Genius always gives its best at first; prudence, at last. -Seneca
Welles Crowther worked for Sandler O’Neill Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. And that’s exactly where he was on the morning of September 11, 2001 when the plane hit. Undaunted, Crowther, with a red bandanna covering his mouth and nose to protect him from the smoke, sprang into action. Witnesses report that he worked with a combination of intensity and calm to rescue people, re-entering the building three times. He is directly responsible for saving the lives of at least 18 people.
The fact that he made it out of the inferno three times when so many didn’t make it out at all is remarkable enough. But that he went back three times to help others is the epitome of heroism. Six months after the South Tower collapsed, the body of this hero was finally recovered in what had been the lobby, along with members of the New York Fire Department with whom he had joined forces. They were trying to go back up once more with a “jaws of life” tool to free victims trapped under rubble.
Courage? Crowther was the very embodiment of it. But I want to focus on another virtue he displayed that day: prudence.
Prudence is about putting “first things first”; it is the virtue that guides sound judgment. Some might quietly and respectfully question the “sound judgment” of a man who would go back into a collapsing sky scraper three times. Back up the stairs as people rushed out. Back into the smoke, and fire, and horror, and death.
But prudence isn’t about playing it safe. We’re talking about virtue here, not the basic rules of accounting. Welles Crowther went back again, and again, and again because it was who he had become.
Crises don’t make or break people, they reveal people. And long before September 11, 2001 became synonymous with both evil and heroism, Crowther was figuring out what it meant to make good decisions, judgments that were based on more than just emotion, and ease, and self. In the home and in the classroom, on the athletic field and with friends, as a boy scout and eventually an investment banker and a volunteer firefighter…in a thousand little ways, he learned to put first things first. He learned to focus and stay focused on what was most important, most essential at any given moment.
“Genius always gives its best at first; prudence, at last.”
In the last hour of his life, Welles Crowther made the sound judgment that saving lives was what he was supposed to do…first things first. Not because he had to, but because he could.
And the demons shuddered, and the angels bowed.
Questions for reflection:
Do you put “first things first”?
Who models the virtue of prudence for you? How?
What is one thing you can begin doing to practice the virtue of prudence?