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Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Salute to a life of honesty, humanity and hard work

A SUMMER FOR A LIFETIME: The Life and Times of George I. Purdy, as told to Thomas Caldwell. Foreword by Michael J. Mansfield. Lost Coast Press, 2000, 144 pp., $24.95.

When I was a librarian I was assigned to inventory a business biography collection. I didn't expect to find much excitement in the stacks, but as the week went on I found myself spending a little more time than I should have assessing the merits of particular volumes.

It might not be great literature, but who can resist a well-told, real-life success story? And if the road to success is filled with twists and turns, perhaps a land mine or two, so much the better.

"A Summer for a Lifetime" is the life story of businessman George I. Purdy who passed away on March 27. As a good story should, Purdy, through writer Thomas Caldwell, stressed the journey rather than the destination. A longtime resident of Japan, Purdy made a name for himself in the metals-trading business after World War II. However, he will be remembered not only for having built a successful business but also for his success in building bridges between his one-time enemy, Japan, and his homeland, the United States. For this he was presented with the Award of the Third Class Order of the Sacred Treasure by Emperor Showa in 1985.

This youthful septuagenarian was born in San Diego in 1907 in a time when two 12-year olds, Purdy and his best buddy, could take an unsupervised, three-week camping trip on a Mexican island off the San Diego coast. This memory begins Purdy's "summer for a lifetime," a metaphor he chose for his life.

Not that there weren't hard times. As a young man, he struggled to enter the U.S. Naval Academy, only to be crossed off the roster two years later due to Depression budget cuts. Still, the ambitious young Purdy managed to build a career in the metals business during those economically stagnant times. When World War II began, he re-enlisted, became captain of a military cargo ship and found himself on Japan's shores at the end of the war.

Purdy's first postmilitary job was as a metals expert during the Occupation, and in this capacity he surveyed the Japanese spoils of war -- tons of gold, silver and platinum.

After his service in the Occupation government, he remained in Japan as the president of his own metals-trading company. The fledgling business nearly folded when an American supplier failed to deliver the promised goods. With nowhere to turn, he appealed to Japanese business associates and to his enormous relief, they rescued him. He writes, "A few years earlier, these people had been a hated enemy. Now, they were subjects of a foreign power. They had seen me make a stupid business mistake. Yet they were helping me. I went back to my office, closed the door and sobbed."

There were other challenges as well. Purdy mentions a failed first marriage, a casualty of prolonged separations and differences over living in Japan. Purdy neither provides details nor rationalizes -- he stoically accepts it as part of the ups and downs in life.

No, you won't find confessions in this business memoir -- or most others for that matter -- but you will find a business philosophy.

Purdy's ethic is one of humanity, honesty and plain hard work. Too bad this won't land him on the best-seller list because more people need to hear what he has to say.

"I've heard of businessmen who made heaps of money from dishonest work, only to die prematurely due to the stress of possibly being found out. If you work at it, there are plenty of honest ways to make money. Business is more fun if you can get a good night's sleep." Purdy, who would have turned 93 this year, obviously walked the talk.

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