The Man Who Taught Me About Generosity

“In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.”

These words of Ernest Hemingway come to mind as I sit outside on this beautiful Hawaiian morning. A few days ago I was in Florida on business for the Door County Community Foundation when I got the call to fly to O’ahu as my father’s health was rapidly beginning to fail. Dad passed away on March 15th, just a few hours after I arrived. In nine more days he would have celebrated his 90th birthday.

Bernaldo Daniel Bicoy, or Bernie as he was known to his friends, had the most generous spirit I have ever known. Perhaps I’m delving too far into the personal with this column, but I think in his approach to life there are some universal lessons about generosity that apply to all of us.

When we think of generosity, we immediately think of money – and Dad certainly did his part. But generosity comes in many other forms. And my father exhibited them all as well.

Be generous with your labor. The trunk of Dad’s car was often filled with papayas, coconuts, fish, lobster – you never knew what he would bring home from the office on any given day. More than 50 years ago, Dad was one of the first and certainly the most prominent Filipino attorney in Hawaii so all the immigrants would come to him with every legal issue under the sun. As you might expect, many of these clients didn’t have any money to pay legal fees. But Dad would help them anyway, telling folks they should give him whatever they could spare. That’s why a man showed up one day saying he was going to paint our house. It’s why another man would bring fresh duck every Thursday. And even some 30 years after he retired from the practice of law, there was still a couple on Moloka’i that refused to accepted payment whenever Dad ate at their restaurant. What my father gave up in income was returned to him tenfold in the form of gratitude and friendship from others.

Be generous with your respect. Dad treated everyone with dignity regardless of their station in life. He was the child of illiterate Filipino immigrants and came from as humble a beginning as you could imagine. At one point in his young life, Dad literally lived in a cave because his parents could afford nothing else. Perhaps that’s why he demonstrated so much respect for those who worked hard for a living. When I would go with him to his office, it was clear that he not only knew the names of every parking attendant, cleaning crew and service worker, he treated each of them with a level respect with which they were unaccustomed to receiving from a prominent man who wore a suit and tie every day. It wouldn’t have occurred to Dad to treat them any other way. And they loved him for it.

Be generous with your time. During a period when Filipinos were considered second-class citizens in Hawaii, Dad organized and long served on the Board of the Hawaii Filipino Chamber of Commerce. He founded the Congress of Visayan Organizations. Dad was an active volunteer in all kinds of civic groups when Hawaii was still a Territory and served in the last Territorial Legislature which created the organizing structure for the newly created State of Hawaii. He strongly believed that the only way for a community to thrive is if each of us shares the load and does our part to make the whole stronger.

Be generous with your friendship. Dad served in the US Army in World War II and Korea, having enlisted on December 7, 1941 after he watched the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star because he unhesitatingly put himself at risk to aid his fellow soldiers. Throughout his life, Dad would do anything for his friends. If you ever needed anything, all you had to do was ask. If it was in his power to grant it to you, you knew that it would be yours. Dad thought that if you could do something to help a friend in need, you should. It wasn’t any more complicated than that.

Be generous with your love. My father was the eldest of 12 children and he took that responsibility very seriously. He expressed his love for his family by always being at the ready whenever anyone had a problem. His siblings would constantly seek him out for advice and guidance. His nieces and nephews asked for help on all sorts of issues, both legal and otherwise, and Dad never failed to answer the call. To my father, accepting the mantle of responsibility for those you love is the ultimate manifestation of that love.

Of course, my father had his failings. He was perhaps a little too proud and too unwilling to be demonstrative with his love. Yet Dad was loved by so many when the end finally came. That’s why I know the lessons of my father are universal.

Being generous does not require us to have the faith of Saint Peter or the selflessness of Saint Damien. Being generous is a choice. It is a deliberate decision to share of ourselves with others without any expectation for compensation.

At some point as he was growing up, my father decided to lead a life of generosity. And he was beloved because of it. It’s really just as simple as that.

This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on March 27, 2013.

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