Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Gen. Martin Dempsey, On His Mother’s Influence

It’s easy to assume that anyone who holds the title as the highest-ranking military officer in the United States is born with a natural work ethic and an innate sense of discipline. For U.S.. Army General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, these traits were cultivated at a young age from the lessons of two very important women: his mother and grandmother.

Dempsey grew up in a one-bedroom house in Bayonne, N.J., with his parents and four siblings. His mother worked at J.M. Fields, a discount department store chain.

“She never missed a day of work,” Dempsey said. After J.M. Fields, his mother took the only job she could find — working as a cabinetmaker at a construction company.

While his mother and father were working, Dempsey’s grandmother looked after him and his siblings.

“My first memories of being taught right from wrong are actually from my grandmother,” Dempsey said. He also credits his staunchly Irish Catholic affiliation for shaping his perception of his mother and grandmother, adding that “the Irish, by nature, are kind [of] matriarchal.”

It was his mother’s strong-willed nature that encouraged Dempsey to be a leader in all that he did. He was head altar boy at church, and captain among the safety crossing guards in elementary school. She didn’t pressure her children, Dempsey noted, but she would ask, ‘Are you doing that as well as you can do it?’

“She had really high expectations. Neither she nor my dad went to college, but it was very clear to all of us that we were going to college,” Dempsey said. When he was accepted into West Point, he didn’t want to go. His mother called him home to read his acceptance letter and began crying when he protested. If she hadn’t emotionally persuaded him to attend the military academy, he would have gone to Manhattan College. 

“If you were to ask me, ‘Why are you the chairman?’, I’d say, at some level, it has to be because of my mother,” Dempsey said.

But even as the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. Armed Forces, his mother’s influence extends well beyond his career. “I am probably the person I am because of my mother.”

This article was contributed by author Suzanne Pollak, as part of an interview series featured in her upcoming book about extraordinary men in America, and the mothers who helped shape their paths to success. Pollak is the accomplished author of “The Pat Conroy Cookbook,” “Entertaining for Dummies,” “The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits,” “Etiquette with Recipes,” and is the founder of The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits.


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