An Exemplary Life

Thursday, December 7, 2017 by Louie Bacaj

I often write about technology online but this time I will be writing about something more important to me. I want to write about a man that had an incredibly interesting life and had a great deal of impact in mine.

I have been fortunate in that I have known some great men and have had some great role models in my life. None come close in knowledge, in principles, and in exemplary behavior than the man who was my Grandfather, Alfons Bacaj. He had the greatest influence in my life and the lives of his nieces and nephews.

Grandpa grew up dirt poor. When I say dirt poor I mean poorer than you can imagine. He told me about a time he put some salt on corn-bread to give it a little flavor because it’s all they had to eat, he said they considered themselves lucky they had that. That should give you an idea of how poor.

Robert baker writes in American Diplomacy:

“In the chilly, cloudy morning, skinny little kids stood barefoot on the roadside in Albania’s capital, Tirana. Their bellies stuck out and their blond hair was reddish from kwashiorkor, hunger and lack of protein. I had seen poor little African kids look like that. Albanian women barefoot and in light summer dresses despite the cold trudged, along the roadside leading into town and along the empty streets.
There was still gunfire in the capital after dark.”

Don’t get me wrong everyone was poor back in Albania, especially back in 1930s when the whole world was in a great depression, but this was different. His situation was made worse because he lost everyone around him at a very young age. Albania would go on to become the poorest country in Europe thanks to communism. I would say his entire family, my entire family, was close to extinction at the point of time that my grandfather lost everything and everyone.

“Poverty, brothers, is a mouthful that’s hard to swallow,
A bite that sticks in your throat and leaves you in sorrow,
When you watch the pale faces and rheumy eyes.
Observing you like ghosts and holding out thin hands;
Behind you they lie, stretched out
Their whole lives through, until the moment of death…”

This poem was written in the 1930s by Migjeni, a very well-known Albanian writer. It was written around the same time my grandfather was born.

From poverty to communism

Although they had little, before he lost his parents he got his name Alfons from a German priest. He got all the education he would ever get from this great priest too. He learned how to read and write from this Priest. More importantly he learned the value of education from this man, even if he himself would get no formal education outside of this.

As a sign of the times the priest was killed by the communists who wanted to eradicate religion in Albania. Despite this priests sacrifice to stay in Albania and educate youth groups and make them literate he saw little love from the communists.

The priest was gunned down in front of the entire town as a warning of what happens to those who practice. Later on the Catholic Church, from Rome, would canonize this priest, Alfons Tracki, and he would become a saint.

He was in fact one of 38 martyr clergymen that would be recognized by Rome in 2015. Cardinal Amato from the vatican said:

“While the persecutors dissolve like so many black shadows which are lost forever in the darkness of eternal oblivion, martyrs are guiding lights that shine in the sky of humanity, showing the true face of man’s goodness, his profound identity created in the image of God”

The communists did many terrible things, they burned down churches and mosques alike. They went even further to persecute, and gun down, even the believers that would not renounce their faith. The eradication of religion; Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox was so systematic that by the 1970s Albania was the first country in the world to officially declare itself atheist.

As if life couldn’t get more brutal from poverty, my grandfather would go on to lose his mother and father; both passed away one after the other. At 9 years old without either of his parents, he only had his brother Gjon, pronounced John in english. His brother was 12 and not much older than he was. They had no other immediate family and were forced to learn to do things that adults had to do. Imagine learning to survive from that age in communist Albania. These words are not exaggerations, I don’t know any other person that has been tested by life as much as this man.

From suffering to thriving

His life was not all doom and gloom, though, he would go on to escape this fate. He got engaged at 14 and would marry my grandmother, Tonine, at 15 and start a family, they went on to have 4 kids. Let that sink in for a second, engaged at 14 years old and married at 15.

She changed his life, suddenly he had a future to look forward to. They were still dirt poor but they had each other. His brother, John (Gjon), got married too, shortly after, and went on to have 5 kids. From near extinction these two men would go on, from their nine kids, to have 32 nieces and nephews and watch them flourish.

Despite the most troubling early childhood out of anyone that I have ever met, my grandfather persevered. He applied principles to his life, principles he had to learn very early on. He learned to sacrifice and chase only what’s important. I have yet to internalize all of his teachings but I will write about the most striking principles here.

Thriving through Principles

A few of the principles I observed were around always doing the right thing and never doing anyone wrong despite whatever desperate situation you may be in. Others may have chosen a life of crime or stealing when pressed against the wall, like he and his brother were, but they did not.

This principle of not doing wrong is worth exploring further. This man was so careful, and took such great care, in his personal relationships with people. He would go out of his way to call people on their birthdays and all manner of life events, despite a long distance call from Albania costing a whole days salary in those times. These relationships were not the sort of things he would ever sacrifice for money.

He would go out of his way to avoid conflict with others outside and those within the family and set things straight. I can point to the many times I have taken personal relationships for granted, had the mindset that these relationships will always be there. I have never observed this man doing that, taking anything for granted. Even with his immediate family, like his wife and brother, he took great care to never argue or say things that would harm those relationships. It is amazing that a man with, no formal education, had this sort emotional intelligence and appreciation for the feelings of others.

He learned principles of saving and being frugal. So much so that even much later on in life when he would go on to have more than enough he would prefer to eat bread and a little yogurt over meats and other luxuries, simply to sacrifice and save.

Albanians take great pride in treating their guests better than even their own family, he was no exception in this regard.

The BBC writes about “Besa”:

“‘Shpija para se me qenë e Shqiptarit, asht e Zotit dhe e mikut’, which means ‘Before the house belongs to the owner, it first belongs to God and the guest.’ It’s a strong tradition, and in the older times, if you were a traveller or seeking refuge, you could knock on the door of the first house you found and ask ‘Head of the house, do you want guests?’ and the owner would have to take you in.
The Kanun (the Albanian code of life) says that the master of the house should always have a spare bed ready at any time of day or night, in case a guest arrives unexpectedly.
Yes it’s a duty, but honestly most Albanians really enjoy hosting guests. It’s a point of pride for them.”

Despite being dirt poor and being as frugal as he can be with himself and his family my grandfather would give everything away to our guests if and when he had to. These things are at odds with each other, like the many tough decisions we need to make in life, but somehow he always managed to do them both exceptionally well.

Perhaps it is because he understood all of this so well that he never ever wanted to be a burden on anyone, would never overstay his welcome.

Despite all of this he learned to never let anyone take his kindness for weakness or bully him. Tucked away in the back of his office, at the hotel by the beach, was a 12 gauge shotgun. With two chambers. I asked him about it and he told me it was old but it was German and it was the kind that would never rust and would always work. I guess that’s a metaphor for him and his life in some ways.

His faith, which he deeply believed in, told him to love and never harm another human being. The Albanian code, Kanuni and yes that is the very same Kanuni that teaches us about Besa, tells him to take the head off anyone that would try to forcibly take what was rightly his. Another contradictory example of life’s ambiguity.

He always told me that he prayed he wouldn’t use that old shotgun, especially the two times he was tested. When they tried to take a portion of his land because his two sons had migrated and these would be thieves knew he was alone. Saint Alfons must’ve heard his prayer because he never had to use it.

He learned to work harder than you can imagine. His hard work and survival instincts had to be developed from a very early age. Most people retire after 30 years of work, he retired after 44 and then went on to run a business after retiring, the beach hotel that my father built after communism collapsed. He ran that until he died. He worked from 9 years old until he was in his grave at 80 years old. He would always tell me “eat like you want to live to be 100 but work like you will die tomorrow and you have things you want to accomplish before you do die”.

He embodied even principles one may take for granted, like being organized; this man recorded every single transaction he ever made in life. Everyone’s birthdays in a little booklet and every other major life events his relatives had. This would turn out to be very useful later, once communism was gone, and he was running a business at 70 years old.

By the time his children were of high school age, he had saved and scraped enough to send, all his kids that wanted to go, away to the school in Albania. Back in those times it meant sacrificing food, clothing, eating less, and many basic necessities in order to save for those sorts of things. Never mind more luxurious things, like the clothes on your back, they would repair the same clothing for years. It meant saving in ways we wouldn’t be able to imagine for him to be able to send his kids to school in those times.

From communism to capitalism

Once Albania broke the grip of communism and the borders opened up, many people immigrated out. My father was one of those people, coming to the United States in 1995. My uncle and aunt would later immigrate out too. With only one of my aunts remaining back home with her family.

Before leaving my father built a small hotel by the beach in Albania that my grandfather would later greatly expand on and run when tourism started flourishing. A business which in the most recent summers would generate between 15–20k revenues. That is no small change in a country where the average salary, today in 2017, is 10 dollars per day.

I am convinced that his success in running that business is due to the principles he was forced to learn very early on in life. Keep in mind that he was 65 years old by the time he was running this business and ran it until 80. His record keeping was uncanny, his ability to save and conserve was just as good. Those things were critical to the success of this business in the early years, when there was little tourism to keep the business afloat.

From isolation to liberation

My grandfather went from being isolated and dirt poor to traveling the world, I told you it wasn’t just doom and gloom. Once his kids established themselves in places like the United States, The United Kingdom, Italy, he would regularly travel to all of those places, and a few other places, where we had more distant family. He did all of this in his old age and after communism collapsed but still those principles and his simple way of life would be something he carried with him no matter where he went.

He showed me first hand what one could accomplish even at an incredibly old age if given the opportunity. It was as if an old lion had been caged for over 65 years and suddenly released and told go do what he wanted. He accomplished more in those 15 years of old age, that he was free to run the business, than most young men do in 30 years of working.

He lead by example

At nine years old he was farther away from a million dollars than the earth is from the sun. By the time he died he had accumulated enough that we can’t hope to spend the wealth he has left behind.

For me personally it is an example of what one can accomplish in this world in spite of having every major disadvantage. It is a real example of what happens when you always try and do the right thing, we rarely see those types of examples.

He did not have to sacrifice his drive, ambition, passion, or instincts to lead this sort of exemplary life. He managed to demonstrate that it is possible to do all of it, despite the ambiguity and challenges life presents. He will be missed and much like his lessons will always be remembered.