How well does character and virtue serve a person? A retired doctor sought to find out by following up on two cherished boyhood friends to see where they landed in life.

Opinion: My childhood friends had virtue. Did they have success?

Retired physician says we measure a student’s worth now on test scores, GPA, and SATs rather than on merit

Stephen Frist is a former medical/pathologist director of Clayton General Hospital in Riverdale. Retired now and living in Florida and Israel, Frist wrote a lovely piece about a time when students weren’t measured by their test scores, but by their character.

How well does character and virtue serve a person?

Dr. Frist found out by following up on two cherished friends from his boyhood in New York to see where they landed in life.

“I graduated medical school 50 year ago and am impressed by the unfortunate reliance strictly on quantitative data to evaluate everything -- most disappointingly, in evaluating each other,” he says. 

By Stephen Frist

Another scandal, rich people and celebrities cheating to get their kids into prestigious colleges, blood in the water for the journalists and pundits. Day after day for several months, everyone is feeling great, satisfied that those they vicariously love most are finally getting theirs. 

The ambivalence of the average guy in the audience toward the anointed elite, that intersection of awe and resentment, is still on display today. The scandal got me thinking, not about the current news cycle but rather about bedrock values.

So, what’s it all about? Is going to an Ivy League or a big-name college of nonnegotiable importance for you or your child? College acceptance means what exactly? Getting admitted to a competitive college is validation of past accomplishment and a prediction of future success. 

To make the call, colleges primarily rely on quantitative stuff; test scores, grade point averages, and SATs. In fairness, the institutions are doing the best they can with limited resources. There are lots of qualified candidates and insufficient time or money to do in depth evaluations of individual applicants.

I gradated medical school 50 years ago and am getting on in years. I have time to reflect on how things played out. How did my youthful friends fare? Did the SATs of 1961 tell the whole story or were they like scratch sheets before the big race, not worth betting on? 

My informal investigation was a simple matter. Type in a name and hit Wikipedia. What I learned makes me smile and is worth sharing because I should have guessed these guys would succeed.

Dr. Stephen Frist

From early on, each of these boys showed his essential merit in small ways. The subtle signals were there to see, if one chose to look, but they were overlooked. That’s because we live in the age of quantification. If something can’t be measured and given a numerical value, it just doesn’t count (pardon the pun). 

As a doctor, I remember when a cough might be classified mild, moderate or severe – now it would be called level one, two or three. It sounds so much better, more accurate and scientific, like we know what we’re talking about when there’s a number attached to our relative ignorance. Getting back to my little buddies:

Larry was my first friend. I remember him bending over to pick up a Pensie Pinkie punch ball when we were both about 6, and his pants split. We laughed hard with a visceral abandonment that as an adult I can no longer garner. He was a whiz with Lincoln Logs, a toy from the 1950s consisting of interlocking pieces of plastic logs, building miniature cabins on the living room rug. His mom said he’d grow up to be an architect. 

When we were sophomores in high school, his brother died and a year later his father passed away. It was so sad, and I am sorry to say, we drifted apart.

He threw himself into his passion, the mechanical drawing class that was mandatory at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. It was clear he was good at it and that he loved what he was doing. He pushed himself to make those drawings as perfect as possible. His self-imposed requirements far exceeded those of his teacher. 

I had a clear view of his apartment from my bedroom window. I watched him work on his drawings at his dining room, his mother frequently looking over his shoulder, encouraging him and both straining to move on to a better future. 

My internet search revealed Larry got a Ph.D. and was dean and professor of architecture at a leading university, admired by colleagues and students. He has written books and authored many articles about urban design. My guess is that he still has a lot to give professionally – and I hope his personal life turned out well. His mom knew he was a born leader; a dreamer and a builder.

Stanley was about my height, 5 foot plus just a few inches more, which is to say not an asset for a junior high school kid when basketball was king. I wanted to get really good so I practiced shooting whenever I could. I was too small to grip the ball, so it was a no go for jump shots. Instead, I worked on what was in those days called a set shot, flat footed and methodical, always trying too hard to prove something to the always smirking “them.”

But Stanley had a wide infectious smile and was well liked. He’d stand under the basket during practice and get the rebounds and pass the ball out to his friends as they practiced their jump shots. 

I recall one boy, Michael, he already had armpit hair and a soft pack of Marlboro cigarettes rolled up about half way to his shoulder under his shirt sleeve. Stanley would snap the ball over to him and this kid would jump, hang in the air with his feet fluttering, and shoot, swish, hitting nothing but net. Man was he good, a sight to see, and I wonder where he is today. Stanley was often picked to play in the three-on-three games. He rarely, if ever, took a shot but he had this wicked bounce pass and he could get it right to his team mate for an easy layup.

My internet search showed Stanley is vice president of corporate citizenship for a major international company. He has been recognized for his humanitarian endeavors and philanthropic work worldwide; a good fit for a compassionate guy and team player.

It gives me pleasure to read about these two boyhood friends and to admire them for the qualities they showed early on, predictive of meaningful lives. They both worked hard to develop skills and use them in useful ways. They were decent students, don’t get me wrong, but what distinguished them from the many was what in today’s world sounds naïve – virtue. 

Maybe it is time to give humility and a cooperative spirit their due; and celebrate the unsung celebrities. I don’t know where you guys are these days, but I will raise my glass in appreciation of you, Stanley and Larry, many more good years. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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