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Megalomania in History and Modern Life - Delusional or Deliberate?

Updated on February 17, 2015
Does your cat suffer from delusions of grandeur?
Does your cat suffer from delusions of grandeur? | Source

Introduction

As many of you are able to guess without additional clues by examining my user name, I work for the Postal Service. During the 20 year course of my letter carrier career I have met more than my share of male and female managers that could have the word "jerk" applied to them without much argument from their underlings or even from themselves. Members of the postal managerial corps wear the word jerk proudly as a badge of honor, and openly flaunt it as a sure fire ticket to promotion. Being a jerk in the post office will get one a long way, even when other qualifications are lacking.

But one manager in particular I had the pleasure to be associated with took the jerk moniker to new extremes, and was well aware of it. This man openly boasted about being a megalomaniac, a word he probably pulled out of one of the impressive managerial tomes he decorated his office with, and he went to great lengths to try to prove it. Two or three times a week he would use his employees as a forced audience for his long-winded, long-running stand up talk speeches, in which he would rant about character, integrity, family, and whatever random subject he had seen on TV the night before, whether or not it pertained to our postal duties or not. If we returned from the street late because we had been detained in the office by his lengthy diatribes he would then write us up. In fact, he would discipline or attempt to fire people for any petty deviation from the rules, or even for having the audacity to disagree with him. The union was kept quite busy fighting to get people's jobs back. Later when he was promoted to area manager he would sit around the lunch table with his minions and play telephone games with the supervisors in his offices, giving them impossible assignments he invented in his wicked imagination and then laughing hysterically with his co-conspirators as these underlings stressed themselves to the limits of sanity trying to comply with his arbitrary whims.

For a long time I simply took this man at his word that he was what he said he was, a megalomaniac. It sounds like a wicked enough sounding noun, after all, and I suppose I just thought that anybody who was that insufferably power hungry must have some kind of multisyllabic mental disorder associated with him. But sometimes people purposely use impressive sounding words as a cover for what is simply bad behavior. Saying that you have ADHD is a lot better than saying you are a hyperactive, loudmouth fool who can't sit still and can't keep his mouth shut. And calling oneself a megalomaniac certainly sounds better than admitting to being a first class jerk. It actually sounds like a legitimate; albeit frightening disorder, and its ominous overtones make it seem that the person supposedly afflicted with it is entirely at its mercy.


What is Megalomania?

But are these power hungry men and women like my boss truly megalomaniacs, or are they simply calculating individuals who put their own advancement over everything else, including the needs of the company, organization, or even the country they have been selected to lead?

According to the clinical definition of the term, megalomania is defined by delusional fantasies that one is all powerful or even omnipotent. Being delusional does not mean merely believing a false idea because of incomplete or untrue information, but persisting in a belief in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

True delusions are symptomatic of mental illness. They are especially relevant to discussions of schizophrenia, manic bipolar episodes, and psychotic depression. Therefore, my manager who boasted in such a cavalier fashion about being a megalomaniac should have been institutionalized immediately for his own safety, or at least taken aside and politely urged to stop using megalomania as an excuse for his coldly rational bid to oppress others by flaunting his own authority. His behavior most certainly could be classified as uncouth and perhaps borderline neurotic, but it was probably not indicative of megalomania.


Have you ever had a megalomaniac boss?

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Megalomaniacs in History

Okay, but since my boss man was just a loudmouth jerk and not really a megalomaniac, just who are some of the recognizable figures throughout history who have sometimes been classified as megalomaniacs, and were they really?

Even the statues seem to display Caligula's cruel, arbitrary, capricious nature.
Even the statues seem to display Caligula's cruel, arbitrary, capricious nature. | Source

Caligula

Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), who ruled Rome as Emperor from AD 37-41, is probably the most notorious of the Roman rulers in terms of his depravity and perversion. Caligula was noted for killing on a whim, and once at a publicly staged games had his guards throw an entire section of the crowd to the animals because there were no prisoners available to slaughter and he was bored.

In spite of his nonsensical and capricious outbursts of violence, Caligula has been the benefactor of a historical image reconstruction. it seems that many historians have been trying to prove that Caligula's monstrosities were actually calculated attempts to increase Imperial power.

Recent excavations made in Rome have lambasted this theory by demonstrating that Caligula actually had an entire street blocked off so that thru traffic would have no choice but to stop and worship at his temple, which he had constructed after declaring himself God. Caligula also had a magnificent palace built for his favorite horse, whom he proclaimed to be Consul; which was basically the head of the Roman government. Neither of these acts seem to be shrewd political machinations, but more like the delusional outbursts of a raving madman. When a person starts to actually believe that they are God, it might be a sign that they are a little bit off their rocker. This is probably why Caligula's guards assassinated him before he could subject the office of Emperor to further embarrassment. Caligula most assuredly qualifies for megalomaniac.

The power, charisma, and vision of this ancient Emperor are clearly portrayed in this bust of Alexander the Great.
The power, charisma, and vision of this ancient Emperor are clearly portrayed in this bust of Alexander the Great. | Source

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was the unrivaled conqueror of antiquity who defeated the mighty Egyptian and Persian armies and spread Greek rule and culture up to the gates of India between the years 332-323 BCE. Although he certainly lusted for power and fame, none of his actions seem to display anything other than a firm, though ruthless grip on reality..

Alexander's association with megalomania comes about because of his practice of proskynesis, or the genuflection a person of lesser rank performs before a supposedly superior individual. Since the Greeks led by Alexander only prostrated themselves before their Gods, the Persian practice of proskynesis was thought to be a godlike veneration of the Emperor. Alexander attempted to implement the practice of proskynesis to make an impression on the Middle Eastern peoples he conquered, but when it did not have an enthusiastic reception among his own freedom-loving Greek followers he declined to force feed it down their throats. In other words Alexander made a calculated, non-delusional decision to recognize where he went wrong and to correct his mistakes in order to maintain his hold upon power.

All the same Alexander was often venerated and rumored to be made of godlike stuff. This was not the result of delusional fantasies, however, but probably the consequence of legends surrounding him that were probably proliferated on purpose as propaganda. One of the most noteworthy myths surrounded his mother, who allegedly had a dream in which her womb was struck by a thunderbolt, indicating conception by the god Zeus. Most certainly Alexander exploited these legends of divine conception to his advantage, as a calculated means to further justify and solidify his rule.

So Alexander might have pretended to be a god from time to time, but he was most likely only pretending and didn't actually believe it. My boss might want you to believe in his godlike status as well, but as yet has not been able to institute the practice of proskynesis in the post office.

Stalin vs. Hitler:  A case of coldly calculating killer vs delusional, raving lunatic?
Stalin vs. Hitler: A case of coldly calculating killer vs delusional, raving lunatic? | Source

Stalin vs. Hitler

If we accept that megalomania is a psychopathological condition characterized by a delusional obsession with power, then some of history's greatest megalomaniacs are going to have to be thrown out and reclassified as something else. Maybe "creeps" would be a better word. Just saying.

Joseph Stalin, the undisputed, unchallenged ruler of the Soviet Union between 1924 to 1953, is one of those notorious figureheads of history that everyone assumes to be a megalomaniac, probably because he murdered millions of people and had millions of others shipped off to labor camps.

But although the diminutive Stalin, whom American President Harry Truman referred to as a "little squirt," may have suffered from an inferiority complex resulting from "short-man's syndrome," and most certainly was a cruel, remorseless sociopath, is there any real evidence to indicate that he met the "delusional" criteria required for megalomania? His rise to the top of the Soviet power structure was devious, underhanded, and unscrupulous, but it was also brilliantly calculated . Neither was his leadership of the victorious Soviet forces in World War II against the greatest war machine of its time the work of a delusional madman. Just because someone is a very evil dude, as Stalin most certainly was, does not mean they meet the qualifications necessary to wear the word "megalomaniac" on their name tag at the International Brotherhood of Jerks convention.

In contrast, the equally notorious brute across the WWII front lines from Stalin may indeed have been a delusional megalomaniac. Whereas Stalin took pragmatism to the extreme, carrying out mass exterminations of people that opposed his objectives, Adolf Hitler clung obsessively to fairy tales and myths that he attempted to carry into reality. They myth of the subhuman status of the Jewish people, for instance, resulted in the deportation and death of six million people, even though the Jewish people had never really opposed him anywhere except within the confines of his twisted imagination. Hitler also had a delusional, irrational belief in the invincibility of the German soldier, a false conviction that he embraced to the point that he destroyed his own forces by neglecting to supply them with proper winter clothing and other cold-weather provisions during the first year of the Russian invasion. Hitler clung stubbornly to the fanciful pipe dream that the Russians would be defeated quickly, a delusion that ultimately cost him the war. So on the issue of megalomania I vote "no" for Stalin, "yes" for Hitler.

Does megalomania turn a man into a laughable caricature of himself?
Does megalomania turn a man into a laughable caricature of himself? | Source

Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein, etc.

Megalomania has not decreased in popularity as humanity has moved forward and made incredible advances in technology, medicine, and science. Megalomania is still alive and well in every corner of the globe and doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. People have desired to dominate other people since about the time we were still dragging our knuckles in the dirt, and while it might be true that gadgetry has made us more sophisticated brutes, we're still brutes.

Real world examples of megalomaniacs still living or recently deceased are legion. Kim Jong Il, the former dictator of North Korea, believed that his mood swings changed the weather. He also claimed to have invented the hamburger, around the same time that Al Gore was inventing the Internet. Saddam Hussein, deposed as dictator of Iraq in 2003 and executed in 2006, believed that he was descended from the prophet Mohammed. Strangely enough, in his own mind he was also the resurrection of the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. To glorify his association with the Babylonian ruler of antiquity, Saddam built a palace in the form of a Babylonia Ziggurat, a megalomania-related action that echos the bygone days of Caligula.


The Tokugawa Shoguns of Japan believed that they were helpless victims of their own "karma," much like my boss believed that he was the helpless victim of his "megalomania."
The Tokugawa Shoguns of Japan believed that they were helpless victims of their own "karma," much like my boss believed that he was the helpless victim of his "megalomania." | Source

Conclusion

The point I'm trying to make is that the megalomaniacs are certainly out there, but megalomania cannot always be used as an excuse for bad behavior. The Japanese ruler Toranaga is quoted in the James Clavell novel Shogun as saying "I did not choose to be what I am. It is my karma." Perhaps this rather fatalistic surrendering of one's moral code is the method by which the great dictators justify their dark deeds, just like my Postal boss justified his own bad behavior by using the convenient excuse of megalomania. But whether you're the oppressive dictator of a large chunk of the map, or just the abusive boss of a few dozen letter carriers, saying "I can't help it, I'm a megalomaniac," doesn't always fly.

Will the real megalomaniac please stand up?

Which of the historical figures examined above most embodies the condition of megalomania?

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    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 10 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you techygran for dropping in. I apologize for not getting around to my comments sooner. I have been working atrocious hours at the Post Office trying to get our political mail out before the upcoming election, lest the Donald accuse the government of rigging the election against him. I appreciate your kind words.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 10 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Hi Mel,

      This article was insightful and entertaining, an effective combination of features when attempting to get across your point of view to the jaded masses of Internet "researchers." I laughed, I shared. ~Cynthia

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Nadine May. I think Trump is narcissism personified, and he will say anything to be President. I can't watch The Office either, it's too realistic and the humor is too dark. Thanks for reading!

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 16 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      While reading your post who came to mind was Napoleon. or...I what about Trump? There is one American TV sitcom "the office" I always walk away from while other watch it, but the boss is a good example of a Megalomania character. Thanks for that well written article.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 23 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Randy I really appreciate the nice words. Thanks for dropping by!

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      Randy Stiles 23 months ago from Fort Wayne, IN

      Wow! You are a fantastic writer. The organization, the flow, and the information all on point. Excellent!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I would like to read your hub about the Alamo. Sounds fascinating, even though I think a lot about the Alamo is legend and poetry. Thanks for reading!

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Here is another megalomaniac: Col. William B. Travis at the Alamo said, "We will never surrender and never retreat." Travis was hopelessly outnumbered, out gunned and disobeyed the orders of his general, Sam Houston. Travis also abandoned his family. See Hub, "What do we know about the Alamo."

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      Now you have me curious to research the history of Patrick Henry, Jay O'Brien. He is always idealized as a great patriot, but it wouldn't surprise me. Perhaps he was a war profiteer like some of our politicians today. In truth I think the American Revolution sparked revilutions all over the globe and patience wouldn't have helped. The British weren't going to give up the Empire without a fight at that point. But you raise some interesting points. Thanks for reading.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

      Many political leaders had megalomaniac tendencies, that is why we go to war so often. How about getting a mental health warrant for leaders to determine their fitness for office? For example there is Patrick Henry.

      Patrick Henry says there are no alternatives, but to fight.

      Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on..... There is no longer any room for hope. ...-- we must fight! -- I repeat it, sir, we must fight!!

      Comment, learn patience

      No, the colonists did not do everything they could to achieve their goals. Were their goals to become independent of England or to gain certain rights or was it another goal entirely?

      As the population of the colonies grew they grew in influence. With time, perhaps another generation, the colonists would have all they wanted without bloodshed. In 1812 the Americans won the war against Briton. In only 36 years the colonists became much stronger. Population expansion had a profound influence on British policy in America. Time was on the side of the colonists, learn patience.

      Patrick Henry said, "Give me Liberty or give me death" while he kept his wife locked in his basement, in a straight jacket.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 3 years ago from California

      I can't speak about the others, but as a Russian, I've kinda been learning about Stalin my whole life, and my impression is that Stalin was definitely on the delusional side.

      He was of course a pragmatic leader whom some of Russian people still worship today, but he was also irrational, impulsive and deeply paranoid. He was actually diagnosed with paranoia by some nice Jewish doctors who didn't live long after that. And when Germany attacked the USSR in 1941, the Russian army was very ill-prepared because Stalin believed that since him and Hitler have a secret pact, he's got nothing to worry about. And he maintained that position despite numerous warnings from Soviet and English spies, despite reports from military commanders, despite the very common sense! That's why the first months and years of the war were the hardest for the Russian people. And that whole mausoleum thing... So I definitely see him as a megalomaniac. Does it make him any less of a homicidal jerk? Nope. Enjoyed the hub, as always, thanks for sharing! I love history.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      That is most certainly true. King David is a perfect example of someone who went overboard with power. Thanks for reading!

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      Thankfully, you're no longer working for that boss. The Bible is also full of stories of people who let power get the best of them.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Harishpradad if you want to read more about Caligula I recommend a pair of novels by Robert Graves called I Claudius and Claudius the God. There is also a BBC series by the same name. Excellent reading. Thanks for the kind comment.

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 3 years ago from India

      Mel, what a marvelous hub is this that not for a moment I stopped and read it all in one go. Very interesting stuff and yes, such jerks are still around. I wonder lawmakers in most of the countries have not envisaged any safeguards against these crack pots. Sometimes, even a petty managerial level official assumes himself as a guy sent from heaven ! Though I had read about some historical megalomaniac personalities mentioned by you, I knew about Caligula for the first time. His name sounds so strange and curious and how cruel he was !

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      History is chock full of megalomaniacs, but I think to conquer one of the largest empires ever you have to be pretty rational. True he may have enjoyed the suffering of others, but that twisted component of his psyche doesn't necessarily include the delusional element which is essential for full blown megalomania. Thanks for reading.

    • nuffsaidstan profile image

      nuffsaidstan 3 years ago

      Great hub, another megalomaniac Genghis Khan, they say he was not happy in the morning unless he woke up to see the site of a city or town the mongols had ransacked smouldering in the distance!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Sorry Cathi not to respond sooner. Unfortunately I think there are thousands of Wannabe Caligulas in workplaces around the world. Thank God only a handful ever emerge, but when they do watch out! Thanks for reading.

    • Cathi Sutton profile image

      Cathi Sutton 3 years ago

      What a drag to have worked with a boss like that! I'm just surprised he was moved up the chain of command to an even higher ranking position. Doesn't even seem fair.

      The historical figures you referred to were just awful! Seems a bit odd that such horrible people can end up so powerful. Why do others follow this kind of weirdo?

      Very interesting Hub on different levels.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Crafty you are too kind. Got to run, parcels to deliver.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Crafty. Hope you are well and your family too. I always appreciate your visits. I wish you all the best for the holidays.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

      I always find myself grinning like a Cheshire Cat when reading one of your Hubs. Then I ultimately roar with laughter. Despite the seriousness of the topic, you have such a great sense of humor Mel!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      It's like the Stockholm Syndrome where the hostages begin to become friendly and sympathetic with their captors. Only in retrospect can I realize how terrible it was, and I am glad I did not sell my soul and become one of them. Thanks for dropping by!

    • electronician profile image

      Dean Walsh 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      A fascinating explanation of a misunderstood condition (including by me until now). I really feel for you with that boss btw - it must have been awful!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you LKMore01. Many evil people try to hide their dark deeds behind a facade of mental illness and use this justification to trample their fellow humans into submission. People need to learn to recognize this and nip it in the bud before it spirals out of control. Thanks for dropping by!

    • LKMore01 profile image

      LKMore01 3 years ago

      Great work, Mel. This HUB is unique and entertaining. Although I understand the HUB was meant to examine your maniacal boss you have presented great educational material. Megalomaniacs are truly dangerous people and we need to learn to recognize them before they gain too much power. Voted up !

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you. I'm not sure how one could classify the situation you describe. Probably just youthful folly that has to be corrected in the school of hard knocks. Thanks for reading!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      We can also confused megalomaniacs, as those youngsters fresh out of school that think they're the only ones that can run a business, even the managers that have been at it for longer than six months. Imagine THAT.

      Great work, Mel!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      I think you are very fortunate. In fact, I think you are the only person I've ever heard say that. Maybe it's just us Yanks that are obsessed with power. Thanks for dropping in!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Greatly entertaining and educational hub Mel. I have had some bad bosses in my time, but none I'd go so far as to label megalomaniacs. I think the good ones slightly outweigh the bad too fortunately. Voted up.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thanks for dropping by fivesenses. I guess the post office is not the only place with petty tyrants like this.

    • fivesenses profile image

      Leena 3 years ago from new delhi

      I had such a boss along time back ,who let the power go to his head.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Good for you that you stood up to the bullying behavior and didn't give your boss the satisfaction of pushing you around. Too often this goes on for years and leads to stress-related health conditions. Thanks for reading!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Megalomania in History and Modern Life - Delusional or Deliberate?Interesting subject I once had a bullying boss but quit and never gave her the benefit of throwing her attitude toward me a very thoughtful hub

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      I am happy for you and I hope you never do, but the post office is full of them, which could be why we're broke. Thanks for dropping by!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting and informative look at megalomania, Mel. I've been lucky in that I've never had a boss that resembled yours - thank goodness!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Wetnosedogs for reading and commenting. I would love to have the pleasure of not having a bad boss, but in the post office that would mean unemployment, so it's a double edged sword. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, and save me a bowl of that possum stew.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      Thank you billybuc, I'm glad you had that satisfaction and I hope someday to do something similar, but I'll probably go out quietly and meekly. I had one rather nice boss who on the day of his retirement rode his bicycle into the executive offices and yelled out obscenities at all the higher ups. Thanks for reading and Happy Thanksgiving my friend.

    • wetnosedogs profile image

      wetnosedogs 3 years ago from Alabama

      It is no fun having bosses with the power going over their heads. Luckily, it has been a couple years since I've had an idiot for a boss.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I had to stop and think whether I had had one of these bosses over the years; I guess the closest to one was the last, and I walked out of that job after throwing her the keys. It was a great moment and a perfect ending to my work career. LOL

      Have a very Happy Thanksgiving, Mel!