Many years ago, a friend of mine decided to pursue a doctoral degree. Newly married, he would have to relocate to a new city to attend the university and his earning capacity would not be high. However, his wife wanted him to fulfill his academic dream and so encouraged him to begin what was a five-year program. During that time, his wife also worked, bore two kids, and handled all the mundane household affairs while he with gusto and determination pursued his degree. Eventually he got his doctorate and his wife wanted to move back to her family and friends. But he had a job offer in another city and wanted desperately to be a college professor. He did not fully understand or appreciate his wife’s ongoing support during his student years, so blinded he was by his own quest for personal success and prestige. Sadly the marriage fell apart and his wife and children were the casualties of his selfishness. This is character arc of Dr. Robert Kearns in Flash of Genius, the true story of a man determined to pursue his own dream irrespective of the cost to those who loved him the most.
Kearns is a college professor of engineering. While driving his car on a rainy night, he comes up with the idea of inventing a windshield wiper blade that imitates the human eye. Instead of continuously moving, it blinks allowing for clearer vision while driving. He secures start-up funds and in his basement develops a prototype for his intermittent wipers. He then patents the invention and demonstrates it to Ford Motor Company. After an initial enthusiastic response, nothing happens.
After some time, Kearns visits a Ford dealer’s convention and discovers his invention is now standard operating equipment on Ford’s new model cars. Hence begins Kearn’s fight with corporate giants to reclaim ownership of his invention and to obtain public acknowledgement of his creativity as an inventor. Years of legal battles ensue, placing immense strain on his wife, Phyllis, and family of six children. Along the way, he is offered settlements extending into the millions of dollars, but Kearns refuses them since they don’t include an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the corporation. He is man of principle and nothing less than a public apology will do. Eventually the case comes to trial with Kearns defending himself.
Although there is ultimate vindication for Kearns, there is a price for this victory. There is divorce, separation, and a fractured family; but it is a tragedy that perhaps did not have to happen. A Rabbi once told me that one of the keys to a successful marriage is that each partner has to see himself as a giver, always ready to help and support the other. The question should never solely be how can I fulfill my personal needs, but rather how can I make the life of my spouse more pleasant, more enjoyable, more fulfilling? Marriage is not only about me; it is about us.
I remember visiting the home of a Torah teacher of mine who had twelve kids. All the kids served the meal, and he would not begin eating until his wife was comfortably seated and beginning to eat the meal herself. Only when she began to eat did he place food on his fork. He was sending a quiet but powerful message to his children: revere your spouse. Do not treat her casually. He wanted his kids to realize that the meal did not appear serendipitously. Your mother spent hours preparing it and making sure the entire household ran smoothly every day of the week. It was this everyday bastion of love and kindness that built the foundation of a happy home, and we cannot take for granted the daily labors of a housewife and mother as Robert did to Phyllis. Flash of Genius reminds us that selflessness, not selfishness, is the hallmark of an enduring marriage.