Around our office, people have started to refer to me as "the old man." It’s all a joke, of course, but at the age of 56 and playing in a young person’s game, you begin to wonder if there’s a glimmer of truth to it. My consolation at such moments is that yes, I am older but with the years come some lessons learned, and it’s not such a bad trade off.
So this Monday, November 10, I took a little extra notice when my father — the old man’s old man — turned 85. My father’s birthday has always been a time to take note of the years. He was born in Syracuse, New York, on the day before the armistice ending World War I in 1918. He was named Richard Peace Rein, a fact that my contemporaries in the late 1960s found rather remarkable. The peace only envisioned by the movement of the 1960s was a palpable reality in November of 1918. That was an early lesson taken from my father’s life — take any clever little idea you hear at any point in time and you will discover somebody else somewhere has had it before. Long before there were kids named Sunshine or Harmony there was a guy named Peace.
Prompted by that lesson, I decided to take a look back at my memories of the 85-year-old retiree to see if there were any other lessons that might prove useful to the 56-year-old business owner. Here are a few lessons from the old man:
1.) People don’t do what you expect, they do what you inspect. My father is a high school graduate who went to work at Western Electric during World War II and then got a job in the early days of IBM. As a customer engineer (the fancy name for a repairman) and later supervisor of other repairmen, my father learned a lesson (often repeated) that would stand any 21st century MBA in good stead: You may have asked someone to do something in the most polite language possible or you may even have ordered them in the sternest possible tone, but unless you have some means of following up, you will never know for sure that it got done.
2.) Always use the right tool for the job. One day my younger brother came back to visit the folks and needed some help changing a tire on his car. The lug nut simply would not turn. My father saw a long piece of pipe lying on the garage floor. He inserted the end of the pipe over the end of the tire iron, and then asked my brother’s wife to step on this custom-built lever. She turned the nut easily.
3.) If there is no tool, don’t be afraid to create one. Back when my father still presided over the cottage on the lake in northeastern Pennsylvania, we returned one spring after a tough winter. The frost had twisted the railroad ties that formed the footings under the boathouse. Getting the structure squared around would have been an impossible challenge for the strongest men.
My father had an idea: He fashioned a wedge between the bumper of his car and the railroad ties. Seconds later the ties were back in place.
4.) Never send a boy to do a man’s job. This is a saying among those who play pinochle, including my father. While I do not often play this game, I have appreciated the advice. When I have ignored it in business, I have often paid the price.
5.) Use any chance you get to teach a lesson. I was about eight years old when my father and I were waiting in the car at the A&P supermarket while my mother was shopping inside. The sign where the grocery baggers brought the carts said "No tipping." My question — what is tipping? — led to a quick lesson on how to figure percentages.
6.) Appreciate the smaller joys in life. All five of the Rein children were present with our father at the moment my mother died in 1997. Seconds after she drew her last breath, my father turned to the rest of us and said "It’s the end of an era," and then added, "era, three-letter word meaning period of time." It was a reference to the longtime daily crossword puzzle ritual my parents shared.
7.) When you have a chance to add a little humor to the discussion, take it. Several years ago, when my father began enjoying the company of a woman who lives a few miles away from him in upstate New York, he described her to us kids and then added, in a confidential tone, "of course she is a younger woman." Kay Jabornik is indeed younger — a widow in her 70s. But what woman wouldn’t want to be known as the younger woman, and what 85-year-old man wouldn’t want to know one?
8.) There’s a right way and a wrong way to open the lid of a jar. The wrong way is to grab it, twist it as hard as you can, and then give up. The way that often succeeds is to twist it and then steadily continue to exert the energy. Given some prolonged force, the lid often gives way.
That’s been useful in getting past a lot of obstacles in life, in addition to opening some seemingly impossible jars that have stymied people younger and presumably stronger than I.
So let’s hear it for the old man, and all the old men of our lives. Maybe they know a few things we don’t. Peace, dad. Or as we might have said in the 1960s: peace, daddy-o.