Episode 409: Powerful Life Lessons with a Remarkable Couple, Clarence and Sheila Blair

Episode Summary

In this episode, Sheila and Clarence share the most significant lessons they learned in almost a century of life and their views on how, despite the rapid changes the world saw in the last 50 years, basic principles like respect, hard work, commitment, and resilience can still make a difference in everyone’s life. They also talk about why we must learn to laugh at ourselves more often, avoid taking ourselves too seriously, be comfortable with failing, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to the “Becoming Your Best” podcast show wherever you may be in the world today. We welcome you. We are always thrilled to have you. Today is going to be a very special treat. We have guests who are friends of mine; we’ve been friends for over 42 years. I’d like to tell you about them, and then we’ll have the privilege and honor of hearing from them today. This guest, this couple, they’ve been married for 67 years. How’s that for an introduction? I’ll tell you a little about him first, and then about her. The first one was a coal miner, owned a coal mining business, and also a metal-forming business. He was also in investments and had a long career. They’ve both been retired for about 20 years and sold out of his businesses in the ’90s. They have traveled to seven continents and over 50 countries. She, my friend Clarence, who I’ll introduce, went to Yale and later we met at Harvard Business School. Sheila, his wife, went to Vassar, and they are a dynamic duo. They have four children and both have been active in so many ways, not just in business but in their community, and in many different ways. Clarence has served on the Hospital Foundation, was chairman of the YMCA, and president of their church. Sheila—so amazing—involved in community affairs for literally 30 years in their community. They have homes in New York, North Carolina, but primarily have lived in Birmingham, Alabama. Sheila also served on a regional multi-state hospital board in a financial corporation, which now has banking in 33 states. This couple is amazing. Welcome to the show today, Clarence and Sheila Blair. 

Sheila Blair: Thank you.  

Clarence Blair: Thank you very much. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m glad that they’ve been willing to come on. I mean, this is true friendship. 

Sheila Blair: We’ll perform for anyone. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, well, they’re great. I’ve asked each one of them if they’d be willing to share three life lessons. So, this on the surface seems like a simple podcast. But each one of us, including me, will be listening carefully. Because this is a couple that is really quite remarkable and extraordinary. Wherever they have gone, they have blessed people with their goodness, their kindness, and their care. But they’re really good at what they’ve done and worked hard to make a difference in business and to make a difference in their communities. That’s exactly what they’ve done. But I also know that they are now older than 60 years old. Clarence, how old are you? 

Clarence Blair: I’ll be 90 in January. 

Sheila Blair: I’ll be 89. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, and you’ll be 89, Sheila. Oh, my goodness. So, that’s why I wanted to have them on, folks.  

Clarence Blair: We keep moving on.  

Steve Shallenberger: Yes, you do. We are all working on becoming our best. All of our listeners are, wherever they may be, tuned in from today. But I can tell you that the Blairs are still working on becoming their best. That’s one of the special things about them. So, who would like to go first? Let’s just have you start. You’ve had a few days to think about this: three life lessons. When we’re done with this, I may have a few more questions. But let’s dive right into it. 

Clarence Blair: All right, I’ll go first. I’m not sure there’s any magic bullet here. But it always seems to me that one of the things you’ve got to do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You often don’t know the way exactly; you don’t know how fast you’re going to get there. And often, it’s not nearly as fast or as direct as you would like. But if you keep moving in the direction, more or less, that you want to go, pretty soon, you actually get somewhere. It’s not spectacular often, but it often does lead to results. I think that’s important. I also think it’s important to keep a sense of humor. If you can’t see the humor in your own failure, in your own missteps—of which there’ll be many—it’s a great mistake, and you can get depressed, you can find yourself in a hole. Always be willing to laugh. Laugh at yourself. And, as I say, retain your sense of humor, because life can be pretty funny at times. And the third one is, it’s always amazed me that some people seem to go out of their way to anger others for no particular purpose. You can say no, and not anger someone. I don’t know what you gain by that. I’ve never understood why some people seem to not mind angering others. You have to be strong enough to say no, but you want to do those things in such a way that there’s a relationship left after it’s done. And if you can do that, you’re just way ahead of the game. You gain nothing by angering people needlessly. And I don’t know, those are my thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, Clarence, on that third point, are you saying that sometimes we run across people that make it hard, they make it really hard? 

Clarence Blair: They make it really hard. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, what are the best ways you’ve found to move through that without and still remain at peace yourself and create the best possible outcome in situations like that? And don’t let it engage you. How have you found that works best? 

Clarence Blair: I don’t know that I have a short answer for that. I think you need to respect the person you’re speaking to. And sometimes things just haven’t worked out. You wish they had, but they hadn’t, and you’ve got to say, “No, we can’t go that way. We can’t do it your way. And I’m sorry but that’s just how it is.” But express that without anger, make it as kind as you can. Sometimes you have to be mean, but sometimes you can make it as kind as you can. You gain nothing by making an enemy if you don’t have to. 

Sheila Blair: I was going to give you an example. It doesn’t just apply to business. We had a son, many years ago, we still have him, but he was really going off the rails. And we, with the help of some really smart helpers, told him no, and set limits. And it was hard, hard, hard. But we wanted to keep our relationship. And thank the good Lord, he did get back together, and we are loving parents today. But if we had kicked him out, or done many of the things that parents with equally troubled children did, it would have been the end of it.  

Clarence Blair: If you cross a certain line, you can never go back. It’s very hard, very, very difficult. And it may be necessary to cross it from time to time, but be very careful. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, thank you for elaborating on that, that was so helpful. And I love those three points, those are really terrific. One foot in front of the other, just keep going, and you’re gonna end up at a good place because you just keep working at it. And the second one is maintain a sense of humor, be able to laugh at yourself — good job. And then be able to tell people no sometimes, but do it in a spirit that is helpful. And you maintain the relationships and sometimes it doesn’t work out. And so you have to articulate that. So, that’s great advice. Thank you, Clarence. 

Clarence Blair: Well, thank you, Steve. 

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, Sheila, let’s get to you. 

Sheila Blair: Yeah, this is an aside to my life lessons. But as I’ve gotten older, I know how little I really know. So, these are, as of today, what I think my life lessons are. I have always been a hard worker at whatever work I’m at. And for many years—20, to be honest, after we were married—my work was at home and raising the children. And I took it very, very seriously. My children might say a little too seriously, but then I did paid employment for another 25 years. And I believe you need to really try hard and work seriously. But here’s the but: do not take yourself seriously. Because the things that you are doing might very well be done by someone else in a very different way, and still turn out as good. There is a tendency to think, “I have this; it’s my way, it’s the only way.” And it certainly isn’t. And I do believe that we are all replaceable, just as much as you love yourself. So, that’s number one. Number two is to learn to deal with failure. I think we all fail many times and often it’s a real setback; it knocks you back, you lose your job, or you don’t get the job you really, really wanted, you know you were qualified for it. Or your neighborhood changes and nothing’s the same, and you’ve got to deal with all new things, in many, many small ways. You just have to get through it. And that’s the nicest thing about being 89: You just learn it by experience that you do. And sometimes you even look back at the failure and say, “Thanks, good Lord, I didn’t get that because I turned in another direction, and here I am.” So, it is important to know, just know you’ll fail. And the third one has to do with learning things all your life. It’s not the same as working hard. It’s more about working or living in your mind creatively. So no matter how dull experiences are, or how boring speeches or a class you take is, you can always learn something from it. And then all the studying that we’ve done, Clarence and I, more formally, in a great books course, going to lifelong learning classes at universities. And we love it. I mean, the most recent one ended a month ago. We find it engaging and we just never stop. I mean, there’s always something you don’t know and didn’t know. So, those are my three. 

Clarence Blair: The world is an interesting place. There’s just no question about it, endlessly interesting. 

Sheila Blair: I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna or a goody-two-shoes, “Oh, aren’t we happy?” We’re just ordinary.  

Steve Shallenberger: That’s one of the reasons I love the Blairs: our listeners, of course, would know that you’ve accomplished remarkable things in your life. But you describe yourself as just regular, ordinary people. The fact is, those are the Blairs that I love. What our listeners don’t know is that since our Harvard days, since Clarence and I met, a number of our classmates have gotten together almost every single year, for 42 years, somewhere in the world. So, we’ve spent four to five days, there’s been some interruptions on that. But overall, we’ve done that. So, we’ve had the chance over all these years to get to know each other. I know quite a bit about them. And one of the things I’ve admired, to this last point that Sheila brought up and that both have just been talking about, is really continuing to learn. Would you mind sharing with our listeners how you’ve continued to learn? I mean, when we’ve gotten together from year to year, you’ve shared about some of the classes that you took, and how have you approached that together, and what’s the impact been for you? 

Clarence Blair: Well, I think the impact is probably far greater than I can say. I think it’s almost incalculable. But we’ve done it because not from any sense of obligation. We’ve enjoyed it. We’ve done it because we enjoyed it, no other thing. We were in a great books group for 21 years or 22 years, I’m not even sure that program exists anymore. And for the last at least 20 or 25 years, we’ve been taking classes at the University of North Carolina, in Asheville, which has one of the outstanding programs in the country for Senior Learning. They call it the college for seniors. All the courses were there, but during COVID, like so many things, they started doing online stuff. So we now take a number of the classes here, via Zoom. We are signed up to take two in the winter semester, that’s coming up. We enjoy it, we just do. 

Sheila Blair: I would also point out that informal learning is important. We love our classes and all the things we have studied. Our travel — we view travel as a learning experience. We’re big supporters of what used to be called Elderhostel, now Road Scholar. I have attended, in my professional life, many annual and regional conferences, devoted to how to write better this or be a better that. And if I leave each conference with one thing that is new, and I am going to use, I consider it a success. And you know, you win some, you lose some. You just have to think that it’s all there for just taking what you can. 

Clarence Blair: I’d like to say another thing about travel: it’s intangible, but the things you can take away from world travel; they’re so important. Some sense of how other people live, and the values they have, often wonderful values that perhaps you had no idea about. Some trips are hard, but there’s not a trip we’ve ever taken that I wouldn’t do again. 

Steve Shallenberger: Let’s go back, swing back to the second one that you mentioned, learn how to deal with failure. I know we all have setbacks and challenges in life. And I know you’ve had some challenges with an accident, a very big accident that put you in the hospital. That was devastating. And that was something neither of you had planned on. And I know you’ve had a son that’s been ill, how do you deal with failure? How do you make it through it? 

Sheila Blair: Well, to me, you admit you’re hurting. You say, “Oh, this is awful. It’s just horrible. I am so sad.” I lost my mother when I was 24, which was a terrible way to be introduced to loss and failure. Then, about two years later, I lost my father. There I was, having left New York with no family back there. But you just kind of grit your teeth. What is, is. So, I know there’s a bromide: when you get lemons, make lemonade. It’s hard to say this without sounding very sappy and trite, but you will get through it. You have to believe you will get through it. And when you do, there really are — I hate to say this — some really nice things about raising my children without grandparents chiming in on what I’m doing. I had no one to ask for help. But on the other hand, I had no one to report to, other than my husband. Now, that’s an example of dark humor. But that’s what we mean by saying there really is humor in everything. 

Steve Shallenberger: What are your thoughts on that, Clarence? 

Clarence Blair: I don’t know what I can add to that. Failure is inevitable. If you haven’t failed at something, you haven’t tried enough things. It’s true. You have to learn to live with it. It’s a part of success. There are tragedies in your life, and there are mistakes and tragedies in your business life, and you just have to live beyond them. If you don’t, you throw away what you have. 

Sheila Blair: You just have to know everybody fails. When something happens, you say, “Oh, I’m the only one. Oh, my goodness. This is so terrible.” But everybody does. So, I just think you need to move on.  

Steve Shallenberger: You need to push through it. You’re so right. This is how we learn. It’s how we grow. And that’s part of what life is about. That’s part of learning. You can never empathize unless you have some of these setbacks. It’s not that you would wish them on somebody else, but the fact that you have them, that’s how we gain wisdom, joy, satisfaction, and appreciation for the good things. So, you’re right; there are two sides to it. And there’s simply no way sometimes to achieve some of the successes you have in life without the learnings you’ve had. You just don’t have the insights, the wisdom, to take advantage of the next opportunity. So, I’m glad that you shared that. 

Sheila Blair: Steve, there was one other thing I wanted to say to you. I believe your program and your books are called “Be The Best That You Can Be.” And if they’re not, I want to add that second phrase, because it’s very important to judge when you have a chance for success. In other words, I’m not athletic. I never tried to ice skate to be an ice skating champion. You know if you really don’t like something and you’re not going to try it, don’t do it half-heartedly. Don’t do it if you can afford it. Choose the places and the things where you can be that show your best. I think you just do that automatically, but it’s worth articulating. 

Steve Shallenberger: Very good. Well, I love you talking about Becoming Your Best, because that is the spirit of what we’re talking about today. It’s that very special thing within us that causes us to create what life is about, to take advantage of it, to live every moment we can. A couple of other quick questions before we wrap up. 67 years, not bad for a marriage. What are one or two things you would recommend to have a good marriage, to make it through, to be friends, to love each other, and make it happy? What do you do? 

Clarence Blair: Oh, dear. Well, it’s like everything in life; there are better times and worse times. I think you have to enjoy your spouse. I think humor, enjoyment, and shared experiences mean a great deal. 

Sheila Blair: I think respecting each other, the basic human respect you show. I can’t define it, I really can’t. But I do know if you don’t have it in a marriage, things go from bad to worse or from good to bad to worse. Because we have to feel that our partner is somebody who can lead us, or who’s maybe just a little bit smarter than we are. 

Clarence Blair: I’ve always felt that about my wife.  

Sheila Blair: I’ve always felt that about you too. I do think it’s funny, and I’m not sure he has a great reputation for being funny. But we have the same warped sense of humor. I think it’s something people just aren’t able to do today as much, and that is marry young. People seem to think, “Oh, I’ve got to play the field. I’ve got to see what’s out there.” We met as sophomores in college, married when we graduated, and the only way we’ve lasted 67 years is that we’re still alive and God has spared us. 

Steve Shallenberger: And you love each other. You have respect for one another and you’re kind to one another. I mean, you may have rubs, but you both take responsibility to be sure the other is happy; to do what you can to help them be happy. 

Clarence Blair: You need to let your spouse have some room. She had room, and she always gave me room. That’s important.  

Sheila Blair: For years we said goodbye by 7:30 in the morning and met again at 7:30 that night because we both went our own ways at work. So, we knew we’d get back together, and people used to tease us. We had very different work lives. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, this has been so good. I’d like to finish up with one last question. And that is, any final tips you would like to leave with our listeners today? Start with you, Sheila. 

Sheila Blair: I think my final tip was probably the first thing I said, which is, you really will never know all you think you know. It’s just you’re always learning. You don’t know as much as you think you do. And there’s plenty of stuff out there to learn. 

Clarence Blair: I’ll go the same road. Mine would be the first one: to just keep plodding onward, one foot after the other. Sooner or later, you’ll get ahead. You might not get exactly where you started out going, but you’ll get ahead if you just keep working. 

Sheila Blair: Sense opportunities, too. It’s not just mindless plodding, keep always looking for your next step. 

Steve Shallenberger: You think there’ll be an opportunity in the future for people? 

Sheila Blair: Oh, yes. We went through the industrial age, and we’re entering the technological age. And we just gotta get over this, “Oh, my God. It is awful.” I don’t think it is anymore awful than everything that’s just within technology and the way to communicate. We all know that. 

Steve Shallenberger: It’s an exciting time to be alive. Well, I cannot thank you enough. And on behalf of our listeners, I cannot thank you enough for taking some time today. It’s been a jewel of a discussion. Thank you for your wisdom, and your willingness to just humbly share. You’re some of my dearest friends, grateful for you, and wish you all the best and all that you’re doing along with your family.  

Sheila Blair: Thanks, Steve. 

Clarence Blair: Thank you, Steve. Thank you very much. 

Steve Shallenberger: And to our listeners, it’s been a privilege to have you with us today. This says so much about you, that you’re tuning in, you’re working on becoming your best, and it’s the very spirit of what we’ve been talking about today. And at the end of the day, finally, whenever that is for each one of us, some of the greatest satisfaction will come because we kept trying, we kept working on that issue. And in the process, somehow we just seem to bless other people. And that’s our duty today, that’s what we have the chance, this is our time. Thank you. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Clarence & Sheila Blair

Retired Entrepreneurs, World Travelers, Regional Multi-State Hospital Board Member, Former YMCA Chairman

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