Last week, a news story on the International Herald Tribune's website began with the following sentence: "The owner of Napoleon's penis died last Thursday in Englewood, N.J."
That sentence got my attention because I had always assumed that the owner of Napoleon's penis was Napoleon. I was also struck by the fact that owning this odd souvenir is what the deceased man from New Jersey will be remembered for. This is his legacy. I have a feeling that he had other things in his life that he might have preferred being remembered for. John K. Lattimer was not just a collector of odd memorabilia. He was a urologist — surprise, surprise — and a Columbia University professor. He is credited with developing a cure for renal tuberculosis, and represented the United States at the World Health Organization. He was also a husband, a father, and a grandfather. But when he passed away at 92, most of the stories about him began with and highlighted the unusual thing that he bought at an auction in 1969.
This illustrates that people are usually remembered for something very odd, very good, or very bad in their lives. Even those of us who are not famous will have a legacy. So, after reading about Lattimer and the pride of Napoleon, I started thinking that maybe it's not such a bad idea to think about what we'd like our obituaries to say — while we still have time to affect them.
In sports, there are people with unfortunate — and sometimes unfair — legacies like Roberto "No Mas" Duran, Bill "Through His Legs" Buckner, and Steve "Cubs Jinx" Bartman. In politics, we can all guess how the obituaries of Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz would begin if they were written today. And despite his other accomplishments, Don Imus may have written his own legacy when he was fired from the radio for his racial slurs.
The good news is that these things can often be turned around. When Jimmy Carter left office, some journalists probably would have characterized him as, "An ineffectual president best remembered for wearing a cardigan sweater while telling Americans to turn down their thermostats." But Mr. Carter turned this around by all of his humanitarian acts after he was president. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. So now he may be more remembered for all he's done since his presidency.
Speaking of the Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel tried to turn his legacy around, too. He was an armaments manufacturer and the inventor of dynamite. But he left his vast fortune to fund the Nobel Prizes.
Al Gore would have been remembered as "the Democrat who lost a presidential election that no Democrat should have lost." But now he may be remembered as "the former vice president who taught millions of people the dangers of global warming." (Unless he runs for president again, in which case he may be remembered as the Democrat who lost two elections for president that no Democrat should have lost.)
President Bush still has time to avoid a legacy that would begin, "George W. Bush will always be remembered as the president who sent this country to war based on bad intelligence ..."
And, of course, people like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan have time to turn their legacies around. In Paris' case, for us to forget about her indiscretions, she might have to cure a couple of major diseases.
Most of us don't do things that make headlines, but we're still going to have a legacy. We're going to be remembered for how we conducted our "ordinary" lives. You might think you'll be remembered for your success in business, the honors you won in college, or that big house you built. But what if your legacy will be, "best known for not returning phone calls from old friends," "always tipped only 10 percent," or "was last seen stealing a parking spot from someone who was there first?"
Again, if you think your obituary might not be as flattering as you'd like, there's time to change. All we have to do is act the way we'd like to be remembered. I guess we should all aspire to do things that are so kind or so spectacular that even if we start collecting the sex organs of European leaders, that collection won't be what we're best remembered for. Wow, that's quite a challenge.
Lloyd "Has Read Many Books" Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." Some of those books he read were in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver