Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 27, 2006

That’s one way to make your mother proud

There are lots of ways a kid can make his parents proud.

One route is to excel in school, earn a full scholarship to a prestigious university, and embark upon a highly prestigious, six-figure-salary career.

Another route is to join the military and defend our country.

Another route is to work to help others through the Peace Corps or Red Cross or Heifer International, or one of hundreds of other organizations supporting good causes.

There are many more routes to parental pride; probably as many routes as there are combinations of parental expectations and offspring ability and interest.

But one of the rarest routes, I’d venture to guess, is the way Gilroyan Joe Trela earned his mother’s pride. As a recent profile in the newspaper pointed out, Trela was an average Joe until he won a million dollars on the TV quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” in 2000. Then he showed how exceptional he really is.

Joe could have bought a fancy car and an opulent house, gambled and partied with celebrities and other deep-pocketed folks, burned through his cash and had lots of great stories to tell when the money was gone.

He could have sought to extend his 15 minutes of fame with appearances at D-list events, like so many reality TV stars who can’t handle a return to everyday anonymity when the spotlight masters decide to shine the limelight on someone else.

He could have succumbed to the temptations of drugs or alcohol or other vices often portrayed as sexy and hip by television, movies and popular music, burned through his cash and had lots of scary stories to tell if he survived.

He could have failed to pay his taxes and ended up in jail like another reality TV million-dollar prize winner did. He’d have stories after that experience, but perhaps not ones he’d want to share.

Joe Trela won life-changing money at the tender age of 25. He had lots of options open to him. Instead of choosing the flashy, conspicuous-consumption route, or the undignified fame whore route, or the dangerous vices route, or the I’m-above-the-rules route, Joe chose the much-less traveled unselfish route.

In addition to showing wisdom beyond his years with his choice, he also demonstrates a healthy dose of common sense and humility.

“It seemed the natural way to do it. A big house is too much to clean and I can only drive one car at a time,” the now-31-year-old Gilroyan told reporter Brian Babcock.

Joe gave a chunk of his quiz show winnings to one brother to help him buy a house. He gave another chunk to another brother to pay for his college tuition, text books, and room and board.

Without Joe and the unselfish route he chose, one brother would not have been able to purchase a home and the other brother would have had to drop out of college.

Meanwhile, Joe leased a modest Chevrolet Impala and continued to live with his mother to help care for his grandmother and disabled brother. He holds a regular job as a customer account executive at Comcast. He seems like an average Joe, until you know that he did all this after winning a million dollars on a TV quiz show.

Joe’s one extravagance after winning one million dollars – well, $540,000 after taxes, which he was smart enough to pay – was to take a month-long cruise of Europe.

Joe had to know 15 answers to win that one-million dollar prize: Chickens; Knee-jerk; Telepathy; Coffee bean; Pets.com; Tilde; Tim Allen; Lawyers; Bullfighting; Yogi Berra; Thirteen; Thailand; Minus 40 degrees; Captain Howdy; Moth.

But because he knew something more important – how to handle the fortune and fame thrust upon him because he got those 15 answers right – he also earned his mother’s pride, his family’s gratitude, the title of extraordinary Joe, and, for whatever it’s worth, my respect.

I suspect the reason he was able to handle that difficult task was a great upbringing that valued unselfishness, common sense and humility. Joe’s mother Carmel should be proud of herself for instilling those virtues in her son.

I know this: If my own kids have unselfishness, common sense and humility at the age of 25, no matter what their education, career or income, I’ll be proud of them and me.

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