An epitaph on a life of service

They say your first boss is your most memorable one – the one that shows you the ropes about what work means and how to do it. This is not about my first boss, but my most memorable one. She wasn’t even my boss for particularly long, but only for the few months of a summer internship at the European Parliament. But she passed on some lessons to me that I might not always have been able to live up to, but I sure as anything never forgot.

It was the summer after my first year at Oxford, and my time in Brussels seemed to start under an ill omen: the turbine cowling of the plane I flew in on detached during landing, leaving the travelers on the starboard side seated around the wing screaming like a class of schoolkids on a rollercoaster. For that reason, we had to land at a divert field, which was out in the middle of nowhere, and my escort, whose phone number I did not know, was waiting for me at the other airport. My entry passes weren’t ready. And, of course, not only was I late for my first day because I inherited my father’s inability to read a map, I also had a whole flock of butterflies in my stomach.

“You’ve… grown!”, I heard her say immediately as she saw me. I hastily tried to recall when we last met – it was, I eventually recollected, more than half decade earlier, at a state dinner during her tenure as ambassador to Vienna, to which my father let me tag along, that we last saw each other. Her husband, a keen yachtsman, quite enjoyed having someone to ‘talk shop’ with, something he certainly did not seem to have had much occasion to in Vienna. And there I was, so many years later, in an almost entirely different world – she was now an MEP,1 I finished my first year in Oxford a few weeks earlier. I have gone from a chubby four-foot-something to a muscular 6’2″, no doubt helped by my physically and mentally intense freshman year. And with that single sentence, she dispelled all my anxiety and apprehension.

In retrospect, it’s silly how something so irrelevant could put me at ease immediately. I would learn, eventually, that this was part of her superpower. She was not a career politician. She was not a career diplomat, though she could be plenty diplomatic. She was far from a career Eurocrat. But she had the skill to put everyone at ease, find a voice with a range of people and say the right thing every time. In my personal diary, I wrote this about her style: “she could talk to butterflies.2 And that included not merely her ability to talk to everyone of all ranks and stripes, but a character that earned a begrudging respect even from her fiercest rivals.

She was not a believer in equal opportunities, but in fairness to all and responsibility according to merit. With my area of responsibility focusing on the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research and the Galileo GPS network, not only did she not mind taking advice and asking questions from a barely twentysomething intern, she relished it. The same went for everyone else – she took pleasure in learning new things and she enjoyed how such occasions confirmed that she picked right people for her staff. I would run meetings with experts, talk to stakeholders, write draft legislation and be the last to leave the office. And we had a blast.

On the last day on the job, she took me for a stroll across Parc Léopold, sheltering in the shadow of the European Parliament’s Hémicycle and the Solvay library.3 Others, I suppose, did appraisals – she bought us some French fries from a nearby stall, sat me down on a bench and taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life. I remember every moment like it is seared into my mind, and I hope never to forget her words.

“Service,” she would say, “is not about doing a job for a paycheck. It’s not about doing a job for the money. It’s not doing a job for the perks. Many will wonder why you chose to serve rather than being served. Some will make you feel unappreciated. But if I thought you’re after the easy path or if I thought you couldn’t handle watching others have an easier time, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“You see,” she said, tossing a few French fries to the hungry ducks, “service is about doing what is right, because it’s the right thing and because you’re the right person to do it, and damn the consequences. And more often than not, it will be hard, unpleasant and sometimes even painful. You need to remember why you’re doing what it is you’re doing.”

“Now, I don’t know what you’ll end up doing,” she continued, almost as if she had somehow sensed my incipient misgivings about a career in public office. “But I know that you want to serve. I know that you want to do well, at all costs. I know that you want to see the job through. I know you want to do it with courage and honour, whomever or whatever you serve – your family, your nation, your people, or even humanity. And I know you chose that life out of your own volition, knowing it won’t be easy. But I also know there’s nothing on God’s green Earth that could make you happy other than service.”

“So find where you’re needed, run towards the fire, and don’t ever forget why you’re doing what you do.”

“Don’t you ever forget.”

It’s been many long years since that talk, and much has changed. I’ve climbed mountains and dug my way out of holes to find my way to that service that will sustain me. Her words have echoed with every reveille and with every moment on the verge of falling asleep on the keyboard, with every mile run and with every triumph and every failure. And if I am ever blessed to have children, I hope I will have the chance to pass this simple yet deep wisdom on to them.

As I write this, a cold, chilly, clear February winter night’s winds howl outside. I can hear the soft breathing of my gorgeous wife next to me, and the tiny snores of our kitten at the foot of the bed, occasionally stirring. And tomorrow is another day, another challenges and another set of service.

Dr. Barsi Pataky Etelka ran the course, and ran it with courage, strength and a commitment to service I have not often witnessed. Born in 1941, she trained as an architect and engineer. In 1990, with the fall of the communist terror regime, she would enter the political arena, eventually spending a tenure in Parliament and serving as Hungary’s ambassador to Vienna. In 2003, she was among the first batch of MEPs elected from Hungary, and became responsible for Europe’s ATC research and the development of Galileo, the EU’s global geospatial positioning system. Since 2009, she has been President of the Hungarian Chamber of Engineering and since 2010, a Governmental Commissioner for the Danube Regional Strategy. Dr. Barsi Pataky passed away yesterday, at the age of 77.

She has been married to the love of her life, the engineer, merchant and life-long legendary yachtsman István Barsi, for 44 years, until his death in 2012. Theirs was a kind of love that young men aspire to for their older days; a love that carried both of them through stormy waters.

To those she allowed in her confidence and mentored, however briefly, she will never be gone. She will be there, in our consciences and our thoughts, encouraging us to find where we are supposed to be of service and do so. And as long as we try to do our duty, as the Lord and our skills and talents give us the light to see it, she will live on.

References   [ + ]

1.Member of the European Parliament
2.That’s not to be taken literally. It is from a Kipling poem called True Royalty:

There was never a Queen like Balkis,
From here to the wide world’s end;
But Balkis talked to a butterfly
As you would talk to a friend.

There was never a King like Solomon,
Not since the world began;
But Solomon talked to a butterfly
As a man would talk to a man.

She was Queen of Sabaea—
And he was Asia’s Lord
But they both of ’em talked to butterflies
When they took their walks abroad.

3.Famous for being the scene of the Solvay Conferences, including the Fifth Solvay Conference, commemorated in the immortal photo that has basically all luminaries of interbellum physics.