SALISBURY GENTLEMAN A.J. OSTER '99 SHARES HIS STORY WITH THE SALISBURY COMMUNITY
Currently, I own and operate a small restaurant in North Adams, MA called A-OK Berkshire BBQ (aokbbq.com). September marked our second anniversary. It's amazing how time flies.
This business, for us, was about creating a chance to reshape the business model in which I spent so much of my career. This applies, however, to every field—especially during strange and uncharted times like these.
It wasn't until much, much later in life that Salisbury became a huge part of my life. I was there, I competed in sports, I felt accomplished, but achievement without a sense of self is worthless. So it was at Salisbury, under the guidance of my mentors and teachers Reeves, Curtis, Wolcott, Buehner, Hinchey, Brown, and Smith that the seeds of determination and hard work were planted. I learned that I could do more than I thought, if I just pushed myself harder. If I knew and believed that I could do it, I did it. I failed sometimes, but those failures provided me with so much wisdom that the next time I knew it could be done, because of the shortcomings the previous attempt illuminated. It's not cockiness or ego, it's belief. Faith.
Somewhere between June of 1999 and 2015, life tamped down that faith in me. That belief in myself that knew things could be done. Don't get me wrong, I still worked hard, but I was constantly left with a feeling of emptiness. It wasn't until recently that I sat down and thought about what I am to myself.
And then, as corny as it sounds, I remembered: Esse Quam Videri. And suddenly I felt all those friends and mentors from the Hilltop with their hands on my shoulders. Their voices cheering me on. Then, with meditation, I realized those voices were in my head and my heart.
The feeling of believing in yourself is, in my opinion, the singular goal that all Sarum boys should strive to attain for themselves. Not money, not better grades. Each teacher's job is to find each student’s heart and teach them how to hold themselves with care, with honor, and with humility.
The advice I would bestow to Salisbury students to prepare to pursue a career in their field of interest, in my case, the restaurant business, is that everyone should ask themselves why. i.e., why do you want to cook?
For me, and the reason I chose the field I did, the answer is to serve others. My job is not necessarily about food. Food is a tool used to communicate a vision. It's not about what I cook. For me, it’s about the joy I get from making others feel happiness. Gathering people together to do something greater than they'd considered possible.
Food service and hospitality is about human connection. That's it. I chose to use food because I wasn't great in other academic fields, and food transcends all academia. It's a basic human need. Everyone in our species shares this need, so I can connect with anyone on the planet. Any language, any continent—food is there.
And so, ask yourselves: why. And then ask: how. How can I be myself and do the thing that gives me joy. You have to love what you do.
Earning money is necessary to live in society, but anyone who tells you that your financial gain in the short term is worth the sacrifice of your happiness is full of [garbage]. Yes, money is important, but think about your attitude. If I told you that you could work as a garbage collector and be happy, how would you go about proving me right?
Sacrifice is only painful if you forget the dreams you are working toward. Your perception of suffering belongs to you. So what are you willing to do, to accomplish your dreams? And on that path, do you get angry or upset about growing? Learning? Being better? Did Michael Jordan get angry at the process, when he worked extra hard? No, he knew that in order to accomplish his goals (be the best, change the game) he had to work harder, and push himself and his teammates harder than anyone else would. In any field, mine or someone else’s, it’s about suffering with your eyes open to see opportunities and the doors that have yet to be opened.
Lastly, on a side note, my favorite Hilltop memory is of shaking Former Director of Admissions Chip Wollcot's hand on my first day, and racing swans during an early morning practice sophomore year with Current Faculty Dick Curtis ’91 (Hon.), P’06.