battle it is, but oh my…his observations are even keener and still quite forthrightly expressed. It was such a delight to see his face soften and his eyes light up as he watched and spoke to my brand new baby girl. His eyes sparkled as we talked about her smile and her red hair and her rather strong expression of the McManus genetics.

    This is lovely.

    November 7, 2013
    • Thanks Rosemary, I couldn’t agree more about Uncle Pat! And well said yourself, it’s unmistakable that both wanted only the best for the students. Whenever I bump into people from school, they always note that about Dad – people always recognise when someone has their best interests at heart. And I’m sure he loved meeting little Elizabeth, sounds like a great trip home. Thanks for reading.

      November 7, 2013

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