How My Uncle, Hank Aaron, Guided My Career Path (Guest Column)

Hank Aaron and inset of Wonya Lucas
Inset: Courtesy of Crown Media; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Hustle every inning, be a dream-maker for others and never give in to a setback: Wonya Lucas, Crown Media Family Networks president and CEO, credits the baseball legend, who died Jan. 22 at 86, with life lessons that have guided her own trailblazing path to success.

Not long after I became general manager of a national cable network, I began to receive hate mail from those triggered by seeing a Black woman ascend to such a position. As upsetting as it was, I knew how I would handle it — just like my Uncle Hank did.

Uncle Hank — better known to the masses as Hank Aaron, the Hall of Fame slugger whose legacy transcended that of baseball — had to deal with far worse as he chased, and then surpassed, Babe Ruth’s home run record. Despite the racial slurs heaped upon him and the death threats he’d endure, he'd say, "Just keep living," which also meant to remain above the fray and focus on what's essential in life.

I was blessed to spend many years in his midst. Baseball was a family business, as my late father, Bill Lucas, became the first Black GM in baseball after many years with the Atlanta Braves. From when I was younger to before the pandemic, I loved how my uncle’s eyes lit up, followed with a big smile, whenever he saw me. He was proud of me as he was his children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. We all felt loved and special.

I learned from my uncle and father that people watched them as professionals but, more importantly, as Black men who were leaders and trailblazers. Their approach to work and life inspired me as much as it has millions of people, and I see their lessons and examples come alive in my approach as a business leader. I learned to embrace all that I am as a unique Black woman, defy stereotypes and focus on the prize at hand. They both had a calm, confident demeanor which disarmed people into thinking it was their weakness when, really, it was their strength.

Although extremely protective of his family, he always chose to forgive those who meant him harm or ill will. He publicly and privately forgave others, which set a lifelong example for us. I learned from him that forgiveness could free the soul.

Here are some of the other principles that remain part of my DNA, thanks to Uncle Hank:

Hustle in Every Inning

Understand, Uncle Hank wanted to win and hated to lose. He used his calm demeanor to mask his fierce spirit. Despite being disrespected and underestimated, he showed up and showed out inning by inning, game by game, year after year. My uncle understood the importance of consistency. I learned from him that hustle is a shared concept that can reap rewards for the team.

Be a Dream-maker for Others

I became a mentor to a recent Morehouse College graduate with a newly obtained physics degree. I discovered he was a Chasing the Dream scholar. Uncle Hank and Aunt Billye found joy in giving back to others, raising millions of dollars for organizations making a meaningful impact in the community through his Chasing the Dream Foundation. Uncle Hank didn't go to college, but he did ensure that others could through his foundation, which focused, mainly, on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Aunt Billye and Uncle Hank gave transformational gifts because they understood that while not everyone can be an elite athlete, you can always use your superior mind.

Take Your Best Swing, Always

My Uncle Hank had a fierce desire to win. He once said, "In playing ball, and life, a person occasionally gets the opportunity to do something great. When that time comes, only two things matter: being prepared to seize the moment and having the courage to take your best swing." I want to win, always. I learned that when called to the plate, you better be ready. But, baseball is a team sport. Coaching was in his blood. I coach my team to win by treating people with respect, humanity and kindness, which he always did. What if we lived in a world, including our profession, where we were courageous and bold enough to stop living life as a zero-sum game?. If we all focused on the season, not a singular game.

Don’t Get Set Back by Setbacks

Uncle Hank didn't let adversity, hatred and unfathomable challenges distract him from achieving. I learned firsthand that it takes focus, bravery, tenacity and resilience. I cannot tell you how many times I picked myself up from the floor and, as I brushed myself off and went forward, my head held high and my integrity intact. I thought about my uncle and father and all they endured. Keep going, Wonya, keep going.

Your Good Fortune Isn’t Just Yours

My uncle showed me that when God blesses you with tremendous gifts in life — from a healthy, strong body to intelligence and opportunity and so much more — that we must share those gifts with others. Through his foundation, philanthropy and community service, my uncle did it, and I am proud of the work I do in my community and industry.

My Uncle Hank was unforgettable. He once said, "I'm not trying to make anyone forget the Babe, but only to remember Hank Aaron." I think it appropriately fits to say that he lived a beautiful and worthy life, and left a legacy that no one — and I — will soon forget.

Wonya Lucas is President and CEO of Crown Media Family Networks.