His name was William Sidney Porter.
By his 48th birthday in 1910, he would be dead from cirrhosis of the liver—the culmination of years of alcohol abuse, hard living, and tragic choices.
Some would say his wrong choices included his failure to keep a steady job. Though he trained as a pharmacist, William would go through an array of different jobs. He was a bookkeeper, newspaper editor, draftsman, ranch hand, journalist, shepherd, and clerk. But he couldn’t get any of them to work.
Some would say his bad decisions also included his choice of a bride. One bad choice was when he eloped in 1887. The marriage was against the advice of both his in-laws and his own family. Still he married a woman who was just as infected with tuberculosis as he was. Some would also say his bad decisions included some outright dishonesty. Porter was fired from his job as a bank teller in the First National Bank of Austin, Texas in 1895. Then he fled the country pending charges of embezzlement. When he returned to the U.S. in 1897, the authorities were waiting for him. He received a five-year prison sentence.
But William Porter didn’t bring all his troubles on himself. He couldn’t help that his mother died from tuberculosis when he was only three. It was a terrible way to start life. Nor could he stop his wife’s death. Which left him a single parent at the beginning of his prison sentence.
To his credit, inmate William Porter tried to do his best to provide for his eight-year-old daughter, Margaret. But what can a jailbird do from prison? He could write! And that’s just what William Porter did. He began to write short stories – the genre for which he became famous. He wrote and had published no less than a dozen short stories while still behind bars. Of course, he had to conceal his identity. Who would read something from a convict? So he adopted the “pen name,” O. Henry.
Henry was released after serving three years of his five-year sentence.Having discovered his literary gift and first love, He went on to become the 20th Century’s foremost master of the short story—famous for their surprise endings. Maybe you’re probably familiar with one of them. It is especially popular during the holiday season, The Gift of the Magi. It is the love story of a struggling newlywed couple. The husband sells his watch in order to buy a comb and brush set for his wife. The wife sells her hair to buy her husband a gold chain for his watch. In the end the young couple realizes the greatest gift is their love for each other.
And it is for this heart-warming story, and hundreds of others like it, that we remember O. Henry. We do not remember him or define his life by his failures. Nor his prison sentence, his indebtedness, his alcoholism, or his times of moral weakness. We remember him and define his life by his contributions and by the joy his stories brought to millions.
Likewise, we remember Babe Ruth for his 714 career home runs. We forget about his 1330 career strike outs. Nor do we remember Thomas Edison for his myriads of failed experiments. We remember him for his 1,093 patented inventions—still a record today! Consider what Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda Motor Company, used to say: “Success is 99% failure.”
If your record is blemished by failure, take heart. Everyone has blemishes. An old adage says “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re doing about average”. It’s far better to try and fail, than to do nothing and succeed. As Babe Ruth once said, “Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back from hitting homeruns”. The Scripture reminds us that, “though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises up again” (Prov. 24:16). Even good people fail—over and over.
Dear Father in heaven, please help me to learn from my failures. Please help me to move on and grow stronger and wiser. Amen.