Remembering dad on his 110th birthday

My dad in 1977.

My dad in 1977.

My old man was an old man.

January 30, 2017 marks my dad’s 110th birthday.

My dad was sixty years old when I was born.

Sixty years.

He feared that he wouldn’t live long enough to see me graduate from high school.

It’s common for people to have their last child before they were half my dad’s age.

My dad was older than many grandparents.

I knew my dad was older than my classmates’ parents. It was normal for me, though I knew we, and I, were different.

Shortly before I was born, my dad was laid off and decided to retire. My mom, 35 years younger than dad, was teaching fourth grade and finishing graduate school, so they decided that he would stay home and be a house-husband and mom would finish school and have her career.

That meant that dad got me up and ready for school and was there waiting for me when I got home (often with something fresh out of the oven for me to “test”).

We were close. We did chores together. We tinkered in the workshop together. We cut wood together. We worked in the kitchen together. We were together all the time.

During all of that togetherness, he told me story upon story about his life and experiences. It was just normal conversation for us — but was a history lesson and perspective to which most kids aren’t exposed.

Many children with attentive parents or grandparents learn from them, but having an older parent brought with it a deeper and richer view on history. Not to mention the ability to understand many lessons learned.

My dad was a quiet, caring, thoughtful man with a big laugh who was born to a German immigrant family. He used to joke that he was “born on the boat.” He was actually born in Wisconsin.

He only spoke German and after trying to get by in school, gave up at the fourth grade.

One day, at around age 13, my dad went home to find his mom with a man who was not his dad. His mom threw a kitchen knife, stabbing my dad in the arm. He ran out of the house into the street.

Afraid to return home, and his parents in turmoil after his mom being found out, dad went to live with a nearby aunt and uncle.

But dad was restless, not in school and disconnected. He felt like no place was his own. When his aunt asked him to go to the bakery for a loaf of bread, he decided to pass the bakery and keep going. And going.

A fresh teenager, he struck out on his own, running away from whatever stood for home at the time.

It was 1920, the start of the Roaring 20s and he was a 13 year old boy out on his own. He became a hobo, riding the rails. He traveled around the Midwest and East by hitching rides on trains, taking up odd jobs in towns along the way.

He and the other men huddled around fires burning trash and found items to stay warm during the winters. They also would drink stove fuel (Sterno), for warmth, from cans discarded by the workers on the trains.

Kalamazoo Asylum Water Tower (viewsofthepast.com)

Kalamazoo Asylum Water Tower. (viewsofthepast.com)

After a few years of such travel, one of the trains he was riding pulled in to Kalamazoo, Michigan. He looked out the door of the train and saw the most interesting water tower and decided that he’d stay in Kalamazoo.

That water tower belonged to the Kalamazoo Asylum — a hospital for the mentally ill. The tower, built in the late 1800s, stands today and is a unique landmark in Kalamazoo.

An example of the style of plates and cups my dad made prior to his retirement.

An example of the style of plates and cups my dad made prior to his retirement.

He eventually ended up working in the paper mill and worked his way up to management. When he “retired” he was working in a plant that made plastic cups and paper plates.

Dad worked from age 13 to 60. That’s 47 years. So not only did I grow up with a stay-at-home dad, who was born before electricity, airplanes or cars were commonplace, but one who had a lifetime of work experience to pass along.

By the time I entered the workforce I had earned a degree in business from the lessons dad taught me.

One of dad’s stories was about when they brought time-and-motion engineers into the plant. The engineers were brought in to record everyone’s work processes and to make recommendations to make them more efficient. What a joke dad thought all of it was.

The workers had to fill out cards for every task they did so that it could be tracked. Months were spent making changes in order to remove steps in the work. Management was very excited about the efficiency and savings that would result. But over time, that same management undid many of the changes that they spent a lot of money to make.

How many times I’ve seen similar situations in my working life. Big “new” ideas unleashed on the workforce, only to be abandoned for the next great idea. There’s often little follow-through and little consideration for what has already been tried. Well before the K.I.S.S. principle, dad taught me about the tendancy for people to make things more complicated than necessary and that the simplest way probably is the best.

I also learned from my dad’s many years of work experience to think about why people do things. I can’t remember how many stories he had about what people were going through, particularly during the Great Depression. Time and time again he would talk about people being difficult at work, but that they were struggling at home, trying to feed their family, trying to pay rent, supporting elderly or sick family, etc. He’d seen some really hard times personally and saw it in others and appreciated their struggles.

Another instance I remember was when we were camping and ran into a man my dad had once worked with. He was covered in scars and walked in a strange manner. I asked dad if the man had been in a car accident. Dad explained that that’s how the man came back from the war. He’d been a POW of the Nazis and they’d tortured and done “experiments” on him.

You never know what story or pain — seen or unseen — the people around you are dealing with.

Dad never lost his job during the Great Depression. Many around him lost their jobs, and unfortunately it was his job to let some of those people go. One evening in the mid-1970s, we were at the mall when a man and his wife approached us. The man said “Leonard, do you remember me?” Dad did remember him. Then the man said “Why did you let me go? I was a good worker, I’ve always wondered, why you let ME go.”

It was a very uncomfortable conversation and dad explained that he was given a list of names and if he didn’t let go the people on the list, someone else would do it — and his own name would be added to the list.

I don’t know how many people my dad let go during the Depression, but I know the pain of that era never left him.

I also learned from the things my dad wished he’d done better. I mentioned that he was laid off shortly before his 60th birthday. Dad was a company man and supported his employer (KVP Sutherland and later The Brown Company). But in the mid-’60s, the company was having financial troubles and began to systematically let go people so they wouldn’t have to pay them their full pension. Dad was one of many who were let go that way — getting a small fraction of the pension they had planned for. There were no laws to prevent it.

My dad was not a saver nor an investor. He trusted that one day a “good pension” would be waiting for him. That wasn’t unusual for those of his generation. Not only had they seen banks go under, taking people’s money with them, privately saving for retirement was not common. It wasn’t until 1974 that options like Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) became available.

So I grew up learning from dad that you work with pride — pride in your own reputation and work. You have to do everything in your power to be responsible for yourself. Take advantage of whatever benefits the employer offers, but understand that anything can happen. Even being a good saver and investor was no guarantee, but do your best to look out for yourself.

From my very first job, my goal was to put a minimum of 10% in savings. My first job was part time, I was going to college and I had very little. But he, rightly, encouraged me to start the habit because it would never be easier to start.

I’ve seen my own employers reduce benefits, eliminate pension plans, cut pay, put people on furloughs, or lay them off. Some of these things have impacted me directly, others impacted the friends I worked with. The lessons I learned from dad did not make the hard knocks easier, but they didn’t surprise me and I was as prepared as I could be.

While not directly related to my dad’s age, the fact that he was the child of immigrants and for all intents and purposes had no formal education, also had an impact on me. Especially when contrasted with my mom’s education.

Dad learned everything — language, very basic writing ability, mathematics — on the street and on the job. This has instilled in me both a hearty respect for immigrants who have so many hurdles to conquer, and an understanding that learning is life-long and everywhere.

In my book, despite a very hard life, dad was a success. He raised three great, intelligent and independent children from his first marriage, and me from his second. He was independent, kind, had friends, was liked and respected. He achieved all of that in the most non-traditional ways.

By contrast, my mother had extensive, formal education. She holds a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees plus many additional credits beyond her master’s. Her degrees cover K-12 education, special education, counseling, personnel management and communications. Formal education was a major part of my mom’s life.

Between the two of them, I learned from my parents the importance of a formal education: it can open doors, builds a foundation, and is more efficient than the school of hard knocks. That was balanced with an understanding that learning and training never end and that if I don’t know something or possess a skill today, tomorrow is a fresh opportunity to succeed.

Everyone’s childhood and upbringing is unique. We all have different things that have shaped us. Parents, teachers, relatives, friends, illness, injury, handicap, geography: all imprint and create the future us. I’m no different. But as I approach the midlife-crisis phase of my life, I’ve given even more consideration to how having an older parent gave me a perspective very different from my peers. From my view of history, to my interest in the music of the 1920s-1940s, to a sense that there really isn’t much new under the sun, an older parent is due the credit.

Not only was my dad old, and had seen a lot of history first-hand, we had time to talk about it. Almost any event or news story or “old” movie would give my dad an opportunity to tell me about things he’d seen.

Perspective

For perspective, here are some things to consider about my dad and his time. Which in a way became my time as well.

When my dad was born in 1907 the average life expectancy was 45.6 years. Imagine that. Today people routinely live into their 90s. As I write this I’m five years older than the life expectancy of my dad’s birth year!

There were only 45 states in the union in 1907. Dad was 52 years old by the time we got to our current count of 50 states.

Think about the things that were invented, discovered or occurred after my dad was born. Keep in mind that in many cases they did not become commonplace nor widely known for years after they’d been invented or discovered. Consider the things that are so fixed in our daily lives — they simply didn’t exist!

The list is long, but I encourage you to read it slowly and consider life without any one of these things — not to mention ANY of them!

  • Indoor plumbing
  • Essentially any electric appliance (washing machine, blender, mixer, toaster, electric lighting, vacuum cleaner)
  • Helicopter
  • Cellophane
  • Neon lighting
  • Parachute
  • Radio
  • X-Ray
  • Sound film (talkies)
  • Refrigeration
  • Television
  • Paper cup
  • Crossword puzzle
  • Adhesive tape
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Transistor
  • Supermarket
  • Adhesive bandage
  • The recliner
  • Chocolate chip cookie
  • Phillips-head screw
  • Fiberglass
  • Xerography (photocopying)
  • Nylon
  • Twist tie
  • Coffee filter
  • The zipper
  • Antibiotics
  • Tape recording
  • Ford Model-T
  • Assembly line
  • Aerosol spray
  • Bakelite
  • Tungsten
  • Vacuum tube
  • Color photography
  • Jet engine
  • Fluorescent light
  • Air conditioning
  • Mother’s and Father’s Days
  • Prohibition
  • The sinking of the Titanic
  • Women got the right to vote
  • Income tax
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • Korean War
  • The National Park Service
  • Daylight Savings Time
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • Discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb
  • Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight
  • The Great Depression
  • The Empire State Building
  • Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
  • The Hindenburg disaster
  • The Golden Gate Bridge
  • Teflon
  • The draft
  • McDonalds
  • Bugs Bunny
  • The Pentagon
  • The Panama Canal

That’s quite a long list isn’t it? And dad saw all of those things become a part of life and history.

The Wright Brothers flew just four years before he was born, but airplanes were a rarity until WWI. It wasn’t until the barnstorming era of the 1920s that many people had even seen one in person.

Dad would later see men walking on the moon, and the Space Shuttle go to space and return.

Interestingly, dad never flew in a plane.

Another way to look at dad’s place in history is to consider the famous people who were born after my dad.

  • President Lyndon Johnson
  • Journalist Edward R. Murrow
  • Actor Jimmy Stewart
  • Actress Bette Davis
  • Actor Errol Flynn
  • Car designer Ferdinand Porsche
  • Writer Eudora Welty
  • Actress Jessica Tandy
  • Songwriter Benny Goodman
  • Adventurer Jacques Cousteau
  • Actress Lucille Ball
  • President Ronald Reagan
  • Actor Roy Rogers
  • Actor Vincent Price
  • Actor Hume Cronyn
  • Mathematician Alan Turing
  • Chef Julia Child
  • Olympian Jesse Owens
  • President Gerald Ford
  • Actor Lloyd Bridges
  • Actor Jim Backus
  • Jimmy Hoffa
  • Coach Vince Lombardi
  • President Richard Nixon
  • Boxer Joe Louis
  • Baseball player Joe DiMaggio
  • Actor George Reeves (Superman)
  • Actor Clayton More (The Lone Ranger)
  • Playwright Arthur Miller
  • Actor Frank Sinatra
  • Actor Gregory Peck
  • Actor Kirk Douglas
  • Journalist Walter Cronkite
  • President John F. Kennedy
  • Writer Arthur C. Clarke
  • Actor Raymond Burr
  • Columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren
  • Baseball player Ted Williams
  • Writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • Broadcaster Paul Harvey
  • Broadcaster Howard Cosell
  • Baseball player Jackie Robinson
  • Musician Liberace
  • Singer Nat King Cole
  • Author J.D. Salinger
  • Actress Maureen O’Hara
  • Actor Mickey Rooney
  • Writer Ray Bradbury
  • Actor Walter Matthau
  • Author Arthur Hailey
  • Writer Isaac Asimov
  • First lady Nancy Reagan
  • Actor Abe Vigoda
  • Comedian Rodney Dangerfield
  • Actress Betty White
  • Author Jack Kerouac
  • Comedian Redd Foxx
  • Actor Charlton Heston
  • Boxer Rocky Marciano

Dad’s life and experiences seemed normal to me. He grew up without electricity. Even gas lighting in homes was reserved for the wealthy. Almost nobody had ever seen an automobile when he was a child, but nearly everyone had a horse and buggy.

Homes were heated by coal or wood fires.

Ice came from central ice houses and was delivered by horse-drawn cart.

There was no radio nor TV — information came, slowly, from newspapers and magazines. For those who could afford them. Or were able to read.

Some other random facts from life around 1907.

  • 14% of U.S. homes had a bath tub.
  • 8% of U.S. homes had telephone (and most of those were in big cities on the East coast).
  • A three-minute “long-distance” telephone call cost $11 (nearly $300 in 2017 dollars).
  • There were only 144 miles of paved roads in the U.S. (I remember dad telling me how hard it was to travel in the early days. Roads, signs, rules were haphazard and you needed maps from various sources to make basic trips. I recently read an excellent book that methodically retells many of the things I already knew from my dad: https://www.amazon.com/Big-Roads-Visionaries-Trailblazers-Superhighways/dp/0547907249/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1485720113&sr=8-2&keywords=earl+swift — I recommend it).
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower.
  • The average wage (average, not minimum) was 22¢ an hour (slightly more than $5 in 2017 dollars).
  • The average U.S. worker made $300 a year ($7,370 in 2017 dollars).
  • Over 95% of births occurred at home (in fact my dad delivered his first child, daughter Iris, at home in 1930).
  • The leading cause of death was pneumonia and the flu.
  • 20% of the U.S. adult population could not read nor write.
  • Only 6% of U.S. adults had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local drugstore.
  • There was fewer than 230 murders reported in the entire country.

Everyone is unique. We all have a different way of growing up. This was mine and I’m grateful for it. There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think of my dad.

In his early 20s, dad returned to visit his aunt and uncle — with that loaf of bread they’d sent him for a decade prior.

Dad got to see me graduate. From high school and college. He passed away in 1994 at 87 years of age.

 

Baby Leonard Kuehn.

Baby Leonard Kuehn.

 

Dad in his new jacket.

Dad in his new jacket.

 

Dad with his puppy.

Dad with his puppy.

 

Dad with his beloved sister Iris.

Dad with his sister Iris.

 

Dad and his sister Iris in Kalamazoo around 1929.

 

 

Dad in 1957. He was 50 years old.

Dad in 1957. He was 50 years old.

 

Dad, in his element, the kitchen. His sister Iris had hid around the corner and just jumped out and scared him -- thus the look on his face.

Dad, in his element, the kitchen. This was taken by his sister Iris at our house in Gobles, MI, in 1978. Iris had hid around the corner and jumped out and scared him — thus the look on his face.

 

Dad, with Iris' husband Cecil during a tour of the St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, MI in 1978.

Dad, with Iris’ husband Cecil during a tour of the St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, MI in 1978.

 

Dad signing a petition against the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Grand Rapids Press photographer didn't believe he was my father and insisted and crediting me as his grandson.

Dad signing a petition against the Gun Control Act of 1968. The Grand Rapids Press didn’t believe he was my father and insisted and crediting me as his “grandson.”

 

Dad and me getting ready to do some serious work.

 

Dad and his seven-foot-tall sweet corn in 1979.

 

Mom and dad at my high school graduation. 

My 30-year newspaper career has ended

I have blood in my veins, not ink. But after working for 30 years in the newspaper industry, some ink surely has mingled with the red stuff.

Newspapers have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. So many memories, experiences, adventures and friends have been my bounty because of newspapers.

A newspaper always has been there in one way or another. As a child it was the comics for me, the obituaries and recipes for my dad. He kept up on who had passed and on the recipes he might try to improve, by using the newspaper.

As an adult I worked at, visited and consulted with newspapers and helped to craft software solutions for newspapers.

On January 20th of this year the Chief Information Officer of my company asked me into his office. He informed me that my position, along with those of dozens of others, was being eliminated. I was offered a severance package and asked to stay until March 31st to help with my transition out of the business.

Today is March 31st and after 30 years my employment has come to an end.

It’s certainly not my choice. I had hoped to retire from the industry that I love. I’ve lasted longer than literally hundreds of my colleagues at three companies. They have been young, middle-aged and senior. They were bright, friendly, driven, focused and principled. In many instances they have been my extended family. They, like me now, have found their contributions no longer supportable. They’ve had to start anew, find a different way. They have faced the fear and unknown that is now my turn to shoulder.

Childhood experiences

I remember, even as a little boy, going into the front yard to retrieve the newspaper. It was one of my chores and one that I looked forward to.

We lived on M-40 highway in a rural area of Michigan, just south of a small town called Gobles. A driver for The Kalamazoo Gazette, our local newspaper, on his way between bulk drop-off locations, would drive down the highway and throw rolled-and-wrapped copies of the paper into subscriber’s yards.

Sometimes I’d be waiting for him with a little-kid wave. He’d give me a nod as our own bundle of stories and pictures came bounding across the weeds and sand that was our front yard.

The Sunday paper was of course the best. Filled with far more advertisements and inserts, it gave me hours of fun on a Sunday afternoon. Particularly when Christmas or a birthday approached, I crafted many fantasies about the BB gun, radio or flashlight that might go from a newspaper ad to my greedy little paws.

My grandparents, who lived about 90 minutes north of us in Rockford, Michigan, subscribed to the Gazette’s sister paper, the much larger Grand Rapids Press. When we’d visit I’d have stacks and stacks of papers to explore. The Press was exotic to me: it was a newspaper, but it smelled different, yet the same. It used different typography, more color and was many pages longer. I also enjoyed the better quality produced by the Press’ superior printing hardware.

My neighbor, Carl Gilbert, was a senior manager at the Kalamazoo Gazette. I rode the school bus with his kids. I didn’t have a clue of what working at a newspaper was like, but I envied neighbor Carl for his luck. He had several kids, a big house, acreage, a few cars and a barn — he had a life!

My first look behind the curtain came in the sixth grade when Mr. Gilbert came to my class. He talked about the workflow of the newspaper: how stories, photos and ads were created and became the newspaper. He brought with him the prior days’ newspaper (which I’d digested the night before), along with a few grids of pasted-up pages, some page negatives and printing plates! That day I felt like I floated amongst the clouds! A fixture in our home, the first thing I looked at when I’d get home from school and ditch my backpack, was the newspaper. Thanks to Mr. Gilbert, the magical had started to become reality.

Another Kalamazoo Gazette figure who was important to my newspaper habit was columnist Tom Haroldson. He was also known as “TV Tom” since he wrote a column about television. This was important to my pre- and early-teen self. We only received three television channels with any regularity or quality: The NBC affiliate WOTV channel 8, CBS came via WKZO on channel 3 and ABC by way of WUHQ on channel 41. When the weather was just right we could get the ABC broadcast from Grand Rapids, WZZM on channel 13. But TV was very important to me. I was challenged trying to balance my love of reading with wanting to stay up to date with what Andy Rooney was wondering about, the latest difficulty encountered by the Ingalls family, the criminals being tracked down by Detective Ironside and the drama unfolding at Moonbase Alpha on Space 1999. I also may have watched, and mimicked, the Swedish Chef. Once.

I loved reading Tom’s columns as well as a syndicated columnist the Gazette carried, Dick Kleiner. Dick’s column was of the reader-sends-in-question-Dick-answers-it format. Dick was snarky, short, almost rude at times. But he was answering the questions I cared about.

I still remember one reader writing in about one of my TV addictions: CHiPs. The reader wanted to know what kind of motorcycles were used on the show. Dick’s curt reply was “The boys ride Kawasaki 1,000 bikes.”

By the time I was in junior high school I encountered the woman who would become my favorite teacher and a huge influence on my future: my English teacher, Carol Brill.

Mrs. Brill was a firm teacher, in command of her subject. But she also was fun, friendly and most-importantly: a believer in her students. I know in retrospect that she, as much as possible, gave each student as much attention as she could. But to my seventh-grade mind, she taught the class only for me, only wrote lengthy comments on my work and encouraged only me. Of course that wasn’t true, but that’s how it felt to me.

Gobles Public Schools was a small, poor, rural school. The facilities, textbooks and supplies were old, tired and in short supply. But I had amazing teachers. For the most part I did not like school. I was an overweight, introverted, only child which certainly did not help. Surprisingly most of the educators stayed at Gobles for their entire careers, not “moving up” to larger, better-funded districts in nearby Kalamazoo. With rare exception I would say that the students who wanted to learn were well-tended to at Gobles Schools.

Seventh grade is when I started to write. We had to write in journals every day for Mrs. Brill. Many hated that assignment, but I loved it! In most cases we were free to write about anything we chose. As an only child who felt isolated from other people, the dialog I developed first with myself through my journal, and over time with Mrs. Brill through her comments, was critical. She fostered a love of reading and writing, and encouraged me to believe in myself. Nobody else gave me both a push to do more and a sense of promise and hope for a future.

Regularly I reflect on my days in Mrs. Brill’s classroom, the walls covered with posters of puppies, kittens and stuffed animals. She was an adult who treated me like a real person, with a voice and with possibilities. She taught me subject-verb agreement, how to diagram a sentence, how to tighten my writing and how to communicate more clearly. But she set an example and encouraged and strengthened me with her feedback and interest. I owe her a great deal for providing that foundation.

That self-confidence — both in myself and my writing — gave me the pluck to one day pull out my mom’s typewriter and send off a letter to the editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette, Mr. James Mosby.

I told Mr. Mosby how much I enjoyed the Gazette and the work of Tom Haroldson. I offered to him my services if he should ever need them. I told him that I was interested in government and current affairs and that Mrs. Brill could attest that I had a fine career ahead of me.

Lost to many moves over the years is Jim’s written reply, but the gist of it was a thanks for my letter, though he had no openings at the time. He encouraged me to pursue my interest in writing, to write every day, read all I could and get an advanced education. He was so respectful and “proper” to that naïve teenager. He made me feel like I was his peer and, oh well, they just didn’t have any openings. His affirming response encouraged me and only increased my esteem for newspapers and newspaper people.

When I was sixteen I transferred to a private school that allowed students to pursue a self-paced and self-directed education. Once a student had completed the requirements set forth by the state of Michigan for a high school diploma, you would be graduated. If you could complete those requirements and pass the tests, you were done — your age didn’t matter.

As it turns out my move to that school was very fortunate. The school was several miles beyond the school where my mom taught, so I would drive, drop mom off at her office, and then I’d go on to school. Shortly after the school term started my mom and I were involved in a serious car accident. A 1960s-era station wagon turned in front of us and I t-boned the behemoth. My mom, in the front passenger seat and not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown through the windshield. I was wearing a seatbelt but still suffered a bad back injury that later would put me in the hospital for surgery and stuck at home for months of recovery. Fortunately, due to the unique nature of the school I was attending, I was able to do my schoolwork at home.

During my recovery, I put all of my efforts into schoolwork. I was scared of my injury, didn’t feel well, my activities were limited and I just wanted to be done with school. I ended up finishing my state requirements in the spring, shortly after I turned 17.

I was free!

The college years

My focus then moved to college. I was active in our church, president of the youth group, and unsure of my college direction. We didn’t have much money and how to pay for college was a serious question. Unfortunate though that was, my parents had always told me they were not going to be able to “send me to college” – I’d have to work for it or find some other way. So I was not surprised nor let down as the time for college approached, but I still was not sure what I was going to do or how I would do it.

Through my church I took overnight trips to a couple of private Christian colleges: Cedarville College in Cedarville, Ohio, and Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary (now Cornerstone University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cedarville did not impress me at all. I was still recovering from back surgery and was miserable during most of the visit, but I knew it wasn’t for me.

My visit to Grand Rapid Baptist was different. For starters, I really liked the beautiful campus and the people were far more inviting and seemed more serious than those I encountered at Cedarville. While on my visit I learned about a media conference that was being held on campus. It was led by Tim Detwiler, a professor of communication and speech at the college. It was to be a multi-day conference covering communication, writing, radio, TV, newspapers, etc. As I recall, I signed up on the spot and begged my parents for the fee later.

I was impressed by a presentation from WZZM TV’s meteorologist Craig James. Craig didn’t talk about TV or weather, but about communication, journalism and mass media. One of the exercises of the conference was to write a radio spot and go to the college’s radio station, WCSG, to record it in the studio. Craig did a read-through with me and made some suggestions. I should have been nervous about the recording part, but I was more nervous about writing the script to time!

At the radio station I recorded my spot, which was for the Grand Valley Blood Bank. I had rehearsed enough so that I hit my mark almost perfectly. The station manager, Lee Geysbeek, said it was good enough to put on the air. For a brief time my spot was live on the air. I was 17 and had written and recorded a radio ad. Yeah, I was pretty pumped!

The next important thing to come out of the conference was when Detwiler approached me about attending school there and working on The Campus Herald, the school’s newspaper. He had someone lined up to be editor, but needed an assistant editor who would oversee the production and layout work. There would also be reporting and editing work involved – a jack of all trades position. There was a stipend that would go along with it – enough to be a major help toward tuition.

Throughout the summer I talked about going to school at GRBC&S and devised many schemes to pay for it. I sent away for numerous scholarship opportunities and even wasted money on a scam that would give me a test and return to me a list of organizations that would give me free money based upon my interests and aptitudes. What I got in return was a generic printout on green-bar tractor-fed paper of places around the country that had scholarship programs – some offering tiny sums, others with requirements that came not within a country mile of my situation (Daughters of the American Revolution had a $100 scholarship, for example).

Then my parents dropped a bombshell on me. They’d pay for my first year of college. Since they had prepared me for having to go it solo, this was a huge and happy surprise.

So that fall I packed off to college an hour away from home. An only child, spoiled, horribly introverted and shy, I thrust myself into dorm life (sharing a room with two other guys and a bathroom and shower with 60).

Apart from classes and a taste of independence, this was where I first got my hands on a waxer, border tape and layout grids. I knew nothing, but learned quickly from more senior students. I wrote for the paper as well. Our small staff did everything: we covered the sports, campus activities, faculty news, photography, design and layout. I learned and learned and learned!

The one thing we didn’t do ourselves was the typesetting and printing. Both services were donated by the printing department at Spartan Stores. We would type our copy and hand-deliver it to the Spartan Stores printing plant. We would return and pick up the cold-type galleys. After pasting up our pages we’d return to the printing plant with the flats. Yet another trip would see the editor and me loading the trunk of his Nova (which had only a vague idea of a suspension) with the printed copies.

The work was not yet done as we had to distribute the papers on campus. Granted, GRBC&S was a small school (around 2,500 students in my day), but that allowed me to get my hands in so many aspects of newspapering.

The first semester of my sophomore year found me out of funds and therefore unable to continue at GRBC&S. I moved back home with the intention of finding a job and continuing my education at Western Michigan University.

WMU being far less expensive than GRBC&S I took out a student loan in order to get back in school.

The Kalamazoo Gazette

And I applied for jobs.

One of the jobs I applied for had a simple headline: “TYPIST.” The job was at the Kalamazoo Gazette. I had taken typing in high school and earned extra money in college by typing papers for other students. I was fast and very comfortable behind an IBM Selectric.

Not too long after applying I got a call from Dave Anderson at the Gazette. Dave didn’t talk much but in short said if I was interested I’d have to go to the Michigan Employment Security Commission and take a typing test. If my numbers were good, I’d be called in for an interview. He told me to just stop by the MESC office and tell them I was there to take a typing test for the Gazette.

(Dave ended up being very pivotal in my life – read more about him here: http://aaronkuehn.net/tol/?p=568)

That seemed odd to me. The MESC was where people went for unemployment assistance. And why wouldn’t the Gazette do their own typing test? But I went ahead and got myself to the MESC office.

It was a daunting process. Still afraid of my own shadow, I stood in line with a lot of people applying for, fighting for and otherwise trying to get help because they had no job. When my turn came I was nervous and the clerk was plenty harried and ready for her weekend to begin.

I told her that I was there to take a typing test for the Gazette. She handed me some papers and told me to fill them out and then get back in line.

The papers were the same ones everyone else applying for benefits was completing. They wanted all kinds of information – I had some answers, other questions tested my powers of invention.

After handing over my paperwork I was directed to an IBM Selectric. At least I think that’s what it was. The letters were worn off the keys, it sounded like a hay bailer and appeared to have been used for gunnery practice. It was a rough piece of equipment to say the least.

I did my test and felt like I did okay, but certainly not up to my potential. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place. It reeked of bureaucracy, despair and cigarette smoke.

Another call from Dave Anderson came several days later where he asked me to come in for an interview. I was nervous, scared, held no illusion that I’d get the job, but I’d get INSIDE the Kalamazoo Gazette for the first time!

The day of my interview didn’t get off to a great start. I thought I knew the best way to get to the Gazette building – I started at the Sears building and headed north. I misjudged the one-way streets, though. I had driven about four blocks before realizing I was headed the wrong way on a one-way street. Those other drivers, and the cop walking a beat, weren’t being neighborly with their frantic gestures, but I was too distracted to care.

I checked in with the receptionist and soon Dave came down to fetch me. He was a short, somewhat portly man in his 50s who used few words. He took me to his messy and cluttered office. He said the publisher wanted to see me, so he got on the phone to speak with the man. I was trying to take in all that I could while processing the idea that the publisher wanted to see me. For a typist job? Had there been a misunderstanding?

For the few minutes that I sat in Dave’s office, two people stopped by to exchange a few words with him. I immediately picked up on the fact that Dave was well-liked and respected. He laughed and joked easily.

Down to publisher Dan Ryan’s office we went. Dan was a major figure in Kalamazoo. I’m going to guess he was six-foot-six and in his late 60s. He was imposing but very friendly.

Dan almost ignored me – he had a matter to discuss with Dave first. Dan held a page from the paper and said “Do we know who is putting in upside down ads?”

Dave replied that he knew who it was and that it was a mistake – he’d spoken to the person responsible.

Dan replied “Okay.” Turning to me he said “A lot of advertisers would pay us a lot of money to run their ad upside down or sideways – but we don’t do that.”

I still remember so much of that interview. Dave and I sat in a gorgeous wood-paneled office, across from Dan at his desk. Dan asked me if I was related to some famous baseball player. I figured it was an ice-breaker and I was going to be stuck on that frozen lake because I knew absolutely nothing about sports nor about an athlete with my name.

Next he asked me what my dad did.

Next he commented on my typing speed. He implied that men usually didn’t type as fast as I did. I would soon learn that that was not really the case. The vast majority of typesetters and newsroom reporters were men – and they were fast. One male copyeditor in particular primarily used two fingers and he could set a keyboard on fire (or maybe it was from the cigarette he always had at hand).

I started part time in the composing room. I learned that the union “printers” had been bought out and were slowly leaving the company. The Gazette was hiring young punks such as myself to fill the void. It was an interesting time to say the least.

The union area was a separate room and non-union workers weren’t supposed to go in, use their waxers, scissors or other equipment. Some of the old timers were friendly and eager to share their trade. Others were at best cold, at times hostile and intimidating.

Dave started me on advertising paste-up. I got almost no real training – just what I’d learned at the Campus Herald. I was not prepared for the volume and complexity of work at the Gazette. Not to mention deadline pressure. I can’t tell you how many times my supervisor, Bob, would yell “Aaron! Can you catch this daily?” And yell he did! A daily was an ad for the current-day’s paper which meant you had to get on it fast because it was going on the press right away.

I did okay at paste-up, but I wasn’t great. Fortunately they’d hired me as a “typist” so it wasn’t long before they put me in front of an Atex terminal and started to teach me how to set type.

I learned from co-workers and from Dave. The Atex keyboard was an enormous, heavy mass of plastic and row upon row of keys. Many of those keys had no labels, or the labels they did have did not correctly predict that key’s function. It was overwhelming. I saw so many people plop down at one of those enormous keyboards and just go to work making it do things. I just knew I’d never make it. Years later I would be able to carry on a conversation, read an ad mockup and set type without any trouble whatsoever.

For some reason, I caught on quickly. And loved setting type. To this day I can’t explain why I had such an affinity for the Atex system. I felt at home at that keyboard and wanted to learn everything I could about Atex and the typesetting trade.

Within months Dave offered me a move to full time, which meant more money and full benefits – including tuition reimbursement.

At about that time the Gazette celebrated its 150th anniversary. We busted our asses putting out an enormous special commemorative edition, we hosted a public open-house and tours, Dave was interviewed by the local CBS station which did a story about the paper. I find it difficult to convey the sense of community, purpose and excitement during my first year at the Gazette.

I worked through many different roles and levels of responsibility. I learned how to operate almost all of the prepress equipment and perform most job functions: Autokon and ECRM scanners, video setters, laser imagers, plate makers, page cameras, Atex, and more.

One day one of the techs from the Booth Newspapers Computer Division, Pat Curtis (a character of the highest order) pulled me aside. He said “You may want to brush up on your Unix skills.”

He was often cryptic and everything was told with an evil or mischievous look in his eye. I asked him why.

He told me that we were getting the new Camex Breeze Display Ad system and that my name was being discussed for the role of system administrator.

This was encouraging and exciting, but Pat was a curmudgeon, storyteller and wasn’t afraid to get a detail or ten wrong. I wasn’t counting any chickens.

Since my only exposure to Unix had been at WMU on their DEC VAX system for an obligatory BASIC programming course, I was a little nervous if I’d be up to the task. That programming class was in a huge lecture hall with about 400 students. So between trying to follow in that large venue and having to do all of my work in one of the computer labs, I had a hard time grasping it. I did fine, but any successful navigation of the shell prompt I achieved was purely by the grace of my notes and helpful computer lab assistants.

But it wasn’t long before Pat’s prediction came true and Dave told me that I’d been selected and would be going to Boston for training. The training was to take place in October so I dropped out of that semester of college so as to not miss the opportunity. I lost all of that semester’s tuition and had to start those classes over during future semesters.

My decision to drop out during that semester was a risk and gamble that has paid off many times over.

The trip to Boston with Dave was my first airplane flight. It helped that Dave was a huge aviation buff, his older brother had been a flyer in WWII and he absolutely made that first flight a pleasure. I was still scared, but his enthusiasm and explanations of how the plane worked absolutely got me through it without an embarrassing incident.

That trip to Boston was huge for me. We met up with Larry from the corporate I.T. division in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The three of us worked hard all day in our training. I learned Unix very quickly, as well as Operating System Real Time (OSRT) – the proprietary operating system that Camex had developed. It was the beginning of my “tech” career.

I loved working on the Camex system. I developed several pieces of custom code shared with the other seven newspapers in the Booth Newspaper group.

My biggest accomplishment was a tape backup management system. Camex had assumed ads would run and be purged and new ads would be built from scratch. Perhaps if the Camex company had survived they would have crafted a better solution for backups, but at the time, we were limited by our meager disk space.

In the newspaper business it is typical for ads to be recycled each year. Bob’s Tailoring Shop is going to run a special on suit alterations for prom season. He’ll probably run almost the same ad next year, maybe with a price change. In most cases the advertiser gets a rate reduction if they run a “pick-up” ad – one that is picked up from an earlier run and reused. Of course for us, it saved a lot of labor and materials if we didn’t have to re-set all of the type, rescan the artwork, etc.

The code I wrote collected a batch of the oldest ads, archived them to tape, created a searchable index of the ads that had just been archived, and then purged those ads from the main database. In addition, we were one of the pioneers in the country to hide a tiny I.D. right in the ad – usually in the border. So if you had that code number, you could look it up in the index and then extract that ad from the tape.

That solution saved countless hours and dollars over more than a decade that the Camex Breeze system was in use.

I’d written macros and formats and other enhancements on Atex, and those were very satisfying to me. But the tape backup system was my first bit of real coding and the fact that my colleagues at other papers wanted it was a major boost for me.

Information Technology

Several years went by where I was both the system administrator for the Camex system and the team leader for the ad design operation at The Gazette. Then the next big opportunity came.

I had just finished earning my degree at WMU, a bachelor of science in Political Science with a minor in English/professional writing. All in all it took eight years to earn my degree since I was working full time and squeezing in a class or two when I could.

I forever will be grateful for the tuition reimbursement plan at the Gazette. When all was said and done, they paid for the tuition, I covered the books and parking. Not long after earning my degree, my friend and mentor Dave announced that he would retire. That’s when I received a major promotion to work in Systems (that being what Information Technology, or I.T., was called back in the day). In my new role I was responsible for the support and maintenance duties of Camex, Atex, the PBS circulation system, our accounting system, Macintosh desktops, backups, disaster recovery – the whole gamut of I.T. work.

There was a long period of training on all of the technology. I got my first pager. I worked crazy long hours, was on-call, was sent to some great remote training on great technologies: two rounds of Novell Netware schools, Macintosh OS training. I went to Bell Labs in Minnesota for advanced Solaris/Unix system administration training, went to California to Autologic’s Laser Imager school and more. I learned so much – formally and informally. I worked with an amazing group of people and learned so much.

When management decided to create its first remote bureau, in the adjacent city of Portage, I was assigned to the transition team. I helped to set up the office, computers, networking and other things required to make our storefront at Southland Mall a go. Later when the office moved farther south on Westnedge Avenue, I again was called on to pull off the move and configuration of the new and larger space.

Working with area funeral homes was another big project I got to work on. I visited numerous funeral homes to install and configure software and modems so that they could transmit obituaries directly into our Atex system. Obituaries are of course very important to families, they need to be accurate and meeting deadline is always a challenge. In addition, they are very profitable for the newspaper. By allowing funeral homes the ability to send directly to our database saved considerable time, prevented errors that occurred during dictation over the phone and gave them a better chance of hitting deadline.

The Kalamazoo Gazette was a special place. I am fortunate enough to have realized it at the time. Too often we fail to appreciate the good things until we have the clarity of hindsight. Not so with the Gazette and its people. We were small enough that everyone knew everyone. And working in a small I.T. department, I got to do everything (admittedly when working a 12-hour shift due to a head-crash on a washtub drive, I didn’t feel so blessed). But we were just big enough, and part of a large enough chain, to get in on new technology. It was a great time to be in the industry and with a great group of people. It was family. It was cozy comfortable. I was paid well, had benefits that today would make your eyes pop in disbelief and fully intended to retire from the Gazette (hopefully by age 50).

Then one day I got a call from a colleague at the computer division in Ann Arbor, Ralph Butler. Ralph told me about a paper in Virginia that was looking for a person with Atex experience. Y2K was looming and was everyone’s nightmare. This Virginia newspaper needed help to support Atex while the more experienced staffers worked on Y2K readiness. Also, they had signed a deal with a software company from Utah called Digital Technology International to replace all of their front-end editorial and advertising systems. DTI was the first newspaper vendor to partner with Adobe on its upcoming page design tool that was nicknamed “The Quark Killer” as it was expected to put the leader in page composition, Quark Xpress, out of business. The code-name for Adobe’s product was K2. I’d seen previews of what was to become InDesign and was very excited about its prospects.

The newspaper was The Virginian-Pilot. It was well-respected to say the least. I had heard our page designers reference it often as it regularly won awards for the best-designed newspaper and was famous for its use of photos – it was a photographer’s newspaper.

I hadn’t thought of leaving the Gazette. I was happy, more or less. There were some things I didn’t like about my job: being on-call, working rotating shifts that included nights and weekends, changes in management (and philosophy) that I didn’t agree with, etc. But overall, I wasn’t on the hunt.

Ralph strongly urged me to send a resume – just for kicks. Maybe I’d get a free trip out of it!

I sent off a resume and was promptly contacted. Lo and behold, The Virginian-Pilot did in fact fly me to Norfolk, Virginia for a few days.

It changed my life.

The Virginian-Pilot

The Virginian-Pilot was a very large newspaper. But it had that same family feel to which I’d grown accustomed at the Gazette. When my future boss and a colleague met me at my hotel it only took minutes to feel like we’d known each other forever. Randy Jessee would be the manager and John Stackpole the other Atex specialist. They swept me off my feet like the prettiest girl at the dance.

I spent a couple of days touring the paper, meeting people, talking about the job and spent one evening with the A1 design team, observing their workflow, their POD collaboration methodology and just getting a sense for the place.

Near the end of my visit I was thinking “I don’t care if they pay me half of my current salary – I want to work here.”

At the end of my visit deputy managing editor, Nelson Brown, pulled me into a private office in the Sports department. Brown was Randy’s manager. Nelson said (paraphrasing from the best of my memory) “You’ve got a good thing up there in Kalamazoo, but we want you here with us. You’ll find the best people here and I guarantee you you’ll learn – you’ll have opportunities here. Randy, John and Mark, well, there aren’t any better people. And I see you fit in. As you go home I want you to think about one thing: five years from now, what will have made you a better person? Where will you learn the most?”

I was shaken. He was so confident about his paper and his people. He focused on the PEOPLE and the WORK. It wasn’t about money, benefits, perks, etc. None of that was mentioned. It was about quality of life and personal and professional growth. It wasn’t the first time Nelson would impress the hell out of me. He remains one of the highest quality people I’ve known.

Not long after my return to Kalamazoo I got a formal offer. I’ll admit we negotiated a little bit on salary, but they guaranteed me no nights, no weekends, no rotating shifts. I’d have a pager and be on-call but because they had such a large staff the likelihood of being called during my off hours would be slim. They’d pay for my relocation, put me up in an apartment while I house-hunted, give me generous time off right out of the gate, and had a pension AND a 401(k) like the Gazette. I’d leave a cube farm and have an office with a door.

I was ready to sign up but I spent a couple of weeks pondering. I’m a Pisces and am fishy just like my sign. It often takes me forever to make big decisions. And the decision to move was huge. I was still introverted and shy, but my time in Systems, having to interact with a variety of users, present at cross-paper meetings, etc. had given me more confidence. But I was still unsure of giving up the Gazette and moving. But to be honest – the quality of life is what hooked me. Having a regular schedule, no rotating shifts and no weekends. After 13 years I’d have a “normal” life.

I accepted the job and started another great association with great people.

And Nelson could not have been more right. At the Pilot I grew and grew and grew. Almost no opportunity was denied me. I was in on the ground floor of the DTI implementation and saw K2 become InDesign.

I saw numerous major shifts in technology. When I joined the Pilot we used an ancient Atex system for all but section fronts, where we used Quark Xpress running on Macintosh computers. We used Novell Netware for storage. The number of Windows computers could be counted on one hand. Some critical processes at the printing plant still relied on a Radio Shack TRS80 computer. Furniture in the newsroom was embarrassing: it was falling apart, taped together – a danger to life and limb and the occasional puppy that one designer brought with her on the night shift.

I got to travel as well.

The Pilot pioneered the use of digital cameras for news coverage. We covered the Sugar Bowl 100% digitally – the first news organization to do so. I was sent to New Orleans in advance of the Bowl to set up a Macintosh network in the press pool under the bleachers. When photographers arrived to cover the game I was in real-time communication with the newsroom back in Norfolk, Virginia. Photographers would run in, edit their images on Mac laptops using Photoshop and then I’d transmit them via FTP. We’d practiced back home but everything was new and had not seen the real world. But it worked. It worked with nary a flaw. And it was exhilarating.

I also attended, later became a presenter and ultimately vice president of the international DTI User’s Group. Each year I’d travel to Utah to teach other newspapers how we’d exploited our DTI system and to learn about new features coming. I also did my fair share of complaining about bugs and tried to influence future development.

I also experienced hurricanes (my house construction had to be restarted after a hurricane destroyed the framing, took down some of my best trees and left me living in an extended-stay hotel for months). Those same hurricanes had me staffing disaster locations or huddling in the safety of the Pilot’s bunker-like building to do my part to make sure we were able to keep the community informed during the crisis.

I was able to help launch new products and interesting new businesses. I learned. I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some flat-out amazing people. People who were my friends and who were passionate about the mission of newspapers. I was proud to tell people where I worked. And I was proud of what I did.

My ten-year mark at the Pilot loomed and things had started to change dramatically. For a long time newspapers had struggled against other media. The Pilot had finally come to the point of layoffs, reductions and reorganizations. They did buyouts, offered early retirements, let people go, cut products and implemented extreme cost-cutting measures.

My boss quit. The CIO was let go. It got depressing and sad very fast.

That’s when I realized I needed to make a change.

Digital Technology International, Utah and Newscycle Solutions

To me the obvious option was to see if our vendor, DTI, could use me. I knew so many of the people at DTI through my involvement with the user group that I felt I had a good relationship with them already. So I sent a resume and an email asking if they had a need I could fill.

They did. It would be in the Quality Assurance department where I would work with Adobe products to write scripts to automate their installation and implement automated testing – something that as yet didn’t exist.

The benefits were not as good as the Pilot, but the Pilot was reducing those as well, having already dropped the pension plan. But my thinking was I’d get to focus more on technology that would be portable and meaningful within and outside the newspaper industry.

Plus I loved the mountains of Utah. Just loved them.

So after 10 fantastic years with the Pilot, I accepted a job with DTI. I loaded my Dodge Ram pickup, hitched a U-Haul trailer to the back and had my Virginia house listed for sale. Cross-country I went.

It was a good move. Things at the Pilot got even more challenging after I left. There were more layoffs, more reductions. I don’t know if I would have lasted – maybe, maybe not. Today, seven years later, there are few familiar faces left there.

Just weeks after I started working at DTI, there was a layoff. Talk about frightened! I was living in a tiny temporary apartment, my house in Virginia was for sale, I felt in limbo. Many good, senior people were let go. But I was spared.

I caught my breath and pushed on. Again, I got to learn. Automated testing wasn’t to become reality for more than five years, but I was able to go on sales calls and do demos, the biggest and most important to the Chicago Sun-Times. I continued to teach at user’s group. I was able to influence the software, test it, see features first, be the voice for customers and developers alike. By gaining greater exposure to our international customers, I got a more broad world view. My belief in the importance of newspapers was only made deeper by learning of the struggles our customers faced in less than open and fully democratic societies.

In 2013 DTI was purchased by an equity fund and merged with several of our former competitors to become Newscycle Solutions. Again, there were multiple rounds of layoffs and products were shelved.

I keep thinking back to Nelson’s advice, to consider where I’d grow. Excellent advice for anyone. But he was so sincere and so persuasive. His words have stuck with and guided me all of these years. He could not have been more spot-on.

And I say it to those reading this. No matter where you are in life, which fork in the road do you believe will give you the most growth, most opportunity, best chance be better? Better can be defined however you like. But I encourage you to not consider money. Quality of life, that’s the measure for me. It always has been.

And now, with seven years behind me at what is now Newscycle Solutions, the needle on the layoff wheel has landed at my name.

After having been witness to, and dodged, many layoffs in the past, I think I have already largely processed the likelihood of this day. I have felt shocked, but there were no tears, no explosive anger. Just matter-of-fact “it’s-my-turn” acceptance. So many people so much better than me, older than me, with far more challenging personal lives, have lost their jobs before me, that I truly feel lucky to have lasted as long as I have.

Newspapers have been a part of me all the way back to those first newspapers thrown into my front yard. Working in the industry was a dream. A dream that came true and was in so many ways better than I could have imagined. I met so many great people along the way and learned so much. I got to travel, explore and become a different person than that shy and reserved teenager who didn’t know what to do with his life.

I’ve been in the ink now for 30 years. I have loved most of it, had some pain and frustration along the way, and now it’s my time to bow out.

As of this writing I don’t have a job, but am looking. I am looking for something where I can use all of the skills that I’ve gathered from this incredible industry. And from the amazing people who gave me opportunities, took me under their wing, gave of their time and taught me over these many years.

Stop the presses.


Some photos from the journey

 

The front yard of my boyhood home from which I would fetch each day's Kalamazoo Gazette.

The front yard of my boyhood home from which I would fetch each day’s Kalamazoo Gazette.

The front of the Kalamazoo Gazette building during my tenure.

The front of the Kalamazoo Gazette building during my tenure.

The Kalamazoo Gazette's loading dock. This is where drivers would pick up freshly-printed newspapers to deliver.

The Kalamazoo Gazette’s loading dock. This is where drivers would pick up freshly-printed newspapers to deliver.

An Atex keyboard. If you read a Kalamazoo Valley Community College class schedule, Stewart Clarke furniture ad or a Libin's menswear, I probably set the type with a keyboard like this.

An Atex keyboard. If you read a Kalamazoo Valley Community College class schedule, Stewart Clarke furniture ad or a Libin’s menswear ad, I probably set the type for it with a keyboard like this.

A pair of Compugraphic videosetters. One of my jobs at The Kalamazoo Gazette had me arriving in the dark hours of the morning to operate these machines to produce the cold type that would be pasted up for that day's newspaper.

A pair of Compugraphic Videosetters. One of my jobs at the Kalamazoo Gazette had me arriving in the dark hours of the morning to operate these machines that produced the cold type that would be pasted up for that day’s newspaper.

The platemaking department at The Kalamazoo Gazette. Another one of my jobs was as a platemaking technician. It was one of my favorite jobs.

The platemaking department at the Kalamazoo Gazette. Another one of my jobs was as a platemaking technician. It was one of my favorite jobs.

This is me at one of The Kalamazoo Gazette's new Camex Breeze ad design terminals.

This is me at one of the Kalamazoo Gazette’s new Camex Breeze ad design terminals. On the screen is a full-color ad for JCPenney.

This is me at the Camex Breeze scanning station (left) and ECRM/Autokon laser scanner (right).

This is me at the Camex Breeze scanning station (left) and ECRM/Autokon laser scanner (right).

This is from an older Camex ad design terminal known as the Model 1351. It was an enormous, loud, tempermental monster.

This is from an older Camex ad design terminal known as the Model 1351. It was an enormous, loud, temperamental monster.

A pair of the Gazette's Camex 1351 ad design systems.

A pair of the Gazette’s Camex 1351 ad design systems.

In the Gazette's ad design area, an Atex terminal (left) sits adjacent to a Camex 1351 system (right).

In the Gazette’s ad design area, an Atex terminal (left) sits adjacent to a Camex 1351 system (right).

The computer room at The Kalamazoo Gazette. My friend, the late Ron Laugeman, keeps his eyes on things.

The computer room at the Kalamazoo Gazette. My friend, the late Ron Laugeman, keeps his eyes on things.

Racks containing the Gazette's Atex system which ran on the DEC PDP/11 minicomputer system.

Racks containing the Gazette’s Atex system which ran on DEC PDP/11 minicomputers .

300 megabyte washtub drives in the Gazette's computer room.

300 megabyte washtub drives in the Gazette’s computer room.

Racks containing the Gazette's Texas Instruments minicomputer accounting system.

Racks containing the Gazette’s Texas Instruments minicomputer accounting system.

This scary mess was the result of the Gazette's computer room being woefully too small. It housed a pair of Novell servers for the photo and text archive, the PBS circulation system, the Associated Press hardware and much more. Yes, I did know how to work with all of those systems. Phew!

This scary mess was the result of the Gazette’s computer room being woefully too small. It housed a pair of Novell servers for the photo and text archive, the PBS circulation system, the Associated Press hardware and much more. Yes, I did know how to work with all of those systems. Phew!

The Gazette replaced the Compugraphic Videosetters with Autologic 3850 laser imagers. These systems would eventually move the Gazette to direct-to-negative processes.

The Gazette replaced the Compugraphic Videosetters with Autologic 3850 laser imagers. These systems would eventually move the Gazette to direct-to-negative processes.

At the Gazette one of my Systems jobs was to print miles miles of reports in the printer room. This room, adjacent to the accounting department, housed numerous heavy-duty line printers. On Saturday nights, printing bundle tops for the Sunday paper, these printers would all be humming, turning the room into a furnace.

At the Gazette one of my Systems jobs was to print miles of reports in the printer room. This room, adjacent to the accounting department, housed numerous heavy-duty line printers. On Saturday nights, printing bundle tops for the Sunday paper, these printers would all be humming, turning the room into a furnace.

My desk at the Gazette just before I left for The Virginian-Pilot.

My desk at the Gazette just before I left for The Virginian-Pilot.

The Gazette's Goss printing presses.

The Gazette’s Goss printing presses.

The Gazette's underground newsprint supply.

The Gazette’s underground newsprint supply.

The reels of newsprint on the base of one of the Gazette's press units.

The reels of newsprint on the base of one of the Gazette’s press units.

During my time at the Gazette we added on to the building in order to add more press units. This allowed us greater printing flexibility and more color positions.

During my time at the Gazette we added on to the building in order to add more press units. This allowed us greater printing flexibility and more color positions.

A view from the top of the Gazette's presses, down into the reel room.

A view from the top of the Gazette’s presses, down into the reel room (during the press expansion construction).

The Gazette's mailroom where printed papers would be married up with inserts and bundled into zones for delivery.

The Gazette’s mailroom where printed papers would be married up with inserts and bundled into zones for delivery.

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia.

My new office at The Virginian-Pilot.

My new office at The Virginian-Pilot.

The Virginian-Pilot POD: editors, reporters, photographers and designers huddle to make the major decisions about that day’s front page. (Photo by Julie Elman).

The Virginian-Pilot newsroom. Atex terminals everywhere! (Photo by Randy Jessee).

More of the Virginian-Pilot newsroom (I’m the balding one in the center). (Photo by Randy Jessee).

Section fronts and color pages at The Virginian-Pilot were designed using Macintosh computers with Quark XPress (this was before all publishing systems were replaced by DTI). (Photo by Randy Jessee).

The Virginian-Pilot was a partner with local TV station WVEC. Nightly newscasts originated from the Pilot’s newsroom. (Photo by Randy Jessee).

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune where I spent some time with the DTI sales team to present our latest software offerings.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune where I spent some time with the DTI sales team to present our latest software offerings.

Me, making some important point, at one of the DTI User Group meetings. (Photo by Carl Davaz).

Newspaper professionals gather from around the world at the DTI User Group meeting. (Photo by Carl Davaz).

Another sales demo, this time at The Chicago Sun-Times.

Another sales demo, this time at The Chicago Sun-Times.

The view from the room where we did our demos at The Chicago Sun-Times.

The view from the room where we did our demos at The Chicago Sun-Times.

A party at DTI to celebrate our new logo design.

A party at DTI to celebrate our new logo design.

A bowling outing with my team from DTI.

A bowling outing with my team from DTI.

My cubicle at my new office at Newscycle Solutions.

My cubicle at Newscycle Solutions.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

A grill-out last summer at our Newscycle Solutions office.

One of the amazing Utah views from my office.

One of the amazing Utah views from my office.

I am a believer in the mantra “everything for a purpose.” Ahead is the trail, what lies around that curve is anyone’s guess!

A Father’s Kitchen Legacy

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953I venture to say that all parents leave some sort of impression on their children. Good or bad, if a parent is present, something gets passed along. My experience there is not unique.

Most people who have even a mild interest in cooking collect recipes with which they have achieved success. They are the go-to recipes for good-tasting creations that garner guest approval. Again, not a unique experience.

This past weekend my wife and I were going through her own recipe collection to make selections for an upcoming party. Seeing her clipped and annotated collection reminded me of my father’s, stored away in a memory box in the basement.

Dad loved to cook and bake. Within our family and circle of friends he was recognized for several creations: cake donuts, whipped cream and banana cake, and vanilla ice cream. Many of my best memories of time spent with my dad involve me sitting on a counter top “helping” him (I developed a special skill in the beater-licking department).

The brief article above was published in his company’s employee magazine more than 60 years ago, in August, 1953. At that time I suppose it was a novel idea for a man to be in the kitchen, and baking no less. It was the common everyday of my dad for me.

My dad, who never went to school, had the most basic of reading skills and wrote with a crude, block print, recorded his recipes on scraps of paper. As the article above states, he kept the records of his kitchen work in a wooden box. In the 1960s he transferred that collection to a small binder. By the early 1970s that binder was overflowing and he moved to a larger one.

We RV camped a lot and he wanted a recipe book just for camping: a collection of recipes that were suited for whipping up in the outback. Our RV was a Terry model so he called the cookbook Mrs. Terry.

The Mrs. Terry cookbook was Intended to be a small collection. Over time, however, it simply became home to the overflow of items that would not fit in the main book.

Today as I peruse dad’s collection I remember the hours spent cooking with him, the flavor and texture of his donuts, the rich vanilla-infused whipped cream of his whipped cream and banana cake and the brain-freezing joy of his hand-churned ice cream.

The haphazard collection of clipped and hand-written recipes, complete with misspellings, errors and marginal commentary reaffirms my dad’s kitchen legacy and the man, and foodie, I’ve become.

My meager collection of recipes is on a computer, I’m more likely to wing-it when I’m cooking, watching cooking programs on TV is how I like to relax and I’m a sucker for a cool kitchen gadget. All thanks to my dad’s legacy.

(Click on an image for a larger view).

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953

A photo shot for the magazine article.

A photo shot for the magazine article.

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953 02

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn KVP Sutherland Magazine Article August 1953

A photo shot for the magazine article.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad’s primary recipe collection.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

The Mrs. Terry cookbook.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

This isn’t going to be pretty!

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Each alphabetic section has its own index.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

This recipe originated with Better Homes and Gardens. Dad rewrote it to group preparation methods together.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Complete with arrows, boxes, and instructions here, there and everywhere, somehow he made it work.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

The index page for Section C indicates recipes that had been removed. They simply didn’t stand the test of time.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Any scrap of paper, even a union Absentee Notice card, could be put to use.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad went to the effort to measure the temperature output of the “Left front burner on medium.” 300°F

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad proudly pasted the “professional” recipe along with his notes for “fixing” it.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

In case you wondered, this was the “good” donut recipe.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Another donut recipe. Good? Passable? Decent? We’re left to wonder.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

When our strawberry patch produced, this freezer jam recipe would be put to use.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Oooh, these pancakes are not only “very good” but they’re also “Great for camping!”

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

I can not convey to you how amazingly delicious dad’s pickled watermelon was.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

This recipe page shows the remnants of ancient cello-tape. This one was also a winner — even for camping in the woods!

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Dad’s dandelion wine. I sure did not enjoy my job of dandelion harvester.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

And then there was wine from the bitter and tart rhubarb plant.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

The importance of dad’s recipe book is proved by the back pages which include vital information about his kids and grand-kids.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Further evidence of the place his recipe book held in his life, more family birthdates.

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Seriously, how many family recipe collections include blood types and dates of military service? Leonard Kuehn’s did!

Leonard Kuehn's cookbooks.

Oh, let’s not forget the names and addresses of distant family members not seen for decades!

David Anderson, my mentor

I had a mentor and his name was Dave Anderson. While he had a common name, he was an uncommon man.

Dave hired me at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper in the mid-1980s. He had spent most of his career as a typesetter/compositor. When computerized typesetting, or cold type, came on the scene Dave, with his curiosity and expertise made himself a key player in the burgeoning technology side of the newspaper business. Back then it was called “Systems”, what we now call I.T.

I had long wanted to work at the Kalamazoo Gazette, my local newspaper. I grew up in a rural area and had a carrier who would toss rolled newspapers from his pickup while speeding down the road. Later we graduated to having a plastic tube to receive our Gazette, which arrived in much better shape having not been thrown across our rough or snowy Michigan yard.

Even as a youngster I was fascinated by the newspaper. When I was old enough to work I applied for several jobs at the paper. I was ignored sometimes, denied others and at least once very constructively turned away by the editor, Jim Mosby. I was not deterred because my desire was so strong.

One of the Gazette’s executives, Carl Gilbert, was our neighbor and he paid a visit to my sixth-grade classroom. He showed us pasted-up pages, page negatives, printing plates and other gear from the world of newspaper production. Who knew that fewer than 10 years after that classroom visit, I would actually be shooting pages, burning plates, hollering “REPLATE!” to the pressroom and becoming familiar with many jobs within the newspaper.

But it was after responding to a rather generic ad for “TYPIST” at the Gazette that I met up with Dave. Dave had only recently left his highly-respected and important position in the Systems department where he managed the computerized writing and typesetting system called Atex. His new role was as manager of a department called Production Services which comprised the people who set type for advertising, did paste up of display and classified ads and later the paste up of the editorial content.

Dave asked me in for an interview. Because he was new as a manager, his first few hires were done under the supervision of publisher Dan Ryan. Ryan was a WWII veteran, locally famous, stood nearly seven feet tall and was an imposing man. But Dan had one of the biggest hearts and I quickly respected and liked him. But when I went into his office that first time I was nervous, in disbelief and unprepared for what would follow.

On the way to the interview I had driven three blocks down a one-way street – the wrong way! Fortunately I had no accident or constabulary contact, but I was shaken, stirred and sweating.

I entered the Gazette’s front door and the receptionist called for Dave. I had a few moments to work off the nerves from my driving mistake and to put myself together for what was maybe my fourth job interview ever.

Dave took me to his tight and cluttered office just outside the climate-controlled computer room. He said only a few words and then we were called to Dan Ryan’s office. Once in Dan’s office he and Dave exchanged sports banter. Not knowing anything about sports, that immediately made me feel like I was on the outside of something. Then they talked about a display ad that had run upside down in that day’s paper. Dan showed the page and turned to me to say “Some advertisers would pay extra to run their ad upside down. We don’t do that.”

Dan asked Dave if he knew who’d made the mistake. Dave chuckled and mentioned the name of the woman who’d made the error (you know who you are!). Clearly both men lacked any sense of surprise over the name of the culprit. Dan said “You made sure she knows not to do this again?” Dave said “Yes.” And that was the end of it.

Then the “interview” turned to me. Dan asked about my parents: where they were from and how they made their living. That was it. Then he said “Well, we’d like to have you join our family. Would you like to join us, starting tomorrow?”

I accepted and was on my way. I’ve always wondered who really hired me, Dave or Dan. When I left the building at 401 S. Burdick Street, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d been hired! I may have made a one-way-street error going home as well, but I don’t remember a thing.

Dave and I rapidly formed a bond. I was a very shy 19-year-old college student and he was a late-50s divorced Korean Era veteran and well-known industry expert. What did we have in common? A love of computer keyboards along with fast input speeds and typography. But we had an important friendship and he mentored me at some important forks in the road.

I’m fairly sure he made no conscious effort to be my mentor and he probably would have been surprised to know that I viewed him that way. I knew at the time that he was playing a pivotal role in my life, but it took several years before I gained enough wisdom to realize the full import of it.

In high school and early college I was driven to have a writing career. I was also very interested in politics and international relations. I dreamt of writing books, newspaper columns, doing political reporting and the like. I was working on degrees in English and Political Science at the time.

I never made it a secret that my goal was to work in the newsroom. My initial role as a typesetter was to be a stepping stone to a writing career. That’s how I saw it.

But Dave, my boss, friend and mentor saw something. Some of his best friends were writers and editors. And he’d spent 40 years in the newspaper business so he’d seen people come and go. But beyond that, Dave was a people person. He loved people, he wanted to know them, what made them tick, where they were from and where they were going. All of that led him to talk to me one day about my career plans.

It was in an informal setting during the early hours of a morning. I was cutting cold type coming out of automated film processors. The type later would be pasted up into news stories for that day’s newspaper. Dave, coffee cup in hand, made the casual remark that he didn’t think a job as a newspaper reporter was a good fit for me. He felt that I was quickly and easily grasping the technological side of the print production business and that maybe I didn’t have a true understanding of what it was like to write for a job.

Now in many situations getting “feedback” like that would be hard to take. One might resist it as having their parade rained on. Others may have seen an ulterior motive. But with Dave I didn’t have those kinds of thoughts. He was too sincere and well-meaning for me to consider that he didn’t have, at least in his mind, a valid point.

He went on to tell me that writing for a living often meant writing what someone else told you to write. And writing to a certain length. And in a certain way. And to have your words and ideas edited by others. He said he thought I was a better fit for the technological side of the business.

We talked it out and I was dubious. I had spent a fair amount of time pursuing a writing education as well as learning about politics so that I could cover it intelligently. Nothing he said was news to me, but he laid it out for me in a way that really preoccupied my mind with “what ifs.”

That was Dave being my mentor. Maybe it was because we had such a good relationship that he was able to so frankly talk to me about this. I don’t know. But what came next at first thrilled me and later put a significant scare into me.

A few days after that conversation Dave again brought up the topic. He said that he had spoken to Mary Kramer, the Metro editor (who later went on to be the publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business), who had agreed to let me shadow her for a day. I worked for Dave and he was going to pay me my day’s pay to sit with Mary. I was so excited at the opportunity. I still had in mind Dave’s earlier thoughts that writing wasn’t where I belonged, but I was still very confident in my education and career direction and saw this as an enormous opportunity.

I already knew Mary through my role in the Production Services department. Mary was a well-respected senior member of newsroom management and a very and open person. She worked with reporters, photographers, union printers, kids like me hired to replace union printers, political officials and angry readers. She did it all with great professionalism. She started each day early as did I and we’d often exchange minor chit-chat while getting our days started. I liked and respected her. I really thought this could lead to something.

I spent a day with her. It started early with a budget meeting for that day’s paper. She then worked on the page dummies for that day’s paper and the stories that would be used. That was followed by some editing of copy, reviewing proofs, another budget meeting, reviewing a pile of press releases, numerous phone calls, writing letters and more meetings. It was a full and busy day.

By that point I had been at the paper a couple of years and knew almost everyone and how the newsroom worked. But that day with Mary changed the course of my career. And my life. It was an oportunity that would not have happened without Dave stepping in. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t think about it. But he did.

I saw and felt what it was like to be assigned a story that you had no interest whatsoever in. I saw reporter A get a story that reporter B would rather have written. I saw Mary lament a story that was too long…there just wasn’t room for all of it. I saw that reporters would put a lot of effort into a story and for a variety of reasons it never saw the light of day. I saw reporters turn over stories to an editor who would write a headline that they didn’t like. I saw editors strike sentences that were perfect, but simply didn’t fit.

It was eye-opening. Up until that point I had seen the role of a newspaper reporter as one with more autonomy, more of a seek-and-destroy attitude toward topics and issues. But Mary, at Dave’s urging, showed me the reality.

What I would come to know from Dave was that he guided me because he truly believed there was a better path that I wasn’t considering. He absolutely respected reporters and editors and didn’t have anything negative to say about their work nor their roles, but he could see it wasn’t a fit for me.

In addition he was seeing my personality of being shy and reserved and quiet. I of course knew that in my dream role of a reporter I’d have to talk to and interview people. That scared me. But my interest in doing the writing gave me imaginary courage. I think he realized that, at least at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready for such a thing.

The prodding by Dave and help from Mary brought me to a crossroads. It was a very painful decision point.

In terms of credit hours, I was about halfway done with college. Because I’d more or less gone to university part time, it was slow going. But now I was challenged to continue with my course of study or change it. Changing it would be expensive and dramatically increase my time to graduation.

And I wasn’t sure what I would change my majors to even if I decided that was best. The newspaper technology field has always been a hybrid of unique skills. Even today many in the I.T. department at newspapers worked their way up from other areas of the business. A programming or computer science education can be very important, but knowing about printing, typography, graphic design, writing, database management, customer management – those are all key areas that I.T. professionals live in. Back in the late ‘80s, breaking into the I.T., or “systems” department was tough. But after that day with Mary, and some introspection, I realized that working in I.T., specifically at a newspaper, was what I was meant to do.

Decades, many positions and a couple of employers later, I’m still in the newspaper technology field. I’ve never looked back nor regretted my decision to change paths. I ended up completing my degree in Political Science with a minor in English/Professional Writing because of the time I had already invested in it. And that, too, has served me well. On paper it may not make sense that I studied with an emphasis on constitutional law but spend my days writing JavaScript code, SQL queries and being a Scrum Master. But my formal education gave me many soft skills, and Dave gave me the foundation of the hard, technical skills I also needed.

Dave recognized the big change I was making and he supported me 100%. Once he knew that I was committed to the technology side of the business he helped to open doors to other opportunities, training and positions that allowed me to advance.

I worked with others who were at least equally if not more qualified for some roles. But Dave pushed me and made a way for me.

I have always struggled with math. Dave did complex math in his head. And in those days in particular computerized typography required a fair amount of math and abstract visualization. For example, an advertiser might give you a hand-written list of furniture items for sale. How many columns would you need in their 3×12 ad in order to make that content appealing? That was after accounting for their logo, the border, their phone number, address and hours. What point size and leading would work? Does the text need some tracking adjustment to make it more readable? There were many variables. And those were the days before WYSIWIG: typesetting was text and codes. You didn’t see the result of your work until your code was burned onto photographic film. And Dave, through his mentoring and training, got me past my fear of math. Math is still hard for me and beyond balancing a checkbook I have to really work at it. But I’m not afraid of it like I once was. He made math practical for me in a way that no teacher ever had.

Another thing I learned from Dave was his attitude towards people. He accepted and was interested in all people. To my knowledge he never saw color nor religion nor ethnicity. He saw “folks.”

“Folks” was a word Dave used daily. I once asked him about that because he used it so much. He said it was a conscious decision, a generic way to refer to people, that got away from the male/female debate. It wasn’t men nor women, his nor her, it was “folks.”

Over the years Dave hired a lot of foreign exchange students from Western Michigan University, as well as recent immigrants. I’m not sure how many people realized that this was something he made a point of doing. Later when I was a manager of the Ad Creation department and would review resumes, I learned that Dave had a love of country that caused him to want to share it with people from less fortunate backgrounds. It was subtle, but Dave would often lobby for resumes from non-natives.

Dave was also a mentor to some of those folks from time to time. I remember one in particular, I believe his name was Shoga-David and I think he was from Africa. Shoga was a meek and quiet guy with very limited English. But Dave hired him and took him under his wing. Dave looked out for him and if anyone dared slight Shoga or deny him any opportunity, Dave quietly stepped in.

After Shoga graduated from the university and returned home, Dave kept up written correspondence with him while Shoga worked to set up a printing business in his home country. That’s just how generous and big a person Dave was. Dave shared Shoga-David’s letters with me, proud of Shoga-David’s success, happiness and new family. He gave in order to help other people become better, professionally and personally.

Looking back I realize that my relationship with Dave was unusual in some ways. Maybe it was due to my shyness or my age, but while we were good friends, we rarely did things together outside of work. But when we did they were special to me.

We took several business trips together. In fact, I had never flown on an airplane when in 1989 we spent a couple of weeks in Boston to be trained as system administrators for a new computerized typesetting system called Camex. Dave had been in the Air Force during the Korean War and his older brother was a pilot in WWII and Dave was a huge aviation buff. We sat side-by-side and he talked me through everything that was happing during our flight. I never told him that I was terrified but he knew and got me through that first flight. I enjoy flying and in fact years later got a student pilot’s license and started to learn to be a pilot (a topic for another blog).

We took a few road trips together to other newspapers that were owned by the same parent company. We both reveled in the opportunity to learn from what others were doing and to share the things we were doing that we thought were innovative. To this day if you notice an ad in a newspaper with a tiny number hidden in the ad’s border – that was our idea back in 1989. It was a way to hide an I.D. number for an ad so the advertiser could specifically refer to an ad that they wanted to use again later. We tried it out and it helped us, our advertisers and our sales team. We shared that with our counterparts in the Booth Newspapers chain and from there with our parent, Newhouse. More than 20 years later, you still see this in practice. I’d like to think we invented this idea that was made possible by the new typesetting technology that came along in the late ‘80s.

Dave and I worked on a mainframe computer system called Atex. At the time Atex was the premiere computerized typesetting and content-management system. It was developed in the late 1970s and was the computer system used by the New York Times, National Geographic and most major newspapers in the world. Dave was a recognized expert on the system. Even 15 years later, at another company, I mentioned that I’d been trained by Dave Anderson and that brought immediate head-nods of respect. I learned from one of the masters. He taught me not only how to set type but how to write custom programs (called “formats”) on the Atex system to automate and standardize the work of a typesetter.

Toward the end of my time at the Gazette, that background and education really paid off. By 1999 the world was in the grips of Y2K fears. The Atex system was known to not deal well with the Y2K change. Dave had retired, was travelling, diving the oceans, photographing WWII shipwrecks and living a full and active retirement and I was enjoying a good job in the systems department at the Gazette. But then I was contacted by a manager at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Pilot was a very large newspaper whereas, at the time, the Gazette was considered a small- or medium-sized outfit. The Pilot had an Atex system as well, had a small but expert staff, but was coming up on Y2K and they wanted more depth…they wanted additional help. Most Atex experts were dead or retired, but the manager had heard about me. And that manager knew of Booth Newspapers (the Gazette’s immediate owners), and Dave Anderson. Long story short, I was made the proverbial offer I could not refuse. The Pilot offered me dramatically more salary, an end to regular night and weekend work, a regular daytime schedule, the opportunity to work on the one of the largest and most customized Atex systems and to be a key player in the Pilot’s move from 1980s technology to the latest in modern print production systems offered by Digital Technology International (later to become NEWSCYCLE Solutions, where I now work).

The move to the Pilot, and ten years later to DTI and then NEWSCYCLE Solutions is all because of Dave. Because he gave me direction. He was my friend. He saw in me things I didn’t see in myself.

I had accepted the Pilot’s offer and was tying up loose ends at the Gazette, getting my house listed for sale and getting myself ready for one of the biggest changes in my life. Sadly, at that time Dave lay in a hospital room at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo. He had lung cancer and he was dying. He had only had about five years of retirement. I had been to his home a couple of times during his illness. Before he got sick we made one trip together to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. We’d also spent a few hours looking over an amazing collection of slides that he’d shot while in the Air Force in Korea where he’d worked on the early development of Radar. But I wrongly thought that in his sickened state, he had bigger things on his mind than my career move.

Emphasis on wrongly.

I was at home one night, in between accepting the Pilot job offer and actually leaving, when I got a phone call. It was from Dave, in his hospital bed. He had a very weak voice at that point. He said “When were you going to tell me that you’re leaving, that you’re going to the big time?”

I was crushed. Because I’d crushed him! After he’d invested more than a decade in me, as a person and in my career, I didn’t share with him the story and the news. News that only came about because of his investment in me. News that showed him that he was right.

I could try to justify it several ways but they would be weak. The next day I went to the hospital to see him and tell him all of the details. He couldn’t even sit up in bed and he was weak and worn out. But he congratulated me a dozen times, asked a lot of questions, said how proud he was of me and wished me the best. I think we both knew we wouldn’t see each other again, his end was coming soon. But his last words to me were to be happy and do good work.

Dave died a few days later.

15 years ago this June, 2014, Dave Anderson died of lung cancer. He’d spent a career working at the Kalamazoo Gazette. He’d spent more than a decade making me a better person and guiding me toward a career that would make me happy. I saw him hold out a hand to numerous other people during that time as well.

15 years. I still remember the smell of his cologne, the stutter of his speech, his instant and easy laugh, his love of people, his understanding, his lack of judgment towards people, his dirty coffee cup and that ugly coconut he kept on his desk! Why on earth he was my friend I’ll never know.

But Dave, nearly 30 years after our first meeting, I still think about you. Many of the good parts of my personality, if there are any, are thanks to you and your example. Your example as a good, genuine, honest, interesting and caring person influenced me. Apart from my parents, Leonard and Charlene, you, sir, made me who I am today.

Thank you, my friend.

Dave Anderson's Obituary

Learn lots, get smart

Diplomas

My first day of school was a drama. I was just a few years old and it was the morning that my dad was to take me to the Gilchrist Nursery School.

The school was run by a woman named Carol Gilchrist who started the first nursery or preschool in the county. She was important locally due to the early education programs she started and for her involvement in the public school system. Perhaps only hours later I would develop a bond with her and the other staff at the school and in the future look forward to each day’s attendance.

But on that first day, it was war. War between little, terrified Aaron and his big, frustrated parents. I still remember standing in our dining room, crying like crazy, scared out of my sneakers and refusing to cooperate or do anything useful.

My mom was trying to head out to her job as a teacher and my uber-patient stay-at-home-dad had exceeded his monthly patience allotment. He suggested that perhaps a baseball bat would give me something to really cry about. At that moment I would have preferred the bat over going to school.

The start of anything new, particularly to a kid, can be scary. No matter our age or the experiences we’ve had, change and the unknown can give us a shake. Each new school experience was no exception for me. When I look back on my years of formal education I am frustrated over the difficult times and have gratitude for the good times and great teachers.

Getting started that first day was really tough, but all of my other memories of nursery school are good ones.

BuildingBlocks

For example, the nursery school had these huge, to me at least, red cardboard building bricks. They had a red design on them that made them look like bricks. They were large enough that we could build forts that were big enough for several kids to play inside. I had a lot of fun with those. And a lot of fun busting down our creations.

Another strong memory I have is of Mrs. Gilchrist’s kitchen, in the living quarters above the school. I may have the details wrong, but I believe it was her daughter who had travelled and gotten a blowfish light fixture.

No, that wasn’t a typo. It was an actual preserved blowfish in its fully blown-up glory, hung from the kitchen ceiling, with a light bulb inside. We were once taken upstairs to see the fish light and boy was I impressed. And freaked out. But mostly impressed.

Another fun thing we did in nursery school was learn how to use the telephone. To this day I hate to talk on the phone. But back then using the phone was a grown up thing to do and was fascinating. For the lesson many real telephones were brought in and set up on a table. Someone from the phone company was there to connect the phones together so they really worked, without being on the real phone lines.

For we kids it was just fun, but in hindsight I realize the point was to get us to memorize our phone number, parents names and our address. And to know how to properly use the phone in an emergency. But it was such a practical and fun experience that we didn’t know we were learning. Which is probably the highest compliment to a teacher: to learn without the effort of learning.

The next major milestone on my educational journey was kindergarten. This was at the town’s public school, about six miles from my country home. It was my first time to ride a school bus as well.

We lived next to a drive-in restaurant called The Country Drive-In. It was one of those standard drive-up joints that had bellhops and served hot dogs, hamburgers, fries and drinks. The bus would pick up a few area kids from the parking lot.

Our family was friends with the owners of The Drive-Inn, Ken and Marge Zantello. I remember going to the bus stop that first day and Mr. Zantello was hanging around with the kids (his daughter, Stacey, was my age and starting school as well). Mr. Zantello loved kids and was great fun (nobody could do a better Donald Duck impression – and make us giggle until we overheated).

On the side of the restaurant was a menu board of what the Zantellos had available. I pointed to the sign and told Mr. Zantello: “When I come home tonight I’m going to be able to read that sign.”

That’s how optimistic and excited I was about school and learning! That story remains a funny family story.

Of course, I didn’t come home from my half-day kindergarten class with the ability to read, that would come later. But the excitement and hope of school was by that time fixed in me.

Some years later the bus routes changed as well as the bus stop location. Instead of getting on at the Country Drive-In, I would get on directly across the street from my house, in the driveway of Dr. John Zettelmaier.

Dr. Zettelmaier was a local who had grown up on the farm adjacent to where he then lived. He’d gone to my school. He’d gone to college for his undergrad in nearby Kalamazoo and later got his medical degree from Michigan State University.

He was a real character and I remember many a wintry morning sitting in his car with his kids, waiting for the bus. When it was time to get out he would implore all of us with his mantra: “Learn lots, get smart.”

Especially as my junior high years took over, and school got harder, and the stresses of growing up took hold, the phrase “Learn lots, get smart” just annoyed me. He made it sound so easy, like “smarts” were in a jug that you simply poured yummy knowledge into your head.

My day to day experiences with education were augmented by my parents. My dad was born to immigrants from Germany and essentially never went to school. All of his education came from his own initiative, from the on-the-job-of-life training. He had great trouble writing (he could only print) and struggled to read. However, he could do amazing math sums in his head. He was very smart and knew about the world and understood people.

My mom on the other hand has a lot of formal education. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in special education. Beyond that she has a dual Master’s degree in counseling and personnel management. Plus a permanent K-12 all-subjects teaching certificate. By the time she retired she had earned a Specialist in Education degree in communication. She also lectured at two state universities on special education topics.

So I had these two extreme examples of what education could be. And most would probably expect a lot of pressure from my mom to go to college, get a degree or degrees and have that as a primary focus of my youth.

That was so not the case. In fact, my mom had a solid view of what my educational future should be and I remember her talking about it, in different ways, all the time.

She believed in the value of a college education. She also believed in the education that one could gain at a community college. Or a vocational school. Or as part of an apprenticeship. She was about the learning and having skills and knowledge. She strongly believed that the delivery method was more or less inconsequential.

She ended her professional career as a career counselor at the county’s vocational school where juniors and seniors would spend a half day each day to learn a trade or job skill. These were things like data processing, commercial photography, construction, foods, marketing, clerical, retail, etc. Students would graduate with a high school diploma as well as real-world job skills.

But what was important for me was that college was not a given for my future. She and my dad both made it clear that they weren’t paying for college or education or anything after high school. From as far back as I can remember they told me that college would be a good thing, but if I wanted to go, I’d have to figure out how to pay for it – they wouldn’t be helping.

I’m sure that some of that reasoning was due to their own financial situation and not wanting to “promise” an education fund upon which they could not deliver. But the fact that “any” option after high school, either some type of school or training or a job, was okay with my parents, was very freeing.

So many of my contemporaries were feeling the pressure of picking a school, picking a major, etc. I simply didn’t have that stress. That left more time to dream about my first car.

In high school I struggled to find a post-graduation direction. I took numerous “interest inventories” and “career aptitude tests” and they all said I should be a forest ranger. While the outdoors and nature interested me, I didn’t see myself doing that kind of work.

I was also very interested in writing, printing and woodworking. I explored programs at the vocational school where my mom taught. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. The curse of being a Pisces perhaps. And being young. And the bounty of so many options.

Fortunately my choice was more or less made clear. At the age of 16 I signed up for a media conference at a college an hour from home. It was led by one of the communications professors at the college, who was also the faculty advisor for the student newspaper. Guest lecturers included people from local TV, radio and newspaper outlets.

The conference had each of us do real-world work for print, TV and radio. We were given assignments and had to do them on a fictional deadline and we were then critiqued by the pros.

For the first time I felt like I was in my element. I was in a college atmosphere and the things I was being asked to do seemed natural and while challenging, easy. While I didn’t save my work nor remember the specifics of my assignments, I won favor with the professor for both my written work and for my radio news delivery. He thought I put words together well and that my “radio voice” sounded good (one exercise was to write and record a radio ad for one of the station’s sponsors. Mine for the Grand Valley Blood Program was actually used by the customer). He suggested that I apply to the school and if I did, he’d put in a good word for a paid position/scholarship on the college’s newspaper.

In short, I got in to that school (now Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and with my own savings, financial aid, a student loan and the job as Production Editor for the Campus Herald, got started in college.

And surprise, surprise, my parents had saved some money for my education. Enough for a year’s tuition and room and board. That was a total surprise after all of those years of being told I’d have to work for it myself. It was one year’s worth, not the whole program, but a shocking gift when the time came.

I went to that college for a year and a half, the last half working part time as data analyst for Foremost Insurance Company. But when that job ended, I didn’t have an income and didn’t have money for college, so I moved back home, starting to think about going to the far cheaper state school (the much larger Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where my mom had gone).

WMU Sprau TowerAfter several months I landed a job at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper. I started part time but after a few months went full time and was then eligible for their generous tuition reimbursement plan. I was then able to finish my degree (Bachelor of Science in political science with a minor in English/professional writing). There were a few years where my expenses exceeded the maximum that the paper said they’d pay, but they always paid my bills in full. About the only thing I had to pay for myself was parking.

How fortunate I was! Because I was working full time and going to school part time it ended up taking me a full eight years to earn my bachelor’s degree. I’ve often thought about how great it would have been to live on campus and just go to school full time, be involved in activities and do the degree on the “normal” schedule. I struggled in high school and couldn’t wait for the drama and stress to be over. But I really enjoyed college. I was fortunate throughout my entire college career to have only one, maybe two, professors I would say were bad. All of the rest were good to excellent and I enjoyed the experience.

To this day my mom argues that taking the slow route is better because you combine a formal education with practical work skills. The alternative is to graduate with a degree and no experience and then try to find a job. I can argue it both ways.

But the reality is, I did it slowly, ploddingly, I thought I’d never get done. But I did. Regardless of what that piece of paper has or has not done for my employability or earning potential or status, it is meaningful to me. It was hard work, it was worthwhile and if nothing else, it’s just for me.

Today, my formal education well behind me, I share my mom’s early views on education. But I think the decades to come will change the way everyone looks at education. I went to liberal arts colleges and I gained from the experience. But it’s not for everyone. I think with the focus on technology in the workplace, the need is going to be for focused training on very specific things.

For example, taking a history class can teach you a lot of things. Things you may be hard-pressed to quantify, but you learn, you gain background, the ability to add context to life’s situations. As my mom says “College teaches you how to learn and how to be a citizen in society.” I think she’s totally correct.

Those aren’t bad things, of course. But even someone who gets a scientific, mathematics or computer degree must learn the job for which they’ve trained, once they’re hired. I think it is the rare situation when someone graduates with any college degree, gets a job and blows out of the gates. Even physicians, with all of their years of training, must intern to learn the nuts-and-bolts day-to-day skills they need to practice.

The future I think will shift more weight to specific-topic courses, over short time periods, with great focus and intensity. Think of today’s computer certifications. They come from Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco, etc. An investment of a few thousand dollars, a few days or weeks, hard study and practice and an exam yields a worker who can in fact go into a job and be fully productive on the first day. Doing things. Bringing value. Earning an income that allows them to be independent.

I don’t think colleges and universities are going away, but I think they will change. They’re expensive and they take time. And education is not a one-time proposition. It never was, but I think the work world is making the distinction starker.

I’m nearly 50, have had a college degree for nearly half of those years and yet I have a good career that has, on paper, nothing to do with what I went to college for!

The skills that I have that are important for my job came from a variety of sources:

  • On the job training. I learned how to do tasks and jobs by being trained by my peers or supervisors.
  • Training provided by vendors. In several jobs we would get new equipment or new software or new methods and the company spearheading those changes trained me.
  • Focused classroom training. I went to training for Novel Netware 3.x and 4.x. I went to Unix/Solaris training. I went to Microsoft training for Visual Basic development. I went to an event called Script Camp for newspaper programmers to learn about automating text and image processing. Several years ago in Norfolk, Virginia I went to Tidewater Community College and took a class on SQL programming. In a few weeks I’ll be taking a short course at Salt Lake Community college in order to get ScrumMaster Certification.

That’s many types of learning. But all because I needed to learn and understand “x.” And “x” wasn’t a part of my previous education. In some cases the training didn’t even exist when I was at the university. The world changed and to adapt, I had to find a way to learn.

I think this idea of lifelong learning is important for young people to understand. I value all types and modes of learning and education. And even though I think targeted training is the future, I also firmly believe that a more traditional on-campus experience does teach a person to be independent, manage their own time and course load and work, and learn to function within a system (society).

I think we all need to understand that the graduation ceremony, any graduation or completion step during life, is not the end. It’s a closed chapter. Later there will be new things that need to be learned. We’ll use what we learned in earlier chapters to write future chapters.

Our interests will change. Jobs will change. There will be new information. We go from learning for a job to learning how to navigate retirement and old age. And whether you go sit in a class and listen to a lecture or read a study or some research, the learning never ends.

Yes, Dr. Zettelmaier, I think I’ve learned lots and gotten some smarts. But not enough. It will never be enough. I’ll always be thirsty.

Hmm, a cheeseburger with fries for $1.47…not bad.

From the library of…

LibraryOfThe picture here is of a sticky-back label in one of my books. Several decades ago I bought boxes of those custom-made stickers from the Lillian Vernon catalog. I had gotten old enough to earn a little money by mowing lawns and was able to make the occasional book purchase and those stickers provided proof that I was building my own library.

I don’t know where my love of books and reading originated. Neither of my parents were readers. But as far back as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in books. I’ve liked the way they look, smell and feel. I’ve wanted to read them and write them. They’ve always been a part of my life.

After my last move, to Utah, I came across the last box of From the Library of stickers. They were brown and curled up and no longer sticky. In fact, they’ve fallen out of most my remaining books. I took pause over keeping them as a memento. My final decision was to send them to the trash. But I still have some books that are marked with my name, reminders of a time when I wondered what my grownup life would be like.

I grew up in rural Michigan, between two towns: very tiny Gobles and not much larger, Paw Paw. Gobles had a library that wasn’t much more than a closet. Most of the collection was of children’s books. Paw Paw had a more serious library. My small country school had an okay library, but its content was for school work, not for pleasure reading. At least that was my take at the time.

The Gobles Library. In my day, only the area to the left of the door was the library.

The Gobles Library. In my day, only the area to the left of the door was the library.

My mom and I decided that if we were to use a library it would be the one in Paw Paw, though using it would be a minor inconvenience. The Paw Paw library was in a beautiful century-old structure of stone and wood. Each trip to the library combined my love of books and wood into more than just a search for words.

The Carnegie Library in Paw Paw.

The Carnegie Library in Paw Paw.

My first few visits to the library were frustrating. My mom took me and wasn’t all that interested in the mission so she went shopping at the Ben Franklin discount store next door. But mom not being much of a shopper, I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to find a book.

I felt the time crunch to find something, but also enjoyed the process. I listened in on the dialog taking place at the librarian’s desk, central to the building. People would come in and ask for help answering all kinds of questions. I was fascinated and energized.

AllCreatures

One of the first books that I checked out of the library was All Creatures Great and Small which was extremely popular at the time. Everyone seemed to be reading it. I absolutely devoured that book while swallowed by my blue beanbag chair.

As I got older I imagined a grownup life where I had a house with a library. I envisioned a traditional library with paneled walls, cozy leather chairs and a fire. So far I haven’t gotten that library and maybe I never will. Today I’d still like to have that room, but it’s more important to have interesting and compelling words to read.

Today we have many easy options for reading material. Sadly we’ve lost Borders and Waldenbooks not to mention many local shops. But when I was a kid, the first proper bookstore I experienced was a Waldenbooks at the new Maple Hill Mall in Kalamazoo.

My Waldenbooks wasn’t very big but it was an oasis to me. The mall was practically a destination for us, we likely went once a week. More convenient than the library, I looked forward to getting my browsing fix on a regular basis at Waldenbooks.

It was at the Waldenbooks store where I started to buy books. It felt good to build a collection and have the books to look at. They were badges of accomplishment: I had purchased and read them and I was proud.

At the same time even a paperback was a big percentage of my earnings, so each purchase had to pay off with a good story. If I got a book that wasn’t enjoyable I would be so sad. This rarely happened, but it was my constant fear while shopping.

When my college years came I gained a different appreciation for my love of reading. I worked full time and went to school part time so I was busy. For the eight years it took to earn my degree, all of my reading effort was academic. Occasionally I’d try to read something for me but my mind would constantly interrupt to tell me I should be reading my Soviet political systems text. I lusted for the day when college would be behind me and I could read whatever, whenever.

After several moves I’ve thinned out my library of physical books. Considerably. I simply didn’t have the space and lost the energy to pack them. And since I am not a re-reader there is no logical reason to hold onto them.

It’s been more than a year now since I’ve read a non-digital book. It was a hard transition to digital, but one that I felt I needed to make. I still love the physical book and enjoy a long browse at Barnes & Noble. But the reality of what comprises a library has changed.

The Goodreads website has played a role in making the transition work. My childhood vision of having an impressive physical library may never be reality, but I can see the books that I’ve read by looking at my Goodreads shelves. And I can also research future reads and learn about reading options from my Goodreads associates (http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1559344-aaron-kuehn?shelf=read).

Today the my interest in reading is not having a shelf to point to or a history of titles to remember, it’s excitement around what the next read may be. Will the next book be another one that sucks me in so deeply I don’t want to go to sleep? Will a new thought or idea or perspective be seeded because of a phrase or concept never-before considered? Will I be transported to a place that is rare and special and can only be experienced in my imagination?

The potential, the escape, the adventure, healing and recoup that comes from reading, those are the important things now.

From the library of Aaron Kuehn is a thing of the future, not of the past.

In Camp
FICTION

InCampI arrived in camp at around two in the afternoon.

I suppose calling it a camp might give you the wrong idea. Fifty years ago it may have been a camp. In fact it probably was a really nice one. But on that day it was remnants and shadows. Ideas of a camp long gone. Ghosts. Even though I was miles into the forest and had not seen another person for weeks, I could hear the conversations and stories of people. People doing camp work; cooking; telling lies around the fire.

At that moment it was an oasis. I had been lugging my come-along, overloaded with gear, for several weeks. The physical labor was a challenge, but the mental demands were even more onerous.

An old man had confided to me at a small-town gas station that this old cabin lie forgotten out here. But was he telling the truth? Or were his facts confused? And even if he had it all straight, who knew if it was still standing?

So while I was tired and sore and hungry from my journey, the sight of that rough structure restored me.

One might think my first impulse would have been to explore the cabin and camp remnants. Rather I sat myself down on a large tree that had been felled and dragged alongside the cabin decades before. I sat and surveyed my destination. The mountains and the trees and the sounds: in they soaked. The sun went between bright and soft, interrupted by puffy clouds. I closed my eyes and dreamt of being nowhere else.

The logical part of my mind told me that even though it was early in the day, I needed to get to work. There was no door on the cabin but the rest of it appeared sound. Perhaps it had been occasionally used by hikers and hunters and received some level of maintenance and repair over the years. I wanted to be able to rest under cover that night.

My next thought was of food. Water was flowing steadily in the nearby stream. I thought there may be fish to be caught and that would be easier and faster than having to hunt for meat. But my first action was to examine the cabin.

Even with the brightness of the day the cabin’s interior was dark. There was the opening that would be the doorway and next to that a large window opening. The window had no glass but a pair of hinged shutters that opened outward. Once I managed to get them open I found that the cabin was quite sound. It was dirty and filled with leaves and debris. But the wood stove, apart from being rusty, was in good order. And the galvanized chimney looked in very good condition, confirmation of my earlier thought that people had been periodically using the place. Cooking and heat would not be a problem.

The only other furnishing was an over-engineered and rugged sleeping platform. Fashioned from four large stumps of wood with hefty rough-hewn boards placed between them, covered with pine straw it would make for a plenty cozy place to drift off at night.

I decided that getting the cabin cleaned out was going to be my next activity. I figured that even if I did get a door fashioned by night, it would be makeshift at best. Shelter over my head, a fire, and a soft bed at that point were the luxuries I sought.

The cabin was situated on the edge of a large clearing or meadow, adjacent to the stream. The stream may be classified as a river, I’ve never been clear on the difference. It was probably a couple of feet deep, if not four, with sandy edges and plenty of rocks to provide cover for fish.

Behind the cabin just a few feet the forest resumed and closed in densely into the unknown. I had to only walk a few feet, with axe in hand, to cut a few fresh pine branches from which to make a sweeping tool. Calling it a broom would be an overstatement, but dense with green needles, it would do.

Before I put the broom to work I made several trips to remove the large piece of trash. Leaves, pine cones, twigs and branches were strewn everywhere. I suspect most were blown in by the wind, but surely some had been transported by creatures trying to take advantage of the shelter that the cabin provided.

Next up was the sweeping. The wind was stirring and I didn’t want to kick up a lot of dust, so I swept carefully. I started in the corner farthest from the door. Before I knew it the bare wood floor was looking back from every corner and I was hot, sweaty, covered in dust and sneezing with regularity.

I don’t know what time it was when I finished cleaning, but I was tired and while I did have some pangs of hunger, they were not strong. Rather than think of food, I turned my attention to the stove. A comfortable night’s sleep was quickly becoming a higher priority than a meal.

Once I opened the large cast-iron door of the stove I realized that my cleaning efforts should have started there. The fire box was as full as it could be with ashes. Just opening the door caused a big pile of ash to tumble out, cover my face and fill the air. The ashes would need to be shoveled out before any fire could be made or before I could ensure the chimney was clear.

I unpacked my shovel from the come-along and as carefully as possible, carried one scoop of ashes after another out of the building. I suppose it took about 20 minutes to get the ashes cleared out and learn that the chimney was in fine shape. But then I probably spent another 20 minutes re-sweeping the floor for the ash dust I had stirred.

It wasn’t yet cold, but I knew from the experiences of the past several days that it would cool sharply once the sun went into hiding behind the mountains. Around the old camp there was plenty of dry wood for the picking. Fortunately I wouldn’t have to chop or fell any fresh wood for several days. So I set about getting a fire going and stacking next to the cabin door a supply of wood.

With the fire going and plumes of grey smoke spilling up into the sky, I was ready to prepare the bed. I could feel the night moving in.

Several dozen big armfuls of pine straw carried from the forest floor were enough to give me inches of padding between my sleeping bag and the boards of the bed. I tested the cushion with my hands, afraid to lie down for fear I’d fall instantly to sleep.

Before I could sleep, I wanted to clean up. I headed to the river to wash up. It had been several days since my last splash off. After my hiking and cleaning the cabin I don’t know what a sight I must have been, but I felt like I’d shed another man by the time I had finished in the river.

Yes, having submerged myself in its cool, fast-moving water, I declared it a river.

I also learned while washing away the dirt and grime that the river was well-supplied with fish. I even had the boyish belief that, if fast enough, I could simply grab my dinner with my bare hands. I tried a few times and laughed at myself. I’m sure the creatures camouflaged in the forest were amused by the upright animal thrashing about and making strange noises in the water!

The better plan was to fashion a spear from a branch and in fact that successfully secured my dinner after about a dozen attempts. I cleaned the fish and, draped over a green limb, cooked it through the open door of the stove. Simple though it was, the fat flaky meat was a delicacy.

Fed and clean I regained my earlier position on the log outside the cabin. The stars were beginning to win their battle to light the sky. The moon, though not full, was bright and a few wispy clouds gave the sky a face.

I was tired, bone tired. But it was the good tired that comes from satisfying work. As I made my way into the doorless cabin I no longer heard the imagined voices of people from long forgotten camps. Now the only voices were those of the forest.

The camp had sent away the ghosts of the past and was making room for me, tomorrow’s ghost to a future traveler.

 

Grandma’s House

My grandparents’ house wasn’t just walls and floors and windows. It was a container of experiences, feelings, odors and memories.

And blankets, lots and lots of blankets.

To this day there’s something very cozy about sleeping in a cold room with the weight of many blankets lying on top of me.

My grandparent’s house was an old farm house in rural Michigan. I’m told the original part of the house was put up in the late 1800s with later additions including a hand-dug “Michigan basement” (a dirt-floor basement with walls made of stones collected on the property).

Until a fire destroyed all but the exterior walls in the mid-1970s, the only heat came from a basement wood stove and its single large vent in the floor between the kitchen and dining room. This gravity heating system made for a toasty dining experience, but the bedrooms that were placed on the outer edges of the house and upstairs, were quite frosty in the cold seasons.

On the main floor there were two bedrooms referred to as the South Bedroom (grandma and grandpa’s) and the North Bedroom where I would sometimes sleep.

All of the beds had several layers of blankets and they were quite effective. I’ve always been a more hot than cold person. I suffer in the summer and relish fall and winter when my body finally feels like it has reached equilibrium.

In the chilled North Bedroom, with my cold nose poking out from under a pile of blankets and quilts, I had the best dreams of my life. Most of those boyhood dreams involved some far-north adventure complete with a blizzard, a husky and a cabin.

I suppose every house has an odor, pleasant or not. I’ve heard from countless people about their memories of the way their grandparent’s houses smelled. That’s not unique. My memories are unique in that my grandparents were hoarders, before that diagnosis existed. So the fragrance I remember is of cardboard. Various kinds and thicknesses of cardboard. Old cardboard. Wet and dry cardboard. It created quite the aroma. It wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was one that I’ve haven’t since encountered.

Before the fire I was fascinated by a dimmer switch that controlled the overhead light in the dining room. It was one of those round knobs that you first pushed in and then rotated to adjust the intensity of the light. To a little boy that was like a rocket ship control! I would walk by and turn it just a little bit, trying to change the lighting without getting the adults upset. I’d usually get a stern look from my mom or worse. I got many hours of play out of that simple dimmer control.

My mom was one of the last of a class to be educated in a rural one-room schoolhouse. As the old schoolhouses closed my grandfather would get the slate chalk boards. One of those slate boards hung in the dining room and kept my cousins and I occupied while the adults discussed their troubles. Grandpa had given my parents one of the boards as well and it hung in our basement and was by and large in my own play area. I still have our slate board, but the one at grandma’s house was different because it was so in the open and in the adults’ space.

I would draw terrible pictures and enjoy inhaling the chalk dust. In fact I loved chalk dust so much I drew with much more intensity than necessary just to get a heavy coating on the board. Then I would load up the eraser and take it outside to beat it against the side of the barn and enjoy the chalk dust cloud. I’m sure that has done something evil to my health, but at the time nobody gave it a thought.

I also remember the large claw-foot dining room table. It was enormous and very ornate. For some years I was able to walk around under it. In fact during the fire the entire roof of the house collapsed on top of that table and the table did not break nor burn.

Even when I was too tall to take walks under that table I would spend considerable time studying the claw feet. I didn’t realize it at the time but the large knuckles and nails and feathers on those claw feet probably were my earliest study of woodworking.

The old house also had a root cellar. While the house had electricity all comers were instilled with a mortal fear should they use or waste it. Heaven help you if you did something to cause the “light bill” to be increased by even a penny! So even in modern days, with a refrigerator and a couple of large freezers to keep the products of their large gardens, the root cellar was an important part of their life.

I was terrified of the root cellar. It was cold and damp and dark. The potatoes had eyes growing out like the tentacles of some evil underground devil ready to wrap around the devour me. No, grandma, you can go get the potatoes yourself, I’ll stand back here and scream for help if you are attacked by a rogue spud.

Many people think of their grandmother as being the best cook in the world. I don’t have any such illusions. My grandmother was of southern heritage and as such cooked with large amounts of animal fats and had a relatively small repertoire of kitchen creations.

To be sure I had a strong appreciation for some of her work, though. Tops was her banana or pumpkin bread. I don’t know what made it so special to me but I loved it and she knew it. Even as an adult she would make me my own loaf and wrap it within an inch of its life with aluminum foil and recycled bread bags.

Oh, and the bread bags. And plastic containers. A stranger surveying the kitchen may have imagined that grandma was a frugal recycler. And while my grandparents were tight with a buck, the collection of used plastic material was piled so thick on the counters you couldn’t tell from what material the counters were made. It used to irritate me to no end when grandma would wash and dry bread bags, cottage cheese and butter tubs. Sure, have three to five copies of each to store your leftovers, but 11,485 old bread bags was perhaps to the side of excess. Any person who worked up the nerve to suggest to grandma that maybe some of the bags from the 1930s were superfluous got a “Well….” and a stern look that insinuated logic would not prevail.

I also remember the sound of the wood furnace being stoked in the basement. The house was normally very quiet but when the furnace was being tended, the noise telegraphed to nearly every corner. For some reason the sound of ashes being cleared and logs being adjusted was different during the day than at night. I would be dozing nicely in the North Bedroom when someone would be working the furnace and I would feel minor pangs of guilt for not helping out. But I was getting no benefit from the heat so why bother?

Besides, the basement was next to that root cellar, and who knew what those potatoes did in the night!

Eating in public #6Tipping calculations

I recently gave serious consideration over how much to tip our waitress at one of our favorite sushi joints.

Most people, when thinking about tipping, are concerned with the percentages.

“How much should I tip?”  debates ensue over the quality of service, the accuracy of the order, the class of the joint and so on.

This time I had to figure the amount based on friendliness. That’s a hard one to compute. The waitress technically did what she needed to do, but she wasn’t friendly and appeared to detest being in that space and time vector.

I generally start out assuming that a server deserves 20%. I deduct based on problems encountered during the dining experience. But is apathy really a problem? We were going to eat there and enjoy great food regardless of this lady’s enthusiasm quotient. But each time she came to our table to inquire about the food or to refill our water glasses my wife and I exchanged the “What’s up with her?” glance.

Notice that she came back to make sure the food was good and made sure we never ran out of water. She did her job. But I think she would rather have been de-pilling her sweaters.

On the other side of the thought, if the server is really friendly and happy and smart, but the food is lousy and full of flies, they still might get the 20% out of me. A lot goes into the tipping calculation, but being a nice person can trump a lot of other ills.

But that doesn’t mean you can sneeze on my burger or drop ear wax into my soup. There are limits.

In my opinion most of the problems that take place in a public eating establishment are related to something that happened in the kitchen. Yes, I know, if the server doesn’t refill my drink, doesn’t come back to make sure I’m enjoying the meatloaf even though I ordered the fish-n-chips…those are things upon which the server might want to improve. But usually the fault lies elsewhere. That is important to consider when doing the tipping calculation. I think the tip is for the server (and this is often shared with the ancillary dining room staff) and should reflect the quality of their work. If the steak is raw or a box of Morton ended up in the soup, the fault lies with the white-smocked ones hanging out in the stainless steel forest, not the one with the order pad and apron.

I’ve always been a generous tipper. I grew up next to a restaurant and my family ate out often. So I’ve spent a lot of time around service personnel. But I think my tendency to tip on the high end comes from my appreciation for the work that goes into the job.

I have a lot of sympathy for wait staff. They’re on their feet for a long time. They’re constantly in motion. If they so much as sit down for a second, the clientele looks at them with accusations of lazy in their eyes. They have to be quick-minded, able to deal with all of the whackos that tend to inhabit the dining public and they have to know everything on the menu. And not just what’s on the menu, but what’s in the kitchen, what the cook on duty will or will not do for a customer and whether or not they turned the “OPEN” sign on.

Oh, and they’d better not get sick or plan to retire, because they’re probably not getting any benefits whatsoever. Apart from free cottage cheese. All they can eat. After the expiration date of course.

They are the front line of the business. Regardless of the source of the customer’s angst, it’s the server that gets both barrels. But how much pull do they have over how the business operates, how big the slice of cow is or how much mode is in the a la mode? I’m guessing not much.

They show up, they hussle, they keep track of orders, they work with computer terminals that always seem to have keys missing or mis-labeled, they have to smell dozens of kinds of food all day and clean up after your drippy-nose kids all while banking a sub-minimum wage. Oh, and they have to do side work like filling the salt and pepper shakers, making sure each of 29 kinds of sweetener packet is available at each table and spreading ice-melt on the sidewalk.

Being a server is hard work. Even when they just do the bare minimum, it’s more work than this desk-jockey code-writer is interested in doing. Call me lazy if you must, but I am in awe of how hard they work. Hard work they do to serve me. And you. Regardless of the type of day they’re having. Regardless of the type of day we’re having. Regardless of how ornery Mel is being toward them.

No, I’ve never been a waiter myself.

Nor a waitress.

I’m not biased.

“Miss, there’s a fly in my soup.”

Maybe I’ll make that 21%.

Workplace lessons from my dad

My dad, Leonard Kuehn

“How much money do you make?”

Yes, you read that correctly. How much money do you make? Send me an email with the amount.

You can tell me in terms of hourly, weekly, annually. However you like. Before taxes, if you please.

I suspect that I shall get no emails containing such information. And if on some wild chance that I do, they’ll probably be bogus.

If you asked me to do the same, I’d refuse.

Do you know why you are reluctant to tell people your earnings? I am because of one of the many workplace lessons my dad taught me.

Our attitudes about our earnings are complicated. My wife is a native of Romania and in that country people talk openly about their earnings. So I suspect the way people think about income is not universal.

I think the more one makes, the more reluctant one is to spill the beans. Oddly, the further back in time you reference, the less shy we are about giving up the digits. For example, when I started working at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I was hired on for 29.5 hours a week at $3.72 an hour. The federal minimum wage at the time was $3.35, so I was feeling pretty good. I had only worked there for a few months when the newspaper celebrated its 150th anniversary and the publisher passed out raises in recognition of that fact. That put me at $3.90 an hour. I was ready to start shopping for that Mustang GT!

But my current salary? I’d rather not say.

Almost all of my views on compensation, saving and retirement come courtesy of my dad. What he taught me, both emphatically and by simple example, left a deep imprint on me and I think about him and his life almost daily.  That’s probably not so unique. We’re all shaped by the people who raised us. But I do believe my perspective comes from a pretty unique place.

In order for you to understand, let me tell you about my dad.

My dad was born to German immigrants in 1907. He attended public school for just a couple of years and since he didn’t speak English, he dropped out. He essentially had no formal education. If you asked him what grade he got to he couldn’t say for sure. His learning came by way of his hands, sweat and street smarts.

He ran away from home when he was 13 years old and rode the rails. He was a hobo. A bum. He went many places on the trains and worked odd jobs in various cities in order to eat.

He eventually arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There he had jobs as an engine tester for Buick, as a laborer in an asbestos plant and finally at a parchment paper-making plant. Over the years he had many jobs with the same company, even as it was bought and sold numerous times.

By the time the Great Depression came around he was a supervisor and during that horrible period, he never lost his job.

My dad was too young to fight in WWI; he was too old for WWII.

He married and had a family: one daughter, two sons. He divorced after over 30 years of marriage.

In 1966 he married a woman 35 years his junior.

She was younger than his own youngest child.

I’ll give you a moment to ponder that.

He was 59, she was 24.

He was older than her parents.

Several months later, his wife pregnant with yours truly, and just shy of his 60th birthday, he was laid off from the paper plant. By that time he was the plant manager at a facility that made plastic drinking cups. They made the kind of cups you often see at a picnic. His world came crashing down around him. He had been earning a very good salary for several years. Now he was newly married, baby on the way, and no job.

He had worked for several decades for the same “family” company. He had known the owners personally. He thought he was a star employee…there never was any hint of anything bad on the horizon. He felt like his generous pension and Social Security benefits would provide an excellent retirement.

Now he, along with many other similarly-aged men, had been cut loose. The company essentially didn’t want to pay full pension benefits to those men. It was a cost-saving measure. Today they might go to court and there are stronger laws to help prevent such actions. In the late 1960s, and being in management and not protected by a union, these men had little to no recourse.

The older I get and the more experiences I have, the more I appreciate the terror that must have gone through my dad’s mind. Fortunately he had a young wife who was just finishing college and starting her career. He had a safety net.

So in 1966 my dad decided to be a house-husband: he would stay home and raise me while my mom went off to work.

I never heard my dad say a bad thing about his former employer. His two sons from his first marriage worked for, and decades later retired from, the same company.

He did talk about his experiences, though. He talked about his “career”, though he never would have called it that. His constant lesson was “Don’t count on the company to take care of you.” But he never said it with malice directed towards the company. At least in my hearing.

Sure, he had been mistreated. But plenty of companies simply went out of business before paying pensions. Or some manager made a mistake and a business went bust. Anything could happen. There had been the Great Depression and while he worked straight through, it had been his job to let men go during that time. He knew bad things happen but he wasn’t the type to blame. Rather he was the type to take inventory and look for the next path.

Decades after the Great Depression he was still bothered by the faces of those he had terminated. If he hadn’t let them go, it would have been his own job lost. But nonetheless, he fully appreciated how fortunate he had been.

One of the great emotional struggles for my dad came in the mid-1970s when the three of us were at the mall. A man and his wife came up to us and it turned out that this guy had worked for my dad during the Great Depression…and my dad had let him go. I don’t  remember the man’s face, but I remember his words: “Why did you let me go…I had a family?”

I understood what was going on. Not as much as I now do of course. It sucked the breath out of my dad that day…and for a long time after.

So unlike those I grew up with, I didn’t have a dad who was starting his working life, trying to figure it all out. Instead I grew up with a dad who had sixty years of living under his belt. He knew life before telephones, electricity, automobiles and indoor plumbing were commonplace. He lived to age 87 and never flew in an airplane. I learned from the man that such a life created.

Dad taught me that no matter how good the employer, no matter how excellent the benefits, you’ve got to make your own plan. He wasn’t teaching distrust, rather wariness. He was a big believer in personal responsibility.

In those days there weren’t IRAs or 401(k) savings plans. And stock or mutual fund investing was a deep mystery and not nearly as accessible as today. But he had learned the hard, very hard, way that you can’t trust someone else to take care of you. They may try, they may say they will, they may have good intentions or ill, but you’ve still got to be responsible for yourself.

Even as a young child I worried about making a living. Would I get a job? Would I earn enough to be independent? Would I have a good retirement? I still think about it on a regular basis. No matter how much I save, will it be “ready” when I am? Will I outlive it?

My dad also prepared me to do what the boss told me to do. I’m not saying I’m a perfect employee. Not even close! But my goal is to do what my manager wants me to do. Even if I don’t agree with nor like what I’m asked to do, I try my best to do it.

I think my dad’s belief was that if you are a good employee, are agreeable, have a good attitude about work and foster a partnership with the boss, when it comes time to either let people go or move people up, you’ll be in a better position. I spent a few years as a department supervisor and while I learned that I am not cut out to manage people, I also saw the wisdom of my dad’s example.

If you’re the type to complain or resist or challenge all the time, without really good reason, it’s just instinct for the boss to not have the best plan for you. If workplace changes send you on the offensive, how do you think your manager is going to view you?

I’ve had some pretty good managers. I’ve highly respected the managers who could do my job. If I dropped dead on Monday, those bosses who could simply do my work earned my respect. They knew what was involved so they appreciated what I did and understood the effort involved. And they could also look at my work and fairly and completely evaluate it.

I also had some managers who had no clue what I did but admitted that fact. They knew they needed done the work that I was doing but also knew they didn’t know how to do it. I respected them for knowing what was important and trusting me to do it. It was also important that they evaluated me based upon my level of success and the reports they received from my “customers.”

Managers that have not garnered my respect are those who believe that by simple fact of their position they are imparted with knowledge and experience related to my work. Those who fake or pretend get a suspicious eye from me, not respect. In my opinion no one person knows everything about anything. And some who end up in management positions think the position imparts special powers or knowledge. It does not.

However that may be, I always tried to do right by the manager I had at the time.

My dad often would tell me that even a bad situation doesn’t last forever. The bad manager will move on. You will move on. The situation will change. He would have appreciated the more modern motivational phrase “Nothing too good or too bad lasts for too long.”

So I always try to be a good worker. I want my boss to like me, say good things about me and not be the one he or she complains about around their dinner table. I’m certain I’ve been that topic of consternation from time to time, but I strive to not be.

My dad also stressed that you shouldn’t tell others how much you earn. Because my dad was a supervisor he hired and fired. He had union and non-union employees. He had hourly and salaried workers. I benefited from his decades of experience. His advice to me was to think only of myself. If I was considering a job, consider the work and the pay being offered. If it was a fair deal in my mind, I should go for it. If not, walk away. Similarly, after having the job, if the level of work or effort was not worth the pay, it was up to me to justify and ask for an increase. But if I didn’t get it there was no purpose in being mad, cutting back on my effort or becoming that “bad” worker. The mantra of personal responsibility said I should simply look for something else instead. While on the clock, do your best, that’s what he would say. If the pay doesn’t measure up to the requirement, the boss or company isn’t at fault. They’re making a valuation decision for themselves. It’s my job to put a value on my skills and work. If the requirements don’t match the pay, the employer isn’t the bad guy, I simply need to accept it or make a change.

My dad would tell me stories about workers who did the same job under him, but got paid differently. As a little kid those stories were rather abstract. It just seemed normal to me. It wasn’t until I had been working for a while that I understood the import.

Dad would tell me about one person who made more because he was always on time or early, always took on the additional request without moaning or complaining. That person was one of the “go-to” fellas dad could trust and rely on.

The employee making less did just what was required, nothing more.

To this day I hear co-workers complain about differences in pay. The amount we’re paid for our labor is not always fair to be sure! Sometimes it’s the result of who negotiated the best. Sometimes the differences are a true mystery. But I learned, at least from my dad’s experience, that there was a reason. On the outside, and from those on the plant floor, it may have seemed arbitrary and unfair. But since he had to justify what he paid people to those in the accounting office, he had reasons.

I’ve tried to take that lesson to heart. Again, I try to be agreeable and work with people rather than against. I try to keep my complaints and gripes away from the boss unless there’s something constructive we can do to address them.

My dad also made me think about how people feel when they learn about other’s pay. As my dad would tell me, if you share with others what you’re making, there’s almost nothing good to come from it. If you’re making more than the other person, they resent you. And they may complain to the boss that they want to make as much as you do. You have their resentment as well as the angst of the boss who now has yet another personnel headache to deal with.

And if you are the one making less you are likely the one who will complain to the boss. You’ll feel undervalued whereas just before hearing of your co-worker’s pay, you were happy to show up and do the work for your pay. Now everything is called into doubt.

Of course it’s useful to know what the pay is for similar jobs. This is particularly true if you’re actively trying to secure a new position. Sharing numbers with co-workers, especially out of idle curiosity and nosiness, seems like a dose of poison to me.

I recall at one job we had two women with the same first name working in the department. Each woman had a different job description. Our pay checks were often stacked on the boss’ desk and we’d just grab our own each payday.

One day one of the women accidentally grabbed the pay envelope for the other person with the same first name. To this day I believe it was an honest mistake. But she was totally blown away by how the amount of the other woman’s check. Granted, the job descriptions were miles apart, and I don’t think anyone thought the higher-paid woman was being over-paid, but it brought to light the size of the pay gap between the jobs.

Oh the problems that discovery created! Talk spread of how much one made over the other. Any time the higher-paid woman made a mistake the pay difference would come up.  For months and months it was a divisive force in the department. It was not good. The discovery was an accident and neither woman had done anything wrong, nor had the company, in my opinion. But the knowledge created a rift that lasted for a long time.

I think we often believe that those doing the same job should be paid an identical amount. If there are five shipping and receiving clerks, they should all make the same money. They’re doing the same job: they we should earn the same money. That’s the belief.

When we’re talking about race or gender in the workplace I’m totally on board — those should not be factors in determining pay. Nor should family size (I actually had a manager tell me once that I wasn’t getting a raise because a colleague needed it more because they had a “family”).

But I’m not completely sure pay should be identical. Nor do I think one should make more simply because of seniority. Nor should someone automatically earn more based upon  their level of education.

You could have two people come into a job, one with 10 years of experience and a Master’s degree, and the other with no degree and no experience. On the surface it might seem proper to pay the first person more. But what if that first person just doesn’t “get it”, is slow to learn and pick up on the details of the job, or comes in late, takes long lunches, leaves early, does the bare minimum and is rude to customers? Should we take that into account? What if the person without a degree nor experience hits the door running each morning, customers love her and she picks up each new task instantly? Which person is more valuable to the company? Which is better at the job? Which deserves more? Which one do you want to keep?

Pay can also get out of whack due to the company’s desire to be fair. I once lead a team of people and inherited an employee from another department that was being restructured. The employee that joined my team had done nothing wrong, but their job was no longer required. The company tried to do the right and fair thing: they transferred this person to my team. But the sticky point? The prior job paid more. Paid more in fact than I was making.

That’s when I learned that the supervisor doesn’t always make more than the supervised. Over the years I’ve learned in many ways that this is not unusual. Good companies don’t want to penalize people for changes in priorities, so they keep someone at their former rate of pay.

Of course as the supervisor that bothered me. Over time members of the team realized this person was making more than they were (considerably more). It was a constant source of stress.

But that’s not all. This transferred employee was used to somewhat regular pay adjustments due to good performance. On my team the pay was never adjusted because it was already so far above the top pay for the current job description. So over the years this transferred employee began to forget how the company had tried to look out for them and began to feel like a victim.

People who know me well know that I have very fond feelings about my years at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper. It was certainly not always roses and ice cream, but the Gazette was a good place to work. I had a couple of managers whom I did not like but I had more managers who were good and good to me. I’ve been away from the Gazette for about 13 years as of this writing and am still in weekly contact with one of my former supervisors. Yet another, who unfortunately passed away shortly after his retirement, was like a second father to me…he was a real mentor to me personally and professionally.

The Gazette paid for 100% of my college degree. About the only thing I had to pay for was parking! They provided a flexible work schedule that allowed me to get my education (albeit it took me eight years to get a four-year degree).

The Gazette is owned by the Newhouse family and, at least historically, they had benefits that were enviable. I had a pension plan and a 401(k) plan. I had totally free health insurance that was excellent. I had life insurance. I had unlimited sick time (the rule was “take what you need when you need it – we trust you.”) Paid vacation time was also generous in the extreme.

The Gazette invested in me in numerous ways. I got training in Novell NetWare, Solaris, Atex, Camex, laser imaging technology…the list is long!  That type of training was and is very expensive. I got to travel on the company dime.

I knew I was being treated very well, and my dad was proud that I had a job with such a good company. It was a job, with its good and bad, but I was happy.

But then one day I was contacted about a job at another newspaper. It was a much larger operation and they were looking for someone with my skills. They contacted me through a colleague of mine.

I wasn’t looking for another job. I perhaps was a little bored at the Gazette and would have been interested in going to corporate or to one of the larger newspapers in the chain, but I was more or less happy where I was. And the city where this other job was located was not appealing…not even a little bit. But they wanted me to come out to interview and look around right away.

So I decided nothing could be harmed by going and checking it out. I was surprised by how much I liked the place and the people and the philosophy behind how the job would be structured. Oh, there was a lot to like about the job they were offering. I found myself being very interested in making the move. They had me on-site for a couple of days so I could spend time learning about the area and seeing the operation in full swing. By the end of the first day I was thinking I might like this job.

Before my visit was over they were offering me the job. And the salary offered was a lot more than I was making in Kalamazoo. $20,000 more per year. That’s a lot of money in my book. This new place didn’t have a pension, but many of the other benefits were the same. Plus the working conditions and hours and on-call responsibilities were much, much more favorable.  And instead of being on a team of five people, I’d be on a team of 30+ people. In short, they were offering a huge raise for me to do a fraction of the work I was responsible for in Kalamazoo.

I thought long and hard before accepting that job. I think I took a month before giving them a positive answer. And it wasn’t about that $20,000 increase in salary. It was the complete package. It was a good move for me. These many years later I still am glad I made the decision. I learned a lot more at the larger company, my responsibilities increased, I got even more training, my quality of life improved more than I can say and over time my salary was improved even more.

It was a good thing. But it made personal many of the lessons my dad had taught me. At the time I was in an odd situation in terms of managers at the Gazette. I had essentially two managers. My time was being split between two departments and two projects. When I went into one of my boss’ office to give my notice I was asked how much the new job was going to pay me.

I hesitated. My decision was firm – I was leaving. And because I had learned how much value another company put on my skills, and because I’d be leaving behind some really fantastic colleagues who deserved more, I decided to be totally honest.  So I gave the amount of my new salary.

Without missing a beat my manager said “I can bump your pay $10,000 right now, today…if you want to stay.”

What?

I was worth $10,000 more than I was already making? I wonder how much my co-workers were making? Was I the stupid fool who was working for peanuts while everyone else was getting paid more? I don’t know…I’ve never learned how much my colleagues were making. But I was sick to my stomach that all I had needed do was threaten to leave and I could have gotten a substantial salary increase.

I was already on my way – for a lot of reasons, so the $10,000 “offer” didn’t sway me. But it was an important, and painful, lesson. A lesson I had learned from my dad, but it became personal. And painful.

Dad’s been gone for a long time now. But his experiences and lessons continue to be valid and I rely on them every day.

I feel bad that he spent a lifetime working so hard only to be cast aside at the end. Until I get put in that little box in the ground, I won’t know how my story ends. Will I fare any better? Will I fare worse? I just don’t know. But I do my best to be a good worker and to take responsibility for my own path. That’s what dad would have suggested and I think he was right.