08/01/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Louder Than Words

A few weeks ago my Aunt Leona passed away. Her life is a testament to something I teach in my professional protocol seminars. Life is about actions. In both your personal and your professional lives, others make decisions about you based upon your observable behaviors. Unlike financial investments, with people, past behavior is a very good indicator of future performance. As I listened during the funeral and the period of mourning, it became very clear who Aunt Leona really had been during her life. Friends, family, neighbors, community members, former co-workers and occasional acquaintances shared story after story. Over the days together, some very clear themes emerged. These themes defined my Aunt Leona's life.

Family -- My Aunt Leona valued family above all else. She left college to help care for her grandmother and then broke an engagement to a man who could not understand that family was her top priority. Her children were raised walking distance from their cousins and she retired to Florida with her sister. She was our de facto genealogist and made sure we all understood the difference between a second cousin and a first-cousin-once-removed. Of course, to her, family was family and cousins were cousins.

Food -- Aunt Leona's kitchen always buzzed with activity. If you stepped inside, you were put to work. Whether it was making cookies or chopping vegetables, kitchen tasks were a ploy to keep hands busy as she told family stories related to each recipe. Coming to this country, how we survived the Depression, the choice to move to a new city and how the family grew. Traditional foods were prepared for holidays, each with its own story. The food filled our bellies and Aunt Leona's stories linked us with our past.

Travel -- Aunt Leona took many trips, but after she retired, my aunt really traveled. Even with poor mobility, she enjoyed a barefoot-windjammer cruise and adventured to the Galapagos Islands to see what Darwin saw. She traveled to China to see the Great Wall. And the whole time she read and read, and took pictures, and gathered stories to regale us when she returned.

Intellectual -- While my aunt did not have had an official Ph.D., she was by far one of the most intellectual people I knew. She read vast amounts and she learned by living. She attended plays, operas, performances and lectures. She visited art galleries and museums. She considered dining on cuisine from other cultures a learning experience, asking questions of the wait staff and restaurateurs. In many ways, the world was her classroom. She had a visceral thirst for knowledge and found answers everywhere she looked.

Respect -- Aunt Leona possessed the nearly supernatural talent of mastering interpersonal interactions. It did not matter if you were penniless or a millionaire. It did not matter if you were 9 months, 9 years or 9 decades old. Whether she was meeting you for the first or 50th time, her focus was on you. When she asked questions, she really wanted to hear your answers. She treated everyone with respect.

When I think of my Aunt Leona, the memories come in snippets. The feel of being enveloped by her ample arms, soft, safe and warm. Her unconditional love of yippee schnauzers, Pepper and then Beau, who scared me silly. The wonderful smells from her kitchen. Her carefully planned and well researched trips to the corners of the earth. Her thirst for knowledge, love of opera and uncanny way of making you feel like the only person in the room when she shined the spotlight of her attentions on you. I hope every day, in many small ways, both at home and at work, I too am able to show people what I feel is important not with my words, but with my actions. Aunt Leona leaves many lessons on how to live and a larger lesson on how to leave one's legacy.

Rest in peace Aunt Leona. You are an unsung, everyday hero, woman of valor and a life that mattered.

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