Woog's World / Letters from Home make for important reading

Our country is deteriorating. Virtues and values like responsibility, resilience, dignity and respect have been abandoned. Our work ethic has been replaced by entitlement. Our world standing is in peril.

Those are not my thoughts -- well, not exactly, anyway. They're central themes of Letters from Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth. The new book is the work of Westporters David and Andrea Reiser -- and they know from success and wealth. He's a senior vice president-wealth management at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney; she's an author, blogger and community volunteer.

In their professional and personal lives -- and in their book -- they nail what ails us today. More importantly, they send a message of hope. The Reisers say that "by rediscovering the qualities that made America great, we can start to turn things around."

The key, they write, is to "teach our young people -- not to mention ourselves, our employees, and our fellow Americans of all ages -- what truly leads to success, prosperity and fulfillment."

With four boys, the Reisers are not mere theoreticians. Their book takes the form of letters to their sons. Those letters cover 15 virtues that have built our nation, and fostered individual success. The ideals could be cliches -- work hard, and go above and beyond in all you do; learn from adversity; follow your moral compass; save prudently and spend thoughtfully -- but the authors find a way to lift the lessons far beyond the usual yada yada yada.

Each chapter includes profiles of real people -- wealth management clients, friends and neighbors -- who have used those virtues to achieve real success.

The very first section deals with a major building block of American society: education. The Reisers write to their sons: "Learning is not simply a receptive process of memorizing facts, comprehending lessons, and blindly accepting the information presented to you as absolute truth. Rather, it's an interactive process in which you need to be richly and continually engaged."

The authors urge their boys to "constantly analyze, question, and discuss information. Search for nuances, new meanings, unique applications. Value formal education, embrace informal opportunities to learn, and take the initiative to go outside the bounds of what's expected and accepted."

And who do the Reisers use to reinforce those lessons?

Staples High School principal John Dodig.

His words in the Reisers' book echo the message he's sent -- to students, parents and the community at large -- in his half decade at the helm here.

"Every student now needs to be able to think critically, work in small groups to solve problems, use mathematics at a level of at least precalculus, demonstrate an understanding of both the physical and biological sciences, and learn the art of learning," Dodig says.

The reason is simple. Education is "something they will have to continue to do for the rest of their lives."

Dodig personalizes the importance of education. An elementary school teacher made an enormous impression on him. So did his professional mentor, the principal at Daniel Hand High in Madison.

Their inspirations underlie everything Dodig does -- as an educator, sure, but one who understands that every person in every school is also a human being. He speaks of the importance of administrators modeling for teachers and students "a caring, supportive environment, which makes the school a safe place to learn, think, challenge and question." And, he hopes, that image will follow them when they are in a position, later in life, to create an environment in their own professional lives.

Dodig is aware that students -- here, and across the country -- go home to environments that may not be supportive of education. In his ideal world, adult role models -- politicians, entertainers, athletes -- would send a "constant, consistent message that education is essential to this country, and to the well-being of every citizen in the United States."

Dodig's profile is followed by others: deli guru Eli Zabar, 9/11 survivor Mike Nardone, philanthropists Linda and Dan Kortick. Each comes from different circumstances; all have built successful lives in a variety of arenas. Their messages are simple, yet profound.

At the end of the book, the Reisers sum it all up for their boys. The more they researched and explored "the virtues and values we theorized as being the fundamentals of fulfillment," they write, "the more critically interrelated and integral they seemed to become." Business success, personal achievement, "success and wealth" -- all are encapsulated in men and women "abounding in shrewd wisdom, comprehensive experience, voluminous knowledge, and insightful advice."

The authors advise their sons -- and everyone else reading their book -- to strive for fulfillment, while "savoring every step of the journey, and remembering to keep things in perspective."

It's a message that, in the wrong hands, can seem sappy and outdated.

In David and Andrea Reisers', it's vital. And very, very timely.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. Read more from him during the week at www.westport-news.com. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com; his e-mail is dwoog@optonline.net