Genuis. Ray Charles. Ronald Reagan. You.

On this the day of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, the obituary of Ray Charles made the front page of the New York Times. While different in almost every respect, these two men had in common the discovery of their personal “genius,” as defined in the dictionary. “The peculiar structure of mind with which each individual is endowed by nature; that disposition or aptitude of mind which is peculiar to each man, and which qualifies him for certain kinds of action or special success in any pursuit; special taste, inclination, or disposition; as, a genius for history, for poetry, or painting.”

Last night on Larry King, Colin Powell commented that Reagan’s most memorable quality was his absolute clarity about who he was; everything he accomplished flowed from his sense of self-identity.

Ray Charles succeeded for the same reason. Rolling Stone music editor Joe Levy commented, “Ray Charles is the guy who combined the sacred and the secular, he combined gospel music and the blues. He’s called a genius because no one could confine him to one genre. He wasn’t just rhythm and blues. He was jazz as well. In the early 60’s he turned himself into a country performer. Except for B. B. King, there’s no other figure who’s been as important or has endured so long The hit records he made for Atlantic in the mid-50’s mapped out everything that would happen to rock ‘n’ roll and soul music in the years that followed.”

What was the secret of Charles success?

First, he was born with talent, “I was born with music inside me. That’s the only explanation I know of.” The belief that he had something to contribute took him from the deep south the Seattle where he found acceptance and forged some lifelong friendships, including his best with Quincy Jones.

Second, He identified what his unique talent was and figured out how to make a living with it. “When I started out I tried to imitate Nat Cole because I loved him so much. But then I woke up one morning and I said, `People tell me all the time that I sound like Nat Cole, but wait a minute, they don’t even know my name.’ As scared as I was because I got jobs sounding like Nat Cole I just said, `Well, I’ve got to change because nobody knows who I am.’ And my Mom taught me one thing, `Be yourself, boy.’ And that’s the premise I went on.”

His unique talent carried him beyond racism [ “What I never understood to this day, to this very day, was how white people could have black people cook for them, make their meals, but wouldn’t let them sit at the table with them,. How can you dislike someone so much and have them cook for you? Shoot, if I don’t like someone you ain’t cooking nothing for me, ever”] and straight through his blindness which he said took nothing away from him. [Nothing, nothing, nothing. I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. I played music since I was 3. I could see then. I lost my sight when I was 7. So blindness didn’t have anything to do with it. It didn’t give me anything. And it didn’t take nothing.]

In an imitative age, the truly great ones share in common the good fortune of having discovered their “talent” and the commitment to pursue it passionately. Good words during the graduation season when young people embark on life’s road, needing more than anything the clarity of knowing their genius and the tenacity to pursue it despite the risks and elusiveness of immediate rewards.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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