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Home Ohio River Roots
Things I Learned From a River

By Robert G. Lees
ImageAt one o’clock in the afternoon on the 13th of February, 1949, in the small village of New Richmond, county of Clermont in the state of Ohio, in a home on the banks of the Ohio River, I came screaming into this world.  All 11 pounds and 13 ounces of me.  From that day forward, and through all of my formative years, the view outside my bedroom window on the second floor of our home was that of the river.  Not just any river, but the beautiful Ohio –– my river.  From as early as I can remember the river has been a major part of who I am.  It clearly helped to shape the person I have become.  The river was a constant, important presence in my youth, offering me great comfort in the fact that it was, had always been and always would be there for me.
Sometimes today when I fly across the continent, the route takes me over the Ohio River Valley.  I can’t help but press my face against the window looking down from 38,000 feet on a river winding its way through countryside and cities and past villages from Pittsburgh, where it begins, to Cairo, Illinois, where its light green waters join the muddy Mississippi.  During the handful of minutes while the river is in sight, I completely forget the work I should be doing or the meeting I will be attending when I land.  My thoughts go back fondly to a much simpler time, my days growing up alongside this major waterway.  One thing I know for sure is that this great river of my youth continues to be an important part of me today, even when I now make my home on an island in the middle of an ocean fed by other great rivers.

As a young boy, much to my mother’s displeasure, I would frequently escape to the riverbank for enjoyment.  I’d skip stones, flat and smooth from miles and miles of travel along the bottom when the river was running fast.  I’d spend time fishing, occasionally hooking a catfish, river perch or bluegill.  I have always hoped, but never in my life have I actually caught a bass.  On the riverbank, my siblings and buddies and I built fortresses out of willow branches and horseweeds and dug foxholes, pretending to defend our town from “invaders” from upriver or from Kentucky, on the opposite shore. 

I once built a makeshift raft upriver and rode it downstream to my home only to then to watch it drift out of sight after I jumped off and swam to shore.  I learned from that experience that I’d probably never be a great ship’s captain.

Once, after figuring out that firecrackers, then illegal in Ohio, were available at a small country store just across the river in Kentucky, I stuffed some old shorts, a T-shirt and shoes into a very large pickle jar and dog paddled across the river, turning a $5 investment into $15 in sales of firecrackers to my buddies.  I guess I learned my love of adventure and developed my entrepreneurial spirit from the river.

Mostly, however, my time on the river was spent just pondering life.  I’d sit for long stretches on a log tossing pebbles into the water, watching the circles grow ever wider as the ripples grew thinner until they completely disappeared.  I remember looking the three quarters of a mile across to Kentucky, a place so close, yet so far away.  A place where my mother’s family spoke with beautiful Southern accents, saying “ya’ll” instead of just “you.”  The river kept us from daily contact with family over there but this separation made my great aunts’ and cousins’ fried chicken, home-made pies and warm hospitality seem all the more wonderful whenever we’d cross over by ferry boat to visit them.

I also remember gazing upstream, wondering where the river came from, and then downstream, wondering where it went.  There is no doubt in my mind that my curiosity, my urge to explore other places, meet new friends and experience things outside my little world, flowed from my desire to learn where the river could take me. 

ImageThe river also gave me a great appreciation for history.  I looked at the buildings in my hometown, most of which were built in the early to mid-1800s when my village was a bustling center of steamboat commerce.  I learned that my river had been the major artery that brought European and East Coast settlers not only to live in our Ohio Valley but also to populate the entire western part of the United States.

The river brought people with diverse backgrounds and nationalities together with the common promise of a better life for themselves and their children.  Initially they were of French and English extraction, and then came the Irish and the German Catholics, who were fleeing religious persecution in their native lands.
I could understand how these people and their heirs were tolerant.  They worked valiantly before the Civil War to help runaway slaves escape from Kentucky, where slavery was legal, to Ohio, where it was not.  I took pride in learning that in the 1830s, The Philanthropist, the very first newspaper in the country dedicated solely to the abolition of slavery, was printed just a block from my birthplace and that the early abolitionist doctor who delivered the baby who grew up to become General, and then President, Ulysses S. Grant had lived just three houses down from ours.

In my hometown white people live in harmony with black people, many of whose ancestors had crossed the sometimes frozen Ohio toward signal lanterns in the windows of the abolitionists who lived on my street.  The river gave me pride in town and in country.  The river taught me tolerance.

Living near the river gave me a deep sense of respect for Mother Nature.  There is nothing more beautiful than watching the seasons change along the banks of this great and, usually, tranquil river.  Lime-green willow buds, pussy willows, redbud and wild violets in the spring; the lush, almost tropical, green of summer; and the yellow and red leaves of maples and towering sycamore trees in autumn.  On occasion the river would freeze in winter.  Ice from bank to snowy bank would create a winter wonderland.  It was so wonderfully tempting during those cold winters for a young boy to walk out on the frozen waterway, ice creaking and cracking underfoot until he is caught by the watchful eye of a mother in shock and made to spend the rest of his day and night in his room.

I learned from an early age that while nature is beautiful, it can also be destructive.  The runoff from late winter snowmelt and heavy rain sometimes combined to push the river over its banks, flooding our village and with it our home.  Just as the peaceful Ohio is a part of my life, so is the rampaging, uncontrollable Ohio.  Memories of praying for the rain to stop, packing up our possessions, moving in with relatives –– more and more of whom lived in the hills as the years went by –– and then returning to find our home and village in as much as 10 inches of mud, is another experience that stays with me.

But what I remember most about the floods is that they got us all to work together.  Our all-volunteer fire department would be there to evacuate those who were caught in their homes by the rising river, and then, after the water receded, to hose down our streets and lend themselves and their pumps to families in need.  Every member of the family would pitch in to help each other, and when our homes were clean, we’d all go help our neighbors.  It was the neighbor-helping-neighbor activities that I most remember about those difficult times. 

The flooding river taught me to appreciate life and to take time to help others.  It built a strong work ethic.  It taught me to be prepared for the unexpected and gave me an awareness, which remains with me today, that the fruits of your labor can be quickly swept away.  I also learned that things that are beautiful and good can sometimes turn ugly and bad.  But that good will come from bad unless you choose otherwise.

ImageI’m convinced that people who grow up on a river are different.  When we were young, students from neighboring village schools far from the river would taunt us, calling us river town boys “strange.”  They said we had river water in our veins and flood mud between our toes.  Looking back now, I like to think they were envious, jealous that they had no a river to live by, fish in and skip stones on.  Nor a partner with which to ponder life and to help build character and values.

I still love the feeling of squishing mud between my toes, and I’m very proud to say that I learned life’s lessons from a river.
Robert G. Lees followed the Ohio and came to know the world the river opened up to him.  Having earned a bachelors degree from the University of Cincinnati and a master’s degree in international management from Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management, he embarked on an international business career.  After working in Japan (whose language he speaks), China, South East Asia and the Caribbean –– as well as  in the United States –– Lees served for a decade as Secretary General of the Pacific Basin Economic Council (PBEC), an organization of CEOs and other senior business leaders of the largest corporations in 20 countries around the Pacific, and as the Executive Adviser and Director Key Accounts, Asia-Pacific for KPMG Consulting/BearingPoint. Until recently he was as President and CEO of PBEC in Hong Kong.
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