BY CALIFORNIA BUSINESS JOURNAL
What defines greatness for you? Who in your mind was the greatest person?
Having grown up in Beverly Hills and after graduating UCLA, Jim Beran worked in politics for the Reagan and Bush administrations. He had the good fortune to meet top political and business leaders, sports stars and celebrities.
As he grew older and had the chance to reflect on what really defined greatness, it was clear to him who the greatest man he ever met was — and that man just happened to be his father, Walter.
Jim realized that his father had “redefined greatness for him in a holistic sense.”
For years, Jim tried to get his father to write a book about his extraordinary life and career, but Walter simply wanted to lay low and not boast to the world about who he was, what he stood for and what he accomplished.
But near the end time took his father’s mind and eventually took his life. “So I had no choice,” Jim says. “I had to write the book myself. As my father would have said ‘it was a story worth looking over and not overlooking.’”
The book, The Biggest Short Guy, is already an Amazon best seller in seven categories and five countries. It chronicles Walter Beran’s life from a dirt poor childhood in Texas to surviving World War II and the sinking of the US Leopoldville in the English Channel on Christmas Eve 1944 to his emergence as one of Los Angeles’ most impressive civic leaders as well as a close friend and advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and most importantly for Walter the love of his life, his wife Speedy.
“The original inspiration for the book was the thousands of letters he wrote my mother,” Jim says. “Every night he was away, and he was away a lot, he would write my mother a letter. He did this for 22 years. He had the letters compiled each year and put them into a book that he would give to my mother on her birthday. The letters are simply amazing, not just ‘I miss you’ letters but reflections on life, his relationship with God and his fellow man and what was happening in the world around him.
“He wasn’t just my hero,” Jim says. “I wish every boy’s father could be their hero. My father was the greatest person I ever knew.”
He too was a hero to many people, especially in Los Angeles, where the 5-foot-5 dynamo and CPA for Ernst & Young took on leadership roles for more than 50 local organizations and foundations over the course of 20 years to help bring the city closer together and bridge racial and religious differences.
“To accomplish this as a city official, philanthropist or entertainer would be surprising, but to accomplish this as an accountant is more than unbelievable,” Jim says.
This is what others had to say about Walter Beran:
“Walter Beran gave that which is most precious in life — his time,” says Peter Ueberroth, the former Commissioner of Baseball and head of the United States Olympic Committee. “No challenge was too great, no task to small. He did not seek recognition or financial gain. His commitments and contributions to Los Angeles are still felt today.”
Buddy Owens of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forrest, California, says, “Walter Beran was a giant among men. His stature was not measured in feet and inches, but rather in the greatness of his heart, the depth of his wisdom, and the kindness of his character. Integrity, humility, and generosity were the hallmarks of his life. We would all do well to model ourselves after him.”
Finally, here is Dr. Keith Phillips, the Founder of World Impact, Inc.: “Walter Beran set the standard for ethical business conduct in Los Angeles. His clarion call for businesses to give back to the community reflected his high moral standards. He was a servant-leader who elevated all who knew him.”
Jim Beran opens the door for his visitor at his beautiful home that overlooks the sparkling Pacific Ocean in Capistrano Beach, California.
As you walk into the home, you quickly realize the scope of character that Jim hoped to capture about his father. There are photographs of Walter with former presidents Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, George Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. There are framed personal letters from Reagan to Beran, thanking him for his dedicated service to his administration, as well as a famed proclamation for the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Service Award for civic service.
There are Beran’s two Purple Hearts and Bronze Star from World War II framed on the wall, along with framed articles from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Herald Examiner, highlighting Beran’s exhaustive efforts and determination to bring LA together during difficult racial times in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Walter Beran stood for racial equality and fairness, ethics, morals and values. He worked his entire life to bridge social and racial gaps.
“To him, every human being had value,” Jim says as his stands in the middle of the shrine in his home that he has dedicated to his father. “He once told me, ‘If you think you have more value that the person polishing your shoes on the corner of Hill St. and 7th in downtown LA, you’re missing the value of that individual.’”
Beran would stand up in front of city officials and give speeches at political, business and social events proclaiming, “The women and minorities of this great city of Los Angeles have tremendous assets to our community and they’re not being utilized. You need to tap that human asset that exists within all these people. There are talented and brilliant people here who are not being given a chance. Give them a chance!”
When Beran was asked to be the founding chairman of the Los Angeles City Club in the 1970s, he said yes – under one condition: “That this club was to be open to everyone and reflect the Los Angeles community as a whole. No restrictions.”
Soon thereafter, Beran visited his close friend, Dr. Keith Phillips of World Impact, handed him a wad of cash and told him to buy new suits and ties for 12 African American boys in the inner city and bring them to the California Club for lunch. He wanted them to experience firsthand that they too could someday be the leaders of Los Angeles and the country. It was the first time that any blacks had been guests of the most prestigious business club in the city.
“My father toured the country speaking on ethics and service to the community,” Jim says. “In those speeches, he always included these words” ‘Our compassion must become less institutional and more personal for if we are to retain and foster the American fabric necessary for a productive society we must put ourselves in the place of another and the pains and pleasure of our species must be our own.’ That was always the cornerstone of his speeches.”
Walter believed that personal ethics was the key to a joyful life and a great society. “Ethics,” he would say, “transcends circumstances. An ethical man is on his good behavior when he is away and not just when he is at home and wherever and wherever humans deal with one another. Let’s recognize there is no such thing as a close tolerance between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between what’s permissible and what’s preferable.”
Ethics is who he was. You could not separate the man from the philosophy.
It took Jim Beran about a year to write the in-depth book on his father, detailing his life from picking cotton in Texas as a child during the depression and his experiences in World War II to his rise to civic power in LA. He interviewed nearly 100 people for the book and reviewed more than 1,500 letters and documents.
Some of the excerpts from the book are scintillating and full of insightful detail like this one on the bombing and subsequent sinking of the USS Leopoldville, which resulted in the second largest loss of life at sea for the US in WWII behind the USS Indianapolis.
The ship, which was a converted luxury liner, was only meant to accommodate 360 passengers. While it had fourteen lifeboats that could hold up to 799 passengers, the capacity was a far cry from the 2,235 soldiers that boarded her that night. The excess of bodies also meant tight and uncomfortable quarters. In some parts, hammocks and bunks were stacked four high. Morale was low and the soldiers couldn’t help but complain about the state of their transportation.
As the ships finally pulled from the Southampton pier at 9:00 AM on Christmas Eve, no fire or abandon ship drills had been held on the Leopoldville, and no one knew how to lower the lifeboats. Furthermore, the diamond-shaped convoy, which included the Cheshire behind Leopoldville and the four escort destroyers — Brilliant, Anthony, Hotham, and Croix de Lorraine — did not have any precautionary antisubmarine reconnaissance. Worse still, the convoy’s Commander John Pringle didn’t know the exact number of soldiers he was charged with transporting.
Perhaps the officers assumed the Christmas spirit would protect them. Perhaps they were too tired to remember everything. Perhaps they were rushed and became negligent. Whatever the case, the convoy was finally (albeit clumsily) on its way to Cherbourg, France. The ten hours of confusion and chaos had at least kept the soldiers from picturing the battlefields where they would soon be standing. However, once the docks were behind them, they would have fourteen hours to imagine everything. For 764 of the young men, there would be less time.
At 2:30 PM, the H.M.S. Brilliant raised a black flag to signal to the Leopoldville that there was an unidentified object in the water. Alarms sounded on the Leopoldville and a few rushed to the deck and manned gun stations, but the majority of the soldiers were left to sleep, unaware of the potential threat headed their way.
An hour later, the Brilliant’s sonar made three contacts that triggered depth charge attacks which felt like a small earthquake followed by a thunderstorm in the distance. Most soldiers below decks continued talking and sleeping as though nothing had happened. They would continue in this posture for the next two hours. For many, these would be the final moments of their lives.
The German U-boat 486 left its home in Kiel, Germany in mid-February of 1944 and eventually slipped into the English Channel undetected in the early fall. There, it waited for the right moment to fire. The Leopoldville’s convoy was what German Lieutenant Gerhard Meyer had been waiting for. At approximately five minutes before 6:00 PM on Christmas Eve, the Leopoldville was five miles from the entrance of the Cherbourg harbor when Lt. Meyer ordered the launch of two torpedoes. Both hit the Leopoldville’s starboard side.
The sound of the torpedo’s impact was muffled beneath the water. A group on deck singing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” barely noticed the noise. They stopped singing for a moment and then resumed. The smell of gunpowder came soon thereafter and the Leopoldville’s lights began flickering. Something had happened, but no one in the upper levels was sure what. Those who were sleeping closed their eyes again. Those who were eating picked their forks back up. Those who were carrying out their duties went back to work.
It was a different story in the lower decks. Private Beran had been sleeping in a hammock on the starboard side and was startled awake by the freezing water rushing through a massive hole in the side of the ship and rising fast. He shot upright and rushed for a ladder to climb to higher ground. Dozens of his friends and comrades were doing the same and it was difficult to resist clawing your way over the top of another. Nevertheless, honor prevailed as the soldiers pulled and pushed one another up the ladders, including those who were unconscious or had sustained injuries. Outside the ship’s starboard side were lifeless bodies floating in the channel among the ship’s debris. Some had been stripped naked from the force of the explosion. Yet only a few soldiers could see the gruesome wake of the torpedo strike, as darkness had already set in over the channel.
The H.M.S. Anthony was the first ship to realize the Leopoldville had been hit, some twenty minutes after the fact. The Anthony’s Commander John Pringle radioed to Portsmouth, England, which was five hours away, because his radio (like all the Allied ships) was tuned to the frequencies used in England. The radio in Cherbourg, France, which was only an hour away, was tuned to a different frequency. Pringle then sent blinker signals toward the Cherbourg coastline where the French port was stationed. From the ship, one could make out the lights on shore.
Unfortunately, Fort L’Ouest, where the Leopoldville convoy was expected to arrive, hadn’t seen a visible explosion. To make matters worse, the U.S. soldiers were at a Christmas party, including all of the senior officers, and those on duty had not only missed Pringle’s blinker signals, they hadn’t noticed that the convoy wasn’t moving. It wasn’t until Lieutenant Colonel Lee noticed the Leopoldville was off course and his subsequent messages to the ship went unanswered that rescue boats were sent. By this time, nearly thirty minutes had passed and it would take them another two hours to reach the damaged ship. The Leopoldville’s fate would be sealed by then, as would the fates of those aboard.
Meanwhile, rescue efforts continued in the channel. The British escort destroyer Brilliant pulled to the Leopoldville’s port side. The sea swell was causing a rise and fall between eight and twelve feet, making a clean leap from deck to deck impossible. Soldiers began climbing down the scrambling nets hanging off the Leopoldville’s port side and then jumping to the Brilliant’s upper starboard deck, some from elevations of 40-feet, breaking limbs as they landed. Other soldiers missed the Brilliant entirely and were crushed in the water between the two ships.
On the damaged side of the ship, Walter and two-dozen of his fellow soldiers had finally reached the ship’s main deck. With several stairwells flooded or crushed, and with the prospect of carrying the bodies of the injured and dead with them, it had taken the group well over an hour. As they were caring for their wounded comrades any way they could, Walter looked up and spotted a sergeant. He rushed up to him.
“What do we do?” Walter blurted out.
“Wait until the last possible moment,” the officer replied calmly, “and then jump and swim like hell.”
It is excerpts like that that keep you on the edge of your seat as your reading about the fascinating life of Walter Beran.
Editor’s note: The book is available through Amazon. For more on Walter and Jim Beran, go to www.thebiggestshortguy.com. You can also find them on Facebook at The Biggest Short Guy or Jim Beran. Mr. Beran is also available as an inspiration speaker about the book. Frank A. Paul is a pen name used by James Beran.