From Heartache to Hope


This post is dedicated to the five people that lost their lives and the many that were affected by the events at the Fort Lauderdale airport on January 6, 2017.

January 6th began like so many other travel days for me. After keynoting an event the night before, I woke up, packed my belongings from the hotel where I was staying, grabbed breakfast with some new friends I had met while at the event, and later that morning caught an Uber ride to the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Flying virtually every week, I have my routine down, and could probably find my way through a number of airports with my eyes closed and my headphones on. Simply put, the day started like so many others, but in a few short hours it would quickly become a day that I’d never forget.After traveling to the airport with a group of three others from the event, we worked our way through security, grabbed a coffee, and discussed our trips home for a few moments. A few handshakes later, I was off to my gate in terminal 2, as out of our group, my flight was the first one out and I was set to travel back home to Philadelphia, with a brief layover in Atlanta. I boarded like I’d done hundreds of times prior, checked in on social media from the Fort Lauderdale airport, and it was wheels up soon thereafter.About an hour later, as my plane descended into Atlanta, my phone began to buzz – seemingly nonstop. I actually thought that someone was calling the moment I gained reception. I pulled the phone out of my pocket, and saw that it wasn't ringing, but was messages coming through - 27 messages to be exact.

“Are you still there?” was the one I saw first.

“Are you okay? Please respond,” was next.My heart stopped. It was obvious something had happened during my short flight from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta. I quickly began searching on my phone and the breaking headlines sent chills down my spine.

“Shooter at the Fort Lauderdale airport.”

“Breaking: Unknown number of dead and wounded in Fort Lauderdale.”

“Authorities searching for a possible second shooter in Fort Lauderdale.”

I had a hard time holding back the tears.As we landed, word on our plane started to spread about the shooting that had just occurred – in Terminal 2, the same Delta terminal we had just left. Although I was never remotely in harm’s way, I will admit, I was shaken to the core. This tragedy hit too close to home.Walking to my gate, I furiously responded to messages, starting first with my family members that were texting and calling. As I approached my gate, I noticed the heavy police presence that was developing in the terminal. I stood there quietly, yet shaken on the inside. I’ll admit, it’s hard to describe what goes through one’s mind during those moments.A few minutes later, the thoughts that ran through my mind were disrupted by an older gentleman’s voice who was singing softly about ten feet behind me. His deep, southern, black male voice, and the gospel music he was singing were both calming and reassuring. When I turned around, I noticed that he was sitting there, ready to shine the shoes of any of the many travelers that crossed his path that day. When we exchanged glances, he gave me a bright, warm smile, and asked,

“Can I help you today, Sir?”

“You already have, Sir.”

I responded.I can tell you that traveling every week, I’ve walked past hundreds of people that shine shoes, and he’s the first one that has ever managed to catch my attention for more than just a moment. So, I figured it’d be worth the $8 posted on his sign, walked towards him, and told him that it’d be an honor if he’d be willing to shine my shoes. For me, it was about far more than needing my shoes cleaned early that afternoon. This man radiated hope and with the thoughts racing through my mind, I knew that I could sure use it.The man with the warm smile and a great gospel voice, gave me a firm handshake, grabbed my luggage, wiped off my seat, and began to do his thing. I’ll admit that the thought of paying someone else to shine my shoes as I traveled seemed a bit awkward. But for me, in that moment, his song and warm smile were exactly what I needed. I felt compelled to talk to this man, as his songs had pulled me from the sad and emotional thoughts I was having only a few minutes earlier.

The ten minutes I would spend with Gus, a wonderful man that shines shoes for a living, were ten minutes that I’ll never forget.

Gus began by taking a good look at my shoes – from top to bottom, from front to back. As only he could, he let out a small chuckle and said, “Boy, your shoes need some work! Let me take good care of you.”

Needing the laugh, I let Gus know how much I appreciated him and thanked him for being so friendly. I then asked Gus how long he had been shining shoes.

“26 great years!” he responded.In knowing I could learn something from this wise man, I smiled and said, “Wow, I’m honored to have such an experienced veteran helping me. Tell me Gus…what’s made the years great?”

Gus looked me right in the eye, smiled, and said, “Son, life is short. You’ve got to have fun and love life every day. I love the work that I get to do. I could have retired years ago, but I love helping people and don’t want to stop.”

I’ll humbly admit, through my own biased lens, when I woke up that morning, I certainly would not have put shining shoes at an airport on the top of my work bucket list. Yet, Gus did just that and in the next few moments, I’d begin to see how this fine man was following his passion of helping people – every day. For the next ten minutes, Gus communicated exactly what he was doing, why he was using different cleaners, why he was using certain polishes, and how it would definitely help me “look sharp” for my trip back home. For those ten minutes, I watched this older man, probably in his late 70’s, take enormous pride in his work. I could tell Gus was doing everything he could, even down to the detailed work with a cotton swab, to ensure that every inch of my previously beat up shoes – looked brand new. For those ten minutes, I felt like the most important customer in the world. Gus literally wanted me to shine. Before finishing the job, Gus looked at his work from different angles; both up close and from a few feet away, and when he was personally satisfied, looked at me and said something to the effect of, “So Tom, I think you look sharp and are ready to go get on that airplane. What do you think? Are you happy with it or is there something I can do to make it better?”

I’ll admit, I was blown away. Those ten minutes with Gus caused me to reflect not just on education, but on life itself. I pulled out my wallet and didn’t pay him the $8 plus tip that he was owed. I felt so compelled to give him all that I had. He had taken such great care of me and the very least I could do was take great care of him in return.

“Gus, my friend, you are an amazing man, and as the dad of two young kids, I hope someday they turn out to be just like you. Thank you for making my day and for the privilege of giving me the world's best shoe shine. Now take your beautiful wife out on a date – on me. Gus, you did far more than you realize. Thank you, my friend.”

With that, I boarded the flight to Philadelphia and began to write down a few notes; things that I had just learned from the man that shined my shoes. I'll call them Lessons from Gus. 

So, to my own two babies, Paisley and Caden, as you grow, I’d love for you to be just like Gus. Here’s why…

1. Gus made the day of and altered the mindset of a complete stranger.
His radiance of hope drew me towards him at a time that I really needed it. In a few short minutes, he brought me from heartache to hope, without ever realizing what I had on my heart the moment he asked if he could help.

Lesson: Our interactions with complete strangers can be life changing and we may never even know it. Make every interaction, even with those you may not know, count. You’ll never know the battles others may be facing at that very moment you have the chance to help them.

2. Gus loved his work and his passion radiated.
For every second of our interaction, it was obvious that Gus loved what he did. It was clear that he aimed to be the very best at his craft.

Lesson: Whatever it is in life that you may choose to do, lead with passion and never settle for anything less than your very best. Let the love of your work radiate to inspire others to pay it forward.

3. Gus took ownership of his work and his attention to detail was impeccable.
Gus wanted things to be perfect for those he served and for his work to exceed their expectations. He exemplified true customer service. The attention to detail that Gus gave to my shoes lead me to believe he was the very best in the world at shining shoes.

Lesson: Own your actions and know they speak volumes more than words ever will. Do everything to the very best of your ability, as trivial as a task may seem, give it your all. It may be your only, or last, opportunity to do so.

4. Gus’s happiness came from serving others, loving his family, and his own mindset.
Although I could be wrong, I’m guessing as a professional shoe shiner, Gus isn’t very wealthy by the world’s definition. But his priorities and mindset, in my opinion, made him one of the wealthiest people I’ve ever met.

Lesson: Your mindset matters. Surround yourself with positive people who have a “can do” mentality. Most importantly, know that true happiness does not come from material things or large salaries; but from family, relationships, working in your passions, and loving others.

5. Gus made me feel like the most important customer in the world every moment we were together.
In a world filled with every possible distraction, and directly in the midst of the chaos of one of the busiest airports in the world,

Gus made me feel like I was the only one that mattered when I was with him. He wasn’t distracted on his cell phone, looking at all those that passed, or talking to his nearby coworker. He was focused on me and completely present with his customer.

Be present. Every moment you’re awake is a chance to build a relationship with someone, somewhere, and to show another person, even one you may not know – that they matter. As I drove home a few hours later, I kept the radio off as I reflected on the tragic events that had happened that morning in Fort Lauderdale, prayed for my friends that remained locked down at the airport, and finally, on my ten-minute interaction with Gus, a man whose mindset and life experience taught me far more than I could repay that afternoon during a layover in Atlanta.Later that day, my little girl came running in from school, excited about her day and anxious to share all that had happened. Her innocence and love for others radiated. I hugged her tight and tried not to allow her to see my tears that flowed like rain. I knew that someday her little world would be exposed to the types of evil that occurred that morning where my day began; the type of evil that took the lives of five innocent people only a few hours prior – five people who had stories and whose lives mattered. As I held her tight, I mourned for those lost and felt a deep sadness. Yet, during those moments, I felt a sense of hope.As I stood in the middle of my kitchen with my arms around my little angel, I felt that sense of hope...because of people like Gus. I believe that even in our chaotic world, good will prevail and it’s people like Gus that will make it happen.

Thank you, Gus, for helping me be a better educator and a better dad for Paisley and Caden.
Thank you, Gus, for on that dark January day filled with sadness, you gave me hope.

All for the kids we serve,