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There’s No Such Thing As “Sort Of” Unique: What You and I Should Learn From My Grandfather

Me and my grandfather, Dr. Seymour Wheelock MD

(by Tom Brainard) I am humbled by my grandfather’s accomplishments and honored to have even an arm’s length association with his impact on others throughout his career. I can hardly begin this post without tears running down my face as I consider the scale at which I feel that. I think of my eclectic career, nay job choices thus far and I find little relative worth. Not that I seek pity, mind you. It’s just that in this day and age of scrambling for the next big thing, trying to get rich without really trying and be the guy who invented the thing that everybody wants is essentially useless when one compares such efforts with that of someone like Dr. Seymour Wheelock, my grandfather.

Now the tears are flowing pretty good, so I must have struck a chord of truth here. Do you have someone like this in your life? Chances are you do. You may have to let down your own fictitious guard for a few moments so that your heart can send out the memo, but it is likely that you have been inspired like this, or at least have gazed upon the life’s work of another close to you and thought, “Wow. Just. Wow.” (If you don’t then we need to find you one.)

Here I am, Thomas Nicholas Wheelock Brainard, son of triumphs and failures, husband of beauty, brother to anger and pride and father to nothing. I am 34. I have spit out the words “passionate” and “inspire” and “drive” on countless cover letters and in soliloquies innumerable. I have posed as a writer, a seller of unecessaries, a farcical actor and seeker of love, or lover of seeking. But what have I really given to this world, this evolution of souls trying to ascend to greatness in whatever fashion? What is tangible that I can state as my gift to this? I have no idea, which likely means not much, which leads me to this next thought:


Without it I am small. When I have felt it, spoken of it in hushed voices to myself or watched it flourish in the hands of my heroes I have thought, “If I can just find a sense of purpose in what I’m doing, than it won’t really matter what I’m doing.” I tried that when I was hired as an insurance agent. I hated every minute of that year long job. I am sure there are insurance people out there that do derive a real sense of purpose from what they do. I did not and I think it is a very difficult thing to do in that industry. As I am sure happens to everyone, I spent that time just surviving and pretending to enjoy things and stuff and sales and beige.

Again I go back to my trite movie references. Why the hell do you think we all love movies? Because they are built on idealism, passion and for the characters involved, if they are good characters portrayed by capable actors, they illustrate purpose. Think Schindler’s List, or even Avatar. You indy film nerds may laugh, but Avatar is built on simple, core roots of purpose, not on effects. James Cameron is a genius at that kind of narrative construction, “purpose and passion for the masses.” Even I, as I script this mediocre vent session, realize that I am trying to conjure some sense of real purpose and passion in my own life through a blog, one of history’s most talk-too-much-without-actually-doing anything forms off communication.

What does real communication about purpose look like? My grandfather. He seldom if ever gave unsolicited advice. He remained soft-spoken in general. His everyday, unceasing, gentle actions spoke on his behalf in a manner to be awed. He is the kind that don’t get made much anymore. The kind that this absurdly paced world lacks as a foundation.


Illustration from "Wild Greens" - Dr. Seymour Wheelock MD

An Aside: You are unlikely to read this linked article that describes a particular baffling emergency that my grandfather handled during his time as an Assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth. However I will include here the brief bio at the bottom of that article – From Wild Greens: A Prologue and Epilogue to a Perilous Tale, Dartmouth Magazine Spring, 2006

Wheelock, a 1940 graduate of Dartmouth College, returned to Hanover twice—for an internship at Mary Hitchcock Hospital in 1944-45 and as an assistant professor of pediatrics from 1962 to 1966. He is now a professor emeritus of clinical pediatrics at the University of Colorado and director emeritus of ambulatory services at Denver Children’s Hospital. He has written several previous features for Dartmouth Medicine—most recently, for the Fall 2002 issue, about campus dissension in the 1770s regarding smallpox vaccination. Wheelock’s capabilities encompass the visual as well as the literary arts—he also drew the illustrations on the following pages.


There is no pissing match here. Resumes come and go. This is a great one to be sure, certainly more pointed than mine. But what is really of note is a life’s work built on a quiet passion, a passion perhaps unrivaled in my recollection. My grandfather was a man of doing, not talking. That is becoming a lost art. Without exception, when I meet people who know him, and there are a lot of those people, they will always mention with some sentiment how much they respect him and my grandmother, or how wonderful he is, or how much he did for them or their child. You see he was a pediatrician. He was a doctor for children. His career spanned many cities and many years, military service and civilian. He made little money relative to what most doctors make. That was not the goal. He made an impact on thousands of lives for the better and without preaching at all. Perhaps that was the goal and if so then I have to think his quiet yet unshakeable sense of purpose forged the path, leaving only accolades and praise as exhaust, and he was inexhaustible for the duration.

Cut to modern day, techno social, ADHD … I mean I am a fan of “5 Ways to be a better person” and “15 methods to improve your sales pitch and be a really much better person” kind of Tony Robbins-esque feel good babble. But it is all talk and type and bits and bytes of a repurposed value system that isn’t reflective of what really makes a difference, because it reeks of someone else doing it and not you. You’re just listening, see.

But by god when a real life example of true purpose in action shows up as someone in your life whom you love and respect, it gives one pause as to what a system of values really looks like in human form. It’s awesome. It’s better than that. It has no language to describe it adequately, because to talk about it would be it’s exact counterpoint. It just is.

Seymour Wheelock listens to Robert Frost read his poetry

I started writing this because I was thinking about this photograph, in which my grandfather was able to sit in a room with Robert Frost and listen to him read poetry. How he must have been inspired by that, watching someone read his own, epic creations resulting from his own, epic actions. Perhaps I am a lucky grandson to have been inspired by someone who was inspired by someone like Robert Frost. I hope you are astonishingly fortunate enough to know someone like Robert Frost, like my grandfather. You’re damn right I’m comparing them as equals. And if you do know someone like that, you’d better get off your ass and honor him or her.

As I write this right now, I am sitting in my apartment, hat in hand as in no time previous, having made a choice to go after a life of purpose, to be in action, without two lines of credit to rub together. I am armed with a bold choice to leave a life more comfortable, an experience of many successes and perhaps more failures, gleaning wisdom from every step. I am focused on making a life of accomplishment and happiness for my wife I love more than she knows and my family that we have yet to create. I am unstoppable in the notion that I will honor Dr. Seymour Wheelock and those who came before him, who aided him in his own sense of purpose. I will do that by inspiring in the only way that has measurable results; by being in action. I have to because I cannot sit upon my death bed (pray I be lucky to have such a moment on my death bed) and think of my grandfather and have let him down. He worked harder than anyone I have ever known. I cannot hope to match his total dedication to his craft but I can get close. I can work to affect those that I serve. To allow them success and empower them and give them tools that I can provide. Maybe I have done some of that already. I hope so. I hope he sees me as that. My father died when I was six. My grandfather literally took his place and I cannot pretend to value that as a bad thing.

In my work now I peruse thousands of words a day about what people have to offer and what is the best thing going. There is so much wisdom and quotation flying around the internet that even the most noted words of our time become diluted in space. I should know, I add to it.

I just hope that I can generate things that are measurable and that do for others what my grandfather did for others. He enhanced lives, protected lives and was hero to many.

He said to me some time ago, “There’s no such thing as ‘sort of’ unique.” He’s right, of course. There is no one even sort of as great to me as my grandfather.

(Forgive the spelling or grammar fudges, as they don’t really matter.)

– Tom Brainard is the founder of Bolder Media, an Interactive Strategy Consultancy for business, social actions and non-profits.

7 comments on “There’s No Such Thing As “Sort Of” Unique: What You and I Should Learn From My Grandfather

  1. laura
    January 31, 2011

    Fabulous, Tom. Your grandfather is an amazing man – any of his patients were lucky to have him. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting him – and reading more here 🙂

  2. Pingback: Got Momentum? Quote O’ The Day: Mr. King on Physics + Business | Bolder Media

  3. Regina Richardson
    February 17, 2011


    Why don’t you write a screenplay or theatrical play about your grandfather? Perhaps you could do for pediatricians what “To Kill a Mockingbird” did for lawyers.

    Ken Coors of SCORE suggested I google you, and I found this and your Linked In info. Will e-mail you through the latter.

  4. Nancy McPherson Glasgow
    November 14, 2011


    No need to tell you how I stumbled upon your piece, but just to say I was one of the lucky ones that knew Dr. Wheelock when I worked at Children’s Hospital in the 1970s. He was an amazing man – mentor, artist, historian. Maybe best to say a renaissance man. He always left you with something to think about. I was just a graphic artist there, but he always showed an interest in what I was doing and had to say. I’m thankful for his influence and memories of that special time. Thanks for sharing your article about this lovely, unique man.


    • boldermedia
      June 17, 2012

      I am so sorry I missed this comment unit just now. You have made my day and I can’t wait to dictate this to my grandfather. He will no doubt be incredibly moved that you remember him in that way. He was very proud of Childrens and his work there and I think it’s awesome that he impacted people this way. THANK YOU for writing this comment.

  5. Therr
    June 7, 2012

    Applause. I found this while searching on Mashable. Thanks for writing a lovely piece about action, purpose and honor. Just what I needed today.

    • boldermedia
      June 17, 2012

      VERY happy that you found it and that it had even a small impact. I have been inspired by a couple of these comments to get back to writing after a long time away. Thank you for leaving this comment. 🙂

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This entry was posted on January 31, 2011 by in Thoughts on Intrepid Endeavors.


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