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The Column: George H.W. Bush's death brings to mind a lesson in humility

Hey, Ma! Three goals! How about that?

This would be the young George H.W. Bush reporting to his mother, Dorothy, after a high school soccer game. One, two, three times had he knocked ball into net. Hooray for H.W.

Mom’s reply: “That’s nice, George, but how did the team do?”

Of all the stories attending the death last month of our 41st president, this one sticks out most for me — a mother reminding her boy to keep himself in perspective and exalt the common good.

It appears the future leader of the free world took heed, and regardless of how you judge H.W.’s tenure in office, we can all applaud the president’s steadfast refusal to serve as a signboard for himself.

This is an idea that goes well back into human history. “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels,” said St. Augustine, sometime between the fourth and fifth centuries.

More recently, the notion was echoed not only by Dorothy Bush, mother of a president-to-be, but by Winnie Bruning of Brooklyn, whose only child — me — has not so much as taken a White House tour.

On an assortment of issues related to ego and civic duty, Mom’s words still ring loud and clear.

“Give Jimmy a chance with that ball.” “Always get up for a lady on the subway.” “Never take the last candy in the box.” “Don’t interrupt.” “Hold the door.” “Help that person with the shopping bag.” And, mainly, “Don’t talk so much about yourself.”

Now, of course, you can so dutifully follow advice to put yourself second that you more or less disappear as a person, saying little or nothing, daring to take not even the next to last candy in the box, and so often offering a seat on the Q train or LIRR that you knock passengers over in the process and risk arrest.

Deferring too often also can get on people’s nerves.  

Driving my elder son to college one year, I stopped to help a fellow stalled at the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. On the Maryland Turnpike, I pulled over for another stranded motorist.

“Dad,” said my son. “If we keep this up the semester will be over by the time I get back to school.”

As with most of life, balance is the trick.

Ages ago, I worked at a magazine with a very nice fellow. He was a talented writer with wide overseas experience. He was friendly, kind and generous.

Problem was, the man could speak of little but himself.

He regaled colleagues with the same stories about fine restaurants in Europe and his exploits as a reporter and editor.

Ingeniously, he found a hook in everyone’s conversation that allowed him to once more mention the splendid escargot he had enjoyed in that swell Paris bistro or the time he met some of the continent’s most fabulous celebrities while covering one black tie event or another.

Co-workers quickly assessed the problem and either stayed clear of the fellow entirely, brought a bag lunch and nodded at what seemed appropriate intervals as he pressed ahead, or privately wondered whether there should be a staff intervention: Lure him to the conference room, lock the door, and begin reciting from memory his own stories until the poor man promised to seek professional help.    

Pop psychologists can take a whack at explaining why a person puts himself forward so relentlessly and identifying what childhood trauma — failure to win the fifth-grade Arbor Day essay contest; replaced as starting shortstop in favor of the coach’s son — might have prompted such frantic behavior.

In these days of social media, my old co-worker might not have seemed so odd. Everyone is his or her own publicist now, filling Facebook pages with the incidental updates of daily existence. “TGIF. Heading home to make root beer floats with Kahlua. Woo-hoo!”  

Against this mighty squall of selfdom we must hold fast.

One of the little kids in our family — a great grandchild! — wants a soccer ball and goal for Christmas. When I see the little fellow, I will surely encourage him to “Bend it Like Beckham,” play as hard as he can, score at every opportunity.

Then, in suitable pre-K language, I will summon the wisdom of Dorothy Bush, St. Augustine and dear Winnie Bruning. Don’t spout off, be true to your team, stay on the side of the angels.

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