“There but for the grace of God go I.”

I’ve heard that phrase since I was a child.  I understood the words and their definitions when I was young, but it wasn’t until I became older and more “seasoned” that I understood what it meant….

I grew up in the South Bronx to a single parent just out of high school and without a father who was killed in Vietnam before he got the chance to meet me.  I’ve often wondered why I didn’t wind up stuck on those streets, drinking the same drink and smoking the same “smoke” and talking smack to the same friends on the same corner…year after year…decade after decade.  In 1979, a group called Machine came out with the hit song of the year, called: “There But For The Grace of God Go I.”  At 14 years old, I hardly noticed the words as I danced to Machine’s beat, and roller-skated my way to joyous nights with friends and family in The Bronx and Brooklyn, buoyed by the boogie.  The next fall, I said goodbye to all of them as I embarked on my journey to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.  I was aware that I was attending the number one ranked prep school in the nation, but painfully unaware as to how or why.  If you asked me then, I would have told you it was because I was smart.  I know now that it was because I was aware of who I was and where I came from.

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

Someone asked me once if I talk the way I do because I went to Andover.  I replied that I went to Andover because I talk, and THINK, the way I do.

“There but for the grace….”

That journey to Andover re-set the course of my life, as I lived, collected and internalized experiences that would inform The Berlack Method, LLC.  When I stand before an audience of folks who look like me, not just physically but emotionally, mentally and spiritually, and who struggle with the same issues that I’ve encountered, I remember that song and that phrase.  And I remember that The Berlack Method, the tool God gave me to speak to my audience, is the legacy of three people, all of whom reside in me:

My grandfather, Weston Berlack, is the model for my manhood training.  He was gregarious, funny, extremely charming, handsome and very giving.  My first visions of manhood came through him.  To this day, whenever I think of him, the smell of cherry tobacco from his ever-present pipe wafts through my mind.  He never left the house without wearing a suit and tie.  He always wore his fedora.  People comment about the fedora I wear with my own suit and tie, because they’re not used to seeing someone so young with such an old style.  I just smile and think of Grandpa.

When I was very young, I attempted to steal a bag of potato chips from the neighborhood store.  My mother whipped me badly, but I don’t remember the whipping.  What I remember is my grandfather sitting me down on his bed as he told me, in a very low tone: “Son, it starts with this.”  He then placed a pencil on the nightstand.  “It then becomes this.”  He placed a book next to the pencil.  “Then it will be this.”  He moved the large lamp next to the book.  He then proceeded to tell me about his 29 years as a private detective in New York and his service in a segregated U.S. army in World War II.  He regaled me with stories about his son, Albert Berlack, who was a Court Officer at the time.  Maintaining his low tone, he then said something I never forgot: “We’ve always been on the right side of the law.”  And as he pointed to the items on the nightstand, he said: “Berlacks don’t do that,” then turned on his heel and left the room.  I never did anything close to breaking the law ever since, and if any Berlack Method audience member sees pride and dignity in me, this is a large part of where it comes from.  Grandpa taught me how to be a man.  He also taught me what it means to be a Berlack.

My grandmother, Elise Berlack, also resides in me and in The Berlack Method.   Sunday morning meant going to church with Grandma.  Sunday afternoon meant getting stuffed by a huge “supper” that she prepared: ham, turkey, chicken, macaroni and cheese, greens, rice and peas, the works.  And of course, there was always the fresh apple pie that she baked from scratch the day before.  How good a cook was she?  Her food tasted like she LOVED us.  The entire family knew without question where to spend every holiday.

She was the most loving, giving and kind person I have ever known.  She spoiled me when my mother would not.  She was the typical Southern Black woman: pious, religious and  hospitable to a fault.  She always had a hot meal, a warm smile, a big hug and a ready ear waiting for me whenever I visited.  She taught me how to love.

“There but for….”

My mother, Delores Berlack, also resides in me.  She was stern and demanding.  She was the type of mom that stood with me as I did my homework, and reviewed my class notes.  When I got a good grade from my teacher, she would go over my work with a red pen, and demanded that I re-did it to HER satisfaction.  When I spoke, “dis” had to become “this.”  “Dose” had to become “those.”  I HATED doing my homework around her, but I thank her to this day.

She provided me with everything I ever needed.  She put a roof over my head and clothes on my back, almost entirely by herself.  I used to complain that she always bought me “Skippies” instead of  “Pro Keds,” but today, I’m grateful that the pavement never touched my feet.


When I stand before my audience as President of The Berlack Method, I often find myself saying: “My mother told me…” or “my mother taught me….”  She taught me perseverance and to demand more of myself than anyone else could.  She taught me the tough love and discipline I pass on to all who hear me.

Here’s to you, Grandma, Grandpa and Ma.  There is no Berlack Method without you.  There but for the grace of God go I.







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2 Responses to "Legacy"

  • Willie Nabors says:

    I am in the same boat with you, brother. I can appreciate the unfailing anchor of the family, and how it perpetually shpes unseen generations. I appreciate the commonalities that both our families share, and how they translate to our current status as men. But I must share this secret: I am glad I got to know you and love you like I did, because I like your grandpa, too. I met him briefly when he came to Andover during our first fall there, for your birthday, I think. When you introduced me to him, I could tell he was a “guy” , the kind my parents would like, and who I was drawn to immediately. Anyone who knows me understands that tthat was an accomplishment. In our brief encounter, I grew to like him so much, not just because of my first impression of him, but also by the fact that, when you were with him, you looked like the happiest kid in the state. l liked that enough to like him even more. Brief but telling, my experience with Mr. Berlack planted seeds in me that came up in my manhood that even surprised me. Maybe it was him, or maybe it’s things that I see in you, and always have, that influenced me. Either way, I would like to think that he would be surprised that he had acquired another grandson that day, or that he has another standard-bearer who will help carry on his legacy. I’m still working on the fedora part, and dressing all neat and stuff, but I look forward to seeing the impact in young lives, and I really want to see the lives you have touched already begin to shape their world.

  • steveberlack says:

    Well said, Wilie! I’d forgotten that you met Grandpa. He was my hero.

    Thank you for sharing that memory and your sentiments! I share them completely.

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