In 1905, the shipbuilder and former mayor of Seattle, Robert Moran, was told by doctors he had about one year to live. He was 47.
Moran had recently completed the project that would crown his shipbuilding career, the battleship USS Nebraska. His rise to fame and success was not ordained. He was only 18 years old when he arrived in Seattle, which was, at the time, a very small and recently incorporated outpost. He had left his family and his home in New York City and landed on the other side of the country with barely a penny to his name. He worked on steamboats, saving enough to eventually pay for his mother and siblings to come join him. With his three brothers, he established a ship-repair business that grew and prospered. He was elected mayor of Seattle in 1888 and because of his efforts to coordinate the rebuilding of the city following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, he was re-elected to a second term. The fire had devastated the business district, including his own company. He spent the next 15 years growing his business, which thrived and culminated with the completion of the naval contract the Nebraska.
Issues with his health led him to seek medical care, and he was diagnosed with "organic heart disease". Hans Selye would not begin his research into the general adaptation syndrome until 1936. Moran had what would now be considered a case of "executive stress". Regardless of what it was called, both he and his doctors sensed that his health was failing. Robert Moran then did something that changed the trajectory of his life.
He moved to Orcas Island, in the San Juan archipelago west of Seattle, and began construction on a mansion that would be his final project. He left his company in the hands of his brothers and employed his shipwrights to build the home in which he planned to spend the rest of his life. His mansion, which is now the Rosario Resort, looks and feels like it would be able to embark on a journey at sea.
Robert Moran did not die of "organic heart disease" that year. In fact, he lived to be 86. Toward the end of his long life, he donated much of his property to the state of Washington, and constructed the roads, bridges, and look-out tower atop Mt. Constitution with his own resources, looking to ensure the preservation and future enjoyment of the land for public use. Foreseeing the potential strife among his family for his estate, he sold his mansion and nearly all of his possessions to an outside party, again working to preserve the integrity of his legacy.
Why is the story of Robert Moran worth recounting?
What strikes me is that throughout his life, Robert Moran seemed to act as a steward. He amassed great material wealth, yet his actions speak more to a sense that this wealth and these resources were passing through him, not owned by him. As a businessman and public servant, he worked to promote his own interests, but those interests also included the good of those around him.
In addition to stewardship, the story of Moran is a parable of "bonus time." In the case of our shipwright, we can imagine that every day beyond his expected date of expiration could be considered a bonus. His conscious decision to heed the warning signs of his body, to not get trapped in the designs of his ego, and to reorganize how he was living allowed him to live a much longer and much healthier life. Looking out over the San Juan islands, walking in the woods on Orcas, breathing the same air as a family of whales, spending time with loved ones - a chance to pause. Isn’t it all bonus time?
It reminds me of a poem, “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, which is perhaps the best medium to consider these things:
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?