I was going to write about having a 64th birthday today but then I realized the bigger news is that I have been gainfully employed now for 50 years. That’s a milestone that deserves a few thoughts.
I started going to work with my dad when I was just 10 but he just wanted me to watch. I wasn’t even close to being able to do any real work but I still learned a lot. I learned that really talented people are fun to watch. I learned that keeping quiet while other people are concentrating is very important. I learned that there are no stupid questions but you only get to ask them once. Asking twice is the epitome of stupid. I also learned that work is good for you. I learned to love going to work and I still do.
In 1968, my dad built a new building and we moved in that fall. I was there for all of the moving in part and that was really the beginning of my apprenticeship. By then I was old enough to do the manual labor, limited skills type work. I cleaned all day because photography required everything to be spotless. I have used more bottles of Windex than any human alive. Every piece of equipment we used had a large flat glass surface that had to be cleaned every time it was used. One tiny speck of dust was all it took to ruin our work so the pressure that was on me was intense. It was a great way to learn the importance of perfection. I took great pride in my cleaning skills and I still do.
During high school and college, I worked whenever school was out and by then I was doing higher order thinking. We measured, calculated, planned and scheduled every last thing we did. The math skills I acquired there will be with me always. My dad even developed a one question interview for potential employees. He would just ask, “How many eighths are there in an inch?” You wouldn’t believe how many people failed to pass that simple test. Even the ones who passed that quiz often stumbled over the meaning of the word deadline. For some, hearing that word a dozen times a day was more than they could handle and they didn’t stick around too long. I was instilled with competitive instincts so that word just inspired me and it still does.
After college, I headed off for a year and a half to New York City and Houston for more training. I’m sure my dad wanted me to improve my people skills and he knew NYC would be just the place to humble me. He was right again and I learned coping skills that could be more accurately described as survival skills. It was all I could do to keep up with the pace of work in NYC. I also learned that drinking and thinking are incompatible. In 1976 the three martini lunch was alive and well but not for me. I never could drink my lunch with the other salespeople and the customers who expected it. We had a company dinner one night that included so much booze the VP had to use two credit cards to pay for it all. He got off easy with me and I got extra credit for being the only one who remembered his speech the next day. It really didn’t change much when they sent me to Houston for my first sales territory. The very first day in the Houston office was spent with a bunch of hungover salesmen who had just gotten back from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. That was not a productive meeting. The lesson I learned was to work first and play later and I still do it that way.
When I finally came home in 1978, to start a new business with my dad, I was just 24 but I already had a lot of experience under my belt. It was a crash course in things that college could never teach. It was real world experience that was terrifying at times and exhilarating at other times. Everybody likes to talk about leading edge technology but the stuff we were doing was really bleeding edge technology so I learned to adapt to each new situation as quickly as I could and to make decisions on the run. Most of the deadlines we had in the printing business were less than 24 hours from start to finish. I had a desk but I hardly ever sat down until I locked the doors after 5 o’clock. There was always something that required my attention and decision-making skills. There was no time for mistakes or indecision. My ability to meet deadlines made me very popular with my clients and they paid me well. Between my dad and I, we made a small family business last 50 years. It will always be the greatest experience of my life and gave me all the skills I still use today.
After we closed the business in 2004, I took some time off for personal reasons and to take a break from the stress I had endured for the previous 25+ years. I tried working for a few other printing companies but I never agreed with their business practices so I kept looking for a new challenge. Working in foster care took care of that. All of my coping skills are used daily to survive the systemic mess that exists in every foster care agency. I spend copious amounts of energy fixing potential problems before they become life-changing issues for these kids. And frequently my diligence is not well received by my employer. In my mind at least, I work for the kids not the state. If I step on some toes along the way but the kids are better off, I will always take that chance. If they want to fire me for caring too much, then I don’t really want to work there anyway. Somebody has to care for these kids and I always will.
As I reflect on my 50 years of hard work, I realize I wouldn’t change a minute of it. It was an adventure filled with discovery, joy, heartache and determination to overcome all obstacles that made me who I am today, a much better man than I was at 14. I figure I’ve got at least 10 more years to go before I will even think about retiring because work is what I do best. The really good news I got today was from my son, Thomas. As of yesterday, the doctor has confirmed that they will be bringing home my first grandson this August. That’s the best birthday present I have ever gotten. I can’t wait to start working with my grandson. I have high hopes for him. I’m thinking either rodeo clown or President of the US of A. It’s pretty much the same skill set and right up my alley. It’s good to have a mission in life and I always find a new one.
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