Growing up I would often get the question, “Are you Bill Russell’s son?” I would say yes and then they would get a huge smile and begin saying incredible things about him. One man simply said, “You’re Bill Russell’s son? You must be very proud. Your father is a great man.” It was obvious to me at a young age that there was something very different about my father. He truly loved people and showed it through kindness and generosity. And fortunately, he was the same man at home as he was publicly.
I witnessed my fathers kindness and generosity to others many times while working for him in the real estate business. I actually criticized him at one point because every time I turned around he was dropping his commission for someone. When I let him know that I thought he was being taken advantage of he simply replied, “Son, sometimes people just need a little help in life…a little help getting on their feet.” Being young I assumed that everyone he was dealing with was wealthy or at least had plenty of money. However, I learned differently when I watched a grown man cry after my father sold his $500,000 piece of property for a zero commission (that was a huge deal in West Virginia in the 1980s)! Dad later told me the man had gone through a heartbreaking divorce, lost his business, and was headed toward bankruptcy. So, one of the big lessons I learned from my father at that moment (and many others) is that your love for money should never outweigh your love for others. And when I say “others” I mean all others.
My favorite story, which I believe demonstrates my father’s love for others, comes from my time in college. When I attended West Virginia State University I often got the question, “Are you Bill Russell’s son” and once I said yes I was treated differently. Differently as in I graduated without ever taking college algebra! As in, I was nominated and listed on Who’s Who Among American College Students with a 2.5 grade point average! And I wasn’t naïve enough to think this was because of my brains or good looks. So, one day while in the elevator with a professor (who had once again “bent over backwards” to help me) I said, “I don’t understand why you and the rest of the staff have been so kind to me, but I really appreciate it.” She looked me in the eye and said, “Tony, if it wasn’t for your father most of us wouldn’t have been able to buy our first home. Your dad was the only banker in the area who would loan money to black folks.” You see, West Virginia State University was at one time an “all black college.” My father often told me of his deep respect for the professors there whom he knew worked twice as hard as “whites” to get a good education and pursue the American dream.
Before owning a real estate company my father was the vice-president and president of a local bank, and used his position to help others. When I told him what my professor had said about him you could see the confusion in his eyes. He said, “Well, I knew they were good for it.” The color of their skin never weighed in on his decision to loan them money. He then said, “When I was growing up I really didn’t think there was a big difference between me and black folks. I just knew we were both poor.”
My hope is that my short blog about my father reminds us that regardless of our religious preference, sexual preference, or the color of our skin we aren’t really that different. We need to focus on caring for one another, and offering a helping hand when we are able. Find someone this holiday season who could use a little help in life…a little help getting back on their feet. Life is easier when we all do it together.
Bill Russell’s Son,