The bootlegger's refain: How to make a difference


(MoneyWatch) Keeping busy -- one definition of which is having enough to do in a day -- is not something that most working people have trouble doing. But what happens when you get old, your spouse dies, and the minutes seem like hours and the hours like days?

If you are a 92-year old veteran of World War II nicknamed 'Big Hy,' you turn to bootlegging. Not running moonshine across the county line, but rather making illegal DVDs of current film releases and sending them to U.S. troops overseas.

As reported this week in the New York Times, Hy Strachman got into the bootlegging business after his wife died in 2003 and he found himself with time on his hands. He visited a military website that specialized in sending care packages and noted that many soldiers had requested recent movies from the home-front. So Strachman swung into action. He would buy bootleg copies of first-run feature films and then copy them one at a time over to  his home computer. For years, he produced only one DVD at a time until he got a disc duplicator that can make seven copies at once. Since 2004, he has distributed more than 300,000 bootleg copies.

"It's not the right thing to do, but I did it," Strachman told the Times in reference to breaking copyright law. "If I were younger, maybe I'd be spending time in the hoosegow."

He has yet to be ordered to stop. Presumably, that's largely because Strachman accepts no payment for his efforts and instead spends his own money and time. But the many emails and letters of thanks he receives from soldiers attests to the worthiness, if not the legality, of his cause.

Strachman's example teaches us that all of us can make a positive difference if we try. You don't have to wait till you are retired to give back. For example, I have a friend who in addition to being an active member in her church, spends two weeks annually in rural Africa working with teachers. Another lawyer friend spends his late winters and springs coaching high school baseball. Still another investor friend mentors young entrepreneurs, helping them prepare their business pitches for venture capitalists.

The operative principle for all these folks is the willingness to give back in ways that benefit others. Behavioral scientists and evolutionary biologists report that there may be a biological cause for altruism. This predisposition is found among various species, including birds and apes. In other words, humans may be wired to help others. It may in fact have enabled our species to survive in hostile environments, where predators eyed humans as prey. Moral of the story: Humans thrived by watching out for one another.

Getting started down the road to helping others is a matter of matching what you like to do with what needs doing. For some people,. like my investor friend, it will be sharing their business skills with those seeking to create new businesses. For others. like my lawyer friend, his lessons are given on the ball field, not in the courtroom.

Leaders can encourage such volunteerism by doing it themselves. Board service is one common practice, but there are many leaders who are content to leave their executive responsibilities at the office while they engage in front-line volunteer efforts as part-time teachers, coaches, and mentors.

Although there are many demands on our time, those who make the best use of it are those who spend that time wisely, investing it in the lives of others.

Image courtsey of Flickr nettaphoto