The highlight of my mom’s 92-year birthday party last summer came from my cell phone at 5:30 p.m.
Chris Ullman, director of global communications at The Carlyle Group, rang from a ranch in Wyoming (he was on vacation with his family).
He was calling to serenade my mom with a happy birthday song — through whistling.
The song was unique, smooth and uplifting — a gift from God that Chris has used many times throughout his career (nearly 5,000 renditions since the mid-1990s, to be precise).
I have known Chris for over 15 years, and besides being a devout Catholic, an incredible husband and father of three wonderful children, he dedicates a good portion of his free time to his “whistle ministry.”
I asked him to share his thoughts about his unique ministry.
I don’t have a simple gift. I’ve heard this a lot over the years, but in every case it turns out to be false. Everyone has a simple gift — a “whistle” — that can touch a heart or change a life. You do. He does. And so does she.
My gift happens to be whistling. In fact, I’m the four-time National and International Whistling Champion. (Yes, there is such a thing!) Over the past 40-plus years I’ve used my simple gift of pucker to bring joy to all sorts of people: presidents, handicapped kids, Supreme Court justices, billionaires, grade schoolers, corporate chieftains, and more than 500 people a year on their birthdays. It’s been a remarkable journey that has humbled me and taught me the immense power of a simple gift given with love.
“In 15 minutes, you’re going to whistle for the president of the United States,” said my then-boss Mitch Daniels, a member of the president’s cabinet. Hard to believe, but 15 minutes later I actually was shaking hands with George W. Bush in the Oval Office and whistling jazz, gospel and opera for him. It was the coolest experience of my nearly 50 years of whistling.
Yes, it was an honor to meet the president, especially in his personal office, but what has stuck with me since that July 2001 morning is how my simple whistle brought joy to the most powerful human on the planet. And I know it left an impression: Seven years later I met him again and he remembered our little concert.
Another experience, when I whistled happy birthday for Jean Tuzzo, a family friend, drove home the power of the simple gift. It was 3 p.m. on her 83rd birthday when I reached her by phone. We chatted for a few minutes and then I asked if I could serenade her. Her response nearly knocked me over. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to today.” I thought: What? How is that possible? It’s mid-afternoon. I don’t know if she had a wild party planned for later that evening, but what I do know is that my call brought a little joy to an elderly woman living alone in a large apartment building in gigantic New York City on her birthday.
Scripture is replete with references to simple gifts. My favorite is from 1 Corinthians: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit … to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” Another, from 1 Peter, really nails it: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
And how are people using their gifts? I surveyed my own life and found dozens of examples of people using their simple gifts, their “whistles,” to touch my heart (my mom’s “whistle” is empathy, and today when I care for someone it’s my mom’s empathy I’m channeling). For Fr. John Adams, the gift is love. He has dedicated his life to serving Washington’s homeless population. His selfless love amazes me and inspires me to learn the names of the homeless people I meet and help on the street.
These and other people in my life teach me daily the power of the simple gift. They are not waiting for heroes to save the world. They are making the world a better place, day in and day out, just as I’m trying to do with my literal whistle. So, please find your “whistle” and embrace its power to touch a heart and change a life.
If you would like to read more, I recommend his recent book, “Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts and Change Lives.” Chris Ullman is an inspiration for me in many ways, and in the words of St. Paul, we should all strive to “fan our gifts into a flame.”
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Fr. Michael Sliney is a Catholic priest based in the New York City area and an adviser to the Lumen Institute, a professional business group.
(photo credit, homepage and article images: YouTube)