Customers and Employees First

Imagine a store that not only provides a variety of quality products and efficient service but also offers employees a bank, a school, a library, a gymnasium, medical care–and a weekly prayer meeting.

Is this a modern business experimenting with new ideas to retain employees? No, it was a late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century business that was far ahead of its time. (In fact, at least the prayer meeting part would be considered politically incorrect today and possibly even lead to law suits!) These innovations were the brainchildren of John, the young businessman whom I introduced in the previous blog post (“A Revolutionary Retailer”).

People conducted business differently in John’s early days than they do today. Retail stores usually specialized in only one or two types of products and had no set business hours. Clerks received no formal training. Clerks and customers haggled over the price of everything. Identical items might have several different prices. People expected merchants to try to cheat them. Merchants always made customers feel inferior; shopping was seldom pleasurable. A dissatisfied customer could not return a product for refund or exchange. The business motto of the day was caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware.”

But John changed all that–and more. He instituted set hours and stayed until the last customer was served. He hired only the best staff and then trained them extensively in customer service. He marked prices clearly, and identical items had one price, eliminating haggling. He made customers feel important, and shopping became enjoyable. “Courtesy is the one coin you can never have too much of or be stingy with,” he instructed his employees. If a customer was dissatisfied for any reason and could show his receipt, John guaranteed a cash refund.

Moreover, John’s store was the first to have electricity, telephones, elevators, and telegraph service. He pioneered home delivery and telephone ordering. He introduced the use of pneumatic tubes whereby clerks in the various departments could send cash and receive change quickly. He offered the best products; when he couldn’t do so, he hired craftsmen or built factories to make them himself. He conducted special sales. He even built a restaurant inside his store.

John informed his customers through continuous and aggressive advertising. He once admitted, “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” He read the papers daily, looking for good writers and artists whose work he liked, then he hired them to produce effective ads for him.

He introduced numerous benefits for his employees and their families, including vacations, pensions, bonuses, health care, life insurance, paid training, and extra pay for additional education. He scheduled public concerts, authors’ lectures, art and historical exhibits, and other forms of entertainment and education–all conducted inside his tore during store hours. He had the world’s largest organ built and installed in his store.

In short, John made work rewarding for his employees and shopping pleasurable for his customers. “When a customer enters my store,” John said, “forget me. He is king.” In return, they made him a success. But that success was a mere by-product of an even greater purpose that drove his revolutionary business.

In the next post, I will share more of this great exemplar’s legacy, which extended far beyond his retail operations, and let you in on what he considered the secrets of his success.

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

A Revolutionary Retailer

John, the first of six children in his family, was a sickly child. Although he enjoyed reading and learning and going to school, he dropped out of school at fourteen to work for $1.25 a week as an errand boy for a Philadelphia publisher. He soon quit that job to become a stock boy in a clothing store–for $2.50 a week. During that time, he not only learned a lot about selling clothing but also wrote, edited, published, and distributed a little newspaper called Everybody’s Journal. It was designed for “young men who wish to rise in the world,” which was exactly what he intended to do.

When John was eighteen, he became a salesman for Joseph Bennett, a pioneer in ready-to-wear clothing. John impressed Bennett and advanced quickly. The two of them often talked about business and John’s future. Bennett recalled John’s saying that he planned to become a great merchant. But one day John asked his boss for a substantial raise, and Bennett refused. John calmly told him that he would quit and open his own store nearby.

Like all other businessmen, John wanted to make money, but that wasn’t the most important thing to him. A deeply religious man, John saw “every day [as] an opportunity to obey his religious convictions” and thereby please his Maker. He also wanted to “be of value to others besides himself.” He once said that his mission in life was “to do a full day’s work every day int he year, and to use its product for the uplifting and bettering of my fellow-men.”

John got this philosophy from his parents, who gave him his religious instruction. His father, who worked in a brickyard, set an example of hard work and frugality. His mother was a godly woman who taught her children to love God and read His Word. John especially recalled her teaching him “diligence, without which no man need ever hope to succeed in business or any other legitimate profession.”

Shortly after quitting his employment with Bennett, John was walking down the street when he heard music coming from a church as he passed it. He went in, listened to the choir, and gave his heart to Christ. From that day, he served a higher purpose.

In 1861, when John was twenty-three, he and his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, opened a store on the corner of Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia. Through vision, determination, and hard work, they brought about a revolution in retail sales. John had an uncanny ability to foresee trends. Many people thought he was crazy to do some of the things he did with his business, but they worked, and soon other business were following his example. He realized that to be in the forefront of the industry, he needed to see the “fundamental needs of the people before the people themselves were consciously aware of these needs.” Based on this uncanny ability and his willingness to take on risks, he introduced new products, and customers rewarded his intuition by buying them. He also introduced new ways to care for and reward his employees, and they, in turn, worked hard for him and helped him earn great profits. By 1872, his store was the largest in the nation.

John’s story is so impressive that it can’t be told or even summarized in one short blog post. Stay tuned for subsequent posts in which I will share more about this amazing entrepreneur’s successes and example.

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

He Cut His Teeth on the Golden Rule

Although JCP is currently going through some tough times and people associate it with declining, often gang- and crime-plagued malls, such was not always the case. And it was not always known by the bland, nondescript monicker JCP. What originally made the company different from the modern company was the life, philosophy, and influence of one man: James Cash Penney.

Humble Beginnings

Penney was the seventh of twelve children born to a poor farmer/Baptist preacher and his wife near Hamilton, Missouri, on September 16, 1875. His parents wasted no time instilling in him their life values: love of God, honor, hard work, self-discipline, self-reliance, respect for learning, and the need to treat others as they themselves wanted to be treated.

Because money was scarce and his parents wanted him to learn its value, Penney began working when he was only eight. With money he earned, he bought his own clothes. He raised and sold livestock.  When he graduated high school, while continuing to work the farm, Penney got a job as a clerk in J.M. Hale and Brothers dry goods store. Just as he seemed to be learning the ropes of selling, he contracted tuberculosis and doctors advised him to move to a drier climate. He relocated to Denver, Colorado, where he quickly got a job in another dry goods store. Saving his money, he also opened a butcher shop, but it failed because Penney refused to treat one influential customer differently from his other customers.

Expansion

The following year, Penney accepted a job working for Callahan and Johnson, owners of a small chain of dry goods stores named the Golden Rule Store. The partners liked Penney’s honesty and work ethic, and they soon asked him to go to Wyoming to open a new store. Penney did so and soon used his savings to buy into their partnership and open his own Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, on April 14, 1902. He and his wife and baby lived in the store’s attic. (Interestingly, Penney’s store was located beside a saloon, a business the very antithesis of everything he believed in.)

Penney operated his store on several principles that demonstrated his philosophy of life and business: high-quality products offered at fair prices on a “cash-only” basis and proper treatment of both customers and employees, whom he called “associates,” a radical concept for the time but common practice among retail stores today. Soon, he had three stores in Wyoming. By 1907, Callahan and Johnson had sold the entire business to Penney.

Penney’s goal was not to have simply a chain of stores but “a chain of good men,” so he hired and trained associates carefully, ensuring that they worked according to his principles. By 1912, he had 34 Golden Rule stores, and their combined sales exceeded $2 million. He changed the name to J.C. Penney Company and moved the headquarters to New York, where he could be closer to the manufacturers of the goods his stores offered. But he continued to operate them by the Golden Rule. The company motto was “Honor, Confidence, Service, and Cooperation.” By 1924, he had opened his 500th store.

Griefs

But Penney faced his share of trials like everyone else. He eventually overcame his TB. But his first wife died of pneumonia in 1910. He remarried, but his second wife also died in 1923. He married yet again, and that marriage lasted until Penney’s death in 1971.

Despite one grief after another, Penney continued steadfast and used the profits from his business to help his fellowman. He established farms to raise pure-bred Guernsey and Angus cows to ensure pure milk and meat for the public. He started a retirement community for preachers. He spoke widely and wrote numerous books and pamphlets to encourage people, especially youngsters, to work hard, live clean, exercise initiative, and treat others as they would want to be treated.

When I was a child and my parents took me with them to shop at the J. C. Penney store in Knoxville, Tennessee, I stared in awe at the huge portrait of Penney that greeted us as we came through the main entrance. It hang in a prominent position over the escalator that descended from the second floor. To me, he looked so calm, quiet, confident, and dignified, and even as a child I knew that he was successful. There was something different about him and his business. And I knew that my parents enjoyed shopping there.

Legacy

Penney died in New York on February 12, 1971, and was buried in a Bronx cemetery, but what a legacy he left! For many years, the store remained the same. But in recent years, it has changed. The name, the logo (several times), the policies, the atmosphere. We seldom shop there any more. Apparently, many others also have gone elsewhere because the company is struggling today. I wonder if it’s because they’ve lost the vision and rejected the philosophy of the founder. The company would do well to review his principles and make adjustments as necessary.

Here are a few things that this exemplar said that both businesses and individuals could benefit from.

  • “I do not believe in excuses. I believe in hard work as the prime solvent of life’s problems.”
  • “I never trust an executive who tends to pass the buck. Nor would I want to deal with him as a customer or a supplier.”
  • “It is always the start that requires the greatest effort.”
  • “Responsibilities are given to him on whom trust rests. Responsibility is always a sign of trust.”
  • “I cannot remember a time when the Golden Rule was not my motto and precept, the torch that guided my footsteps.”
  • “Success will always be measured by the extent to which we serve the buying public.”
  • “It is the service we are not obliged to give that people value most.”
  • “A merchant who approaches business with the idea of serving the public well has nothing to fer from the competition.”
  • “There is in everyone more latent than developed ability; far more unused than used power.”
  • “Men are not great or small because of their material possessions. They are great or small because of what they are.”
  • “Determine to do some thinking for yourself. Don’t live entirely upon the thoughts of others. Don’t be an automaton.”
  • “We get real results only in proportion to the real values we give.”
  • “I believe a man is better anchored who has a belief in the Supreme Being.”

Recommended Reading: J.C. Penney, Fifty Years with the Golden Rule (Harper & Brothers, 1950) and Orlando Tibbets, The Spiritual Journey of J. C. Penney (Rutledge Books, 1999).

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

Traded for a Horse

George didn’t have much at all going for him. He was born a slave to a slave mother in Missouri. The two of them were kidnapped when he was only a young, sickly child. During their flight, the kidnappers separated him from his mother, and he never saw her again. Then they traded him to his rescuers for a broken-down old race horse. Not a good start on life.

Education

But thanks to his Christian owners, to whom his rescuers returned him, he received a Christian upbringing, and they allowed him to work in their kitchen rather than in the fields. The Moses Carver family didn’t object when George found a Noah Webster speller and began teaching himself to read. Neither did they object when he left them to attend a little log school in Neosho, Missouri, where he lived in a stable and worked odd jobs after school to earn food money.

George refused handouts. “Just give me a chance is all I ask,” he told people. They did, and he gave them his best. He graduated high school and enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa because he knew that he wanted and needed an education to get ahead in life. To him, getting an education made living in a kind lady’s woodshed (a step up from the stable) worth it. Acting on initiative, he started a laundry business, washing other students’ clothing to pay for schooling and food. And he studied hard, focusing on botany but also taking liberal arts courses, including art, organ, and vocal music. So good were his botanical drawings that he became known as “Iowa’s ebony Leonardo,” and his sketches were exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

After two years at Simpson, George transferred to Iowa State College, where he lived in the office of a friendly teacher. There, he studied agricultural chemistry and graduated with a B.S. degree (1894) and an M.S. degree (1896). That’s when Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute for $1,000 a year. He accepted, replying to Washington that he wanted only “to be of service to my people.”

Experiments

Arriving at Tuskegee, he set up the entire agriculture department and a lab, where he began the experiments that were to bring him world-wide fame. He called the lab “God’s little workshop,” and there he experimented with sorghum, the sweet potato, the Irish potato, poultry problems, and the uses of clay and developed many products during his search for practical uses for common things.

Religious Character

One day during his prayer time, he said, he asked God to show him the meaning of the universe.

“Said the Creator, ‘You want to know too much for such a little mind as yours. Ask for something your size.'”

So he asked to know what man was made for, and God answered him, “‘Little one, you are still asking too much. Bring down the extent of your request.'”

Humbled, Carver then asked, “Tell me then, Creator, what the peanut was made for.” Then the Creator, Carver said, taught him “how to take the peanut apart and put it back together again” in the form of many helpful products.” More than 300, to be exact. And from his studies of clay came another 300, and from his sweet potato studies more than 100. And he also discovered 250 medicinal plants of the South. And he did it all while teaching a full load and helping students with not only their studies but also with life generally.

The driving force behind Carver’s work was his Christianity, and he credited the Seymour family, devout Presbyterians with whom he lived in Olathe, Kansas, for introducing him to Christ. He combined his scientific studies with careful Bible study. He spoke to God as he would a person sitting with him in his laboratory. One biographer wrote, “When he prayed thus it was like being in the vestibule of heaven.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid Carver was the comment that “he so lived that men forgot his color.” He believed that God had planted in every person specific talents and abilities and that every person should do his or her best to use those talents for both God’s glory and the good of mankind. One’s race wouldn’t matter if he always did his best.

Carver refused to be sidetracked by materialism. Many wealthy businessmen offered him vast sums to work for them, but he always refused. He even turned down Thomas Edison’s offer of $175,000 a year, choosing to remain in his $1,000-a-year Tuskegee position. He also refused to capitalize on any of his discoveries or the information services he provided for farmers and housewives.

Carver traveled and spoke widely, and he especially enjoyed addressing young people. He always told them, “Prepare yourself to do something. Do the common things of life in an uncommon way.” And encouraging them to succeed in spite of problems and obstacles, he often quoted these lines from Edgar Guest’s poem “Equipment”:

Figure it out for yourself, my lad,

You’ve all that the greatest of men have had:

Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes,

And a brain to use if you would be wise.

With this equipment they all began,

So start from the top and say, “I can.”

Carver fell one day as he left his laboratory and was thereafter confined to bed. At 7:30 p.m. on January 5, 1943, “the ebony wizard” passed into the world of the God he served so selflessly.

George Washington Carver was a great man who helped others and, doing so, helped make America great. He sought no special favors, no advantages over others, no handouts. All he asked was to be given a chance. The America of his day gave him the chance to prove himself, and he, through commitment, diligence, and hard work, did so. The entire world has reaped the benefits of his work.

Carver’s Legacy–Our Challenge

I’ve often wondered why so few people, especially African Americans, have ignored his example and failed to lift him up as the exemplar he is. Instead, they point to flawed athletes, rock stars, rappers, drug dealers, and gang bangers. People today don’t like to be told that they have an obligation and responsibility to their Creator to discover, develop, and use their talents in hard work for the benefit of others. They are interested only in themselves and what others can do for them.

If Carver were speaking to young people today, I think he would still be saying the same things he told young people in the first half of the last century. Here are a few of his statements. Think of how much greater America could be if we heeded them.

  • “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
  • “It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”
  • “There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation–veneer isn’t worth anything.”
  • “No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it.”
  • “When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”
  • “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.”
  • “Human need is really a great spiritual vacuum which God seeks to fill.”
  • “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
  • “One of the things that has helped me as much as any other is not how long I am going to live, but how much I can do while living.”

Recommended reading: Basil Miller, George Washington Carver: God’s Ebony Scientist (Zondervan, 1943); Gary Kremer, ed., George Washington Carver in His Own Words (University of Missouri Press, 1987); John Perry, Unshakable Faith: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver (Multnomah Publishers, 1999).

Builders of the American Dream

Our recent celebration of Independence Day set me to thinking about how many of our holidays focus our attention on what has made America great and how it came about. Independence Day, of course, emphasizes the colonists’ declaration of independence from the British king’s tyranny and the freedoms we gained by that independence. Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day emphasize the men and women of subsequent generations who served and often died or were wounded to preserve and maintain that freedom. Too often unsung, however, are the thousands of everyday people who have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded by that freedom to improve themselves and others, thereby making America an even greater nation.

Common, everyday people like you and me invented the automobile, the airplane, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, and many other now-common time- and labor-saving devices. We think that people with names such as Ford, Wright, Morse, Bell, and Edison were somehow different from the rest of us. And they were in many ways. But they were, in the final analysis, just common people who showed initiative and ingenuity and took advantage of America’s freedoms to do extraordinary things. The aforementioned names are now household names that nearly everyone recognizes and can tell about to some degree. But millions of other people also contributed to America’s greatness.

Totalitarian and authoritarian “big brother” states have tried to control, regulate, limit, and even artificially induce such innovative people, but America liberated them, giving them the freedom to dream, to risk, to attempt, and then to succeed or fail. Many times, they succeeded, but even in failure they learned something–what to do better or differently, what not to do, etc. In the process, they became wealthy because they helped others through their efforts. Contrary to statist thinking, such people were not greedy oppressors. Rather, they were imaginative and innovative and sought to help themselves by helping and serving others in various ways. Those others were not forced to buy the good or services that they developed. Rather, they willingly chose to buy because doing so was in their own best interests. The innovators’ wealth was the reward for their serving their fellowmen.

A segment of society seeks to gain power and wealth and control over other people by turning groups against each other using mankind’s sinful nature: envy, jealousy, and covetousness. They strive to make the poor turn against the wealthy, the unsuccessful against the successful, the non-producers against the producers, and the laborers against the financiers. The instigators of such class warfare seek–with the ready complicity of the envious, the jealous, and the covetous–subsidies for the noncompetitive, handouts (“entitlements”) for the non-productive, and taxes on the successful. The only beneficiaries of such actions, however, are the demagogues and their cronies. Consequently, consumers are forced to buy inferior products. Innovation is stifled. Capital is dried up because those with money are less willing to risk its loss. And only government grows.

Absent such counterproductive, anti-freedom obstructions, however, growth and wealth increase across the board. Common people come up with great ideas; capitalists fund the development of those ideas, transforming them into useful goods and services; consumers are better off; and everyone in the process (design, manufacturing, marketing, transportation, and distribution) is rewarded. It’s a win-win for everyone–except the statists.

Oh, wait! Even they benefit because they use the same goods and services that they are trying to suppress. Some of them decry technology and those who make it possible even while they use that technology. Others rail against carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses while they jet around, emitting far more than the average persons, who will be heavily taxed if the dictacrats have their way. And legislators pass laws placing onerous restrictions on innovation while exempting themselves.

In several future blog posts, I’d like to feature the stories of some exemplars who sought no special favors or advantages, asking only for the freedom to try, and who developed ways of helping others. The names of some of them will be familiar to many readers, but they might not know the story behind their names, or, as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, “the rest of the story.” But all of them made invaluable contributions to their fellowmen. And in the process, they played important roles in making America great.

In this regard, I recommend several books for your consideration. One is James K. Fitzpatrick’s Builders of the American Dream (Arlington House Publishers, 1977). Beginning with Daniel Boone and going through Douglas MacArthur, Fitzpatrick tells the stories of the contributions of thirteen great Americans who realized for themselves and made possible for others the American dream.

Another good work is Thomas DiLorenzo’s How Capitalism Saved America (Three Rivers Press, 2004). DiLorenzo provides a definition of capitalism that demolishes collectivists’ efforts to broad brush all entrepreneurs and capitalists as greedy oppressors and sets the record straight. Beginning with the Pilgrims and proceeding to the twenty-first century, he shows that Americas has become great and individuals’ lives and living standards are the best in the world because of capitalism.

 

But two other books, both by Burton Folsom, put the argument for freedom and against statism on the bottom shelf where everyone can understand it. In The Myth of the Robber Barons (Young America’s Foundation, 2010) and Uncle Sam Can’t Count (HarperCollins, 2014), which he wrote with his wife Anita, Folsom shows how capitalism (“big business”) has contributed to American–both national and individual–greatness and how government has predictably messed things up. Folsom shows how Vanderbilt, Hill, Rockefeller, Mellon, Dow, and other innovators and capitalists became wealthy not by stepping on and robbing others but by helping others and lowering the prices of the goods and services to a level that the poorest could buy at affordable prices what they needed. In doing so, they helped those common individuals rise and made the entire nation better.

I look forward to sharing in future posts some snippets from these and other exemplars’ lives. Stay tuned!

Symbols of Our Independence

With the approach of this Independence Day, in spite of the many distractions and interruptions that are accompanying the lead-up to it, I’ve been thinking about how this holiday is rife with symbolism. Although many other examples exist, I’ve chosen to focus briefly on five that seem to carry special significance and meaning for me. At the same time that I’m proud of these symbols, I’m also disheartened by the seeming increase in people’s ignorance of them and what makes them important to our national and individual freedoms.

First, of course, is the document that declared our independence in the first place, the Declaration of Independence. Although many people can recite many of the phrases in the second paragraph, a lot of people don’t know what the opening paragraph and the rest of the document says, let alone understand the few phrases that they seemingly know. “We hold these truths. . . .” The truths that follow are the foundation of the rest of the document. “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This was the second time that the document mentioned God, the Author of our rights and entitlements. The document goes on to state the purpose and source of human government, which is to be a servant of the people, not their master. It also enumerates the colonists’ various grievances against the king and declares the reasons why they were declaring their independence from his rule. It would do us all good to read the entire document again carefully so that we will gain an appreciation for not only what the document means but also what the Founders risked to achieve our independence.

Second is Independence Hall. That building has a double meaning for me. It’s primary symbolism, of course, is political. But it’s also personal in my memory. The first time I toured the building was the day before my wedding. My groomsmen and I had driven to Philadelphia to pick up another groomsman from the airport, and we all decided to take a detour to Independence Hall on the way back. It was a hot and humid day. I was sleep deprived and anxious about the wedding and honeymoon details. I had not eaten good breakfast, it was well into the afternoon, and I had had neither lunch nor fluids, so I was getting severely dehydrated. I was standing in the Assembly Hall, intently trying to focus on what the National Park Service member was saying, when I suddenly found myself sitting on the step in front of the building. My groomsmen had caught me before I hit the floor in the Assembly Room and supported me out to the step and into the “cool” air. A drink of water and some lunch revived me, but I’ll forever know firsthand how many of the delegates meeting in that sweltering room in early July 1776 must have felt as they accepted Jefferson’s masterpiece.

Then there is the Liberty Bell. Too often, we forget (or did we even know) that this hunk of finely crafted metal has engraved on its upper portion the words of Scripture: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land.” Most people who do know that those words are there think that they refer to political liberty, but they are actually referring to spiritual liberty. Scripture also states, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Again, those words refer to spiritual truth, the gospel story. But the enemies of freedom are also the enemies of the Bible, from which those words come, and of Christianity because they know that spiritual liberty leads to political liberty. If they can enslave people spiritually and keep them spiritually ignorant, they know they will also be able to enslave them politically. When a nation forgets God, it will soon become enslaved to political dictators.

And there’s the Minuteman Statue in Massachusetts. It symbolizes the many men who were ready “at a minute’s notice” to come to the aid of the cause of liberty. And not just ready to fight but also to die, if necessary, that their posterity–we–could enjoy the blessings of freedom and liberty. I must ask myself how ready I will be if the need arises to defend freedom. How much would I be willing to sacrifice? At the very least, I must be eternally vigilant because the enemies of freedom are ever-present with us, perhaps never more than in the present day. Freedom is never free. As the slogan says, we are the land of the free because of the brave.

Finally, there are the fireworks, perhaps the single most used symbol on Independence Day now. Although many people have forgotten the content and meaning of the Declaration, and to many people the statues and emblems and symbols are merely relics, we all love a beautiful fireworks display on the Fourth of July. John Adams declared that the day should be marked by such fireworks displays, but I think that he would rather have people celebrating the meaning rather than the mere display. My family has traditionally set off fireworks every Fourth, and those performances have tended to grow larger every year, especially as sons-in-law have desired to add their funds to increase the boom and the beauty. But we should remember that we can enjoy the beauty of fireworks only because earlier generations suffered and endured the blasts of cannons and “bombs bursting in air” in a much more deadly way. But it was for the Cause, and we enjoy the fireworks today because of their sacrifice in wounds and death back then.

Take some time to reread the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July, and remind yourself of why we’re celebrating. And then thank God that you were born and can live in a country that affords us such freedom as our forefathers gave us. And why.

The Positive Power of a Mentor

Dr. Walter Fremont, the late educator who motivated me for my teaching career, once said during a class lecture that no one should write a book until he was at least 50 years old. He opined that until one reached that chronological age he had not lived or learned enough to write an authoritative book.

His life’s ministry was sharing with others, especially aspiring teachers, the wisdom and knowledge that he had gained so that they could, in turn, minister to still others. He exuded a positive attitude, a can-do spirit that was infectious. And that was what first-year (and even veteran) teachers needed even more than they needed materials and methods and curriculum development classes. It was what would keep many of them going when they had reached the point at which they were ready to give up and change careers.

True to his own stated belief, Dr. Fremont’s first published book came when he was 56 years old. He went on to write four more books, and they all dealt in some way with education and family living.

When Dr. Fremont was 62 and seemingly at the apex of his phenomenal and inspiring career, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Doctors gave him two to five years to live. But they didn’t know Dr. Fremont or the God he served.

Dr. Fremont continued to serve as dean of a university school of education for four years. Then he continued teaching for another year. He finally retired, but not to rust. Not Dr. Fremont. Not Dr. Positive Faith Attitude. No, he spent the next fifteen years working from a hospital room, authoring four more books between 1986 and 2002. In 2007, he finally succumbed to the disease that the doctors had thought would take him in two to five years. His God gave him 82 years during which to serve Him. And right up until the end, his life continued to bless and teach others. His life is proof of Jesse Stuart’s assertion that a teacher is immortal, living on for years through his or her students. And I was blessed to be one of Dr. Fremont’s students.

I was perhaps a slow learner in school, and I didn’t publish my first book (I’m trying to be positive by using that phrase “first book” and to assume that I will have others someday!) until I was beyond Dr. Fremont’s 50-years-old cutoff point and past even his own 56 by several years. But once published, I was inspired and motivated to keep writing. In fact, I have several books in the works. Whenever I get stuck or bogged down with one, I can turn to another, so that I always have something to work on.

But sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get beyond that one book. Can I do it again? By nature a melancholy person, I begin to doubt. But then I think of Dr. Fremont and how his most productive publishing years came after the doctors had essentially written him off. But God was not finished with him, and his work continues to influence people for good.

I don’t know how many years I have remaining in which to write. Who does? I might go in my sleep some night. Or my time might come in an accident on my way to pick up my son-in-law at the airport this very night. Or at some unknown (to me) future date to a dread disease–heart attack, cancer, whatever. That makes me want to live and work today as though it were my last. I want to do what I can with the time I have. And I pray that, like Dr. Fremont, I might have been able in the process to be a blessing to someone else.

May this be the prayer of each one of us. May we be faithful in the work we have while it is called today. May we be ready when we are called home to give an account of our life and be able to do so with joy. Until then, let’s keep serving!

Pleasant Distraction

While passing through our utility room on my way to the garage the other day, my attention was attracted to (or perhaps distracted by would be more precise) a shoe box on a shelf above the dryer.

Now what could that be? I wondered. Although I’d passed through the room many times a day, day after day, I couldn’t recall seeing the box there. I forgot why I was going to the garage and stopped to take down the box and examine its contents. What I discovered inside held my attention for the next hour or so. (I don’t think I ever made it to the garage for whatever it was I was seeking.)

Inside that box were old family photos from when our four daughters were infants and toddlers, when we lived in Pennsylvania and Tennessee and the kids were growing up–and when my wife and I were much younger.

Going through old family photos can take up a lot of time, but it sure can bring back a lot of memories! And it can make you think. As I perused those old photos, I was struck by several thoughts.

  • How much fun we had “back then.” We didn’t have much money, but we did enjoy the time with the children–and the photos show that they, too, were having fun.
  • How innocent and carefree life was for the kids. The problems of life–work, money, taxes, government intrusions into private life, etc.–none of that fazed them.
  • How much our grandchildren resemble our own children when they were young. (I can also see now how much like my grandfather my dad looked when he was a kid. And people tell me that I look like him.)
  • How much younger–and lighter–I was back then. The cares of this life, the ravages of time, and overindulgence at the table can sure change a guy’s appearance!
  • How fun-loving my own parents were, such as the Christmas when Daddy got all of us men–my brother-in-law, my brother, and me–overalls and bandanas. We never understood why.
  • How organized I kept the old photos–in contrast to the jumble of files and flash drives I must study to find the image I’m seeking today. I once was super-organized, so much so that I could feel my way through the closet and find just the shirt I was looking for–in the dark. But ever since we moved from Tennessee to South Carolina thirteen years ago, organization seems to have vanished from my list of skills.
  • How glad I am that I can revisit those times with a hard copy of the memory and not have to rely on an electronic gadget–and risk losing the images to a crashed hard drive, an accidentally deleted file, or a lost flash drive.

Technological advancements surely have made it easier for us to capture memories as images. The passage from 35 mm film and flashbulbs to Polaroids to Instamatics and from slides and prints to digital images has been wonderful for picture taking. The quality of photography possible today is phenomenal. And you don’t really have to have an expensive digital camera with all the bells and whistles to get good photos. Sometimes photos taken with a cheap cell phone today rival anything the professional photographers could produce “back then.” (Well, my wife still cuts off people’s heads, and her shaky hand produces some blurry images, but that’s not the fault of the technology.)

It certainly is less expensive to take pictures today. In the “good ol’ days,” I had to send my exposed rolls of 35 mm film out to be developed, and even the cost of sending it to “economy” companies like Clark and York got pricey after a while, especially if you, as I did, ordered double prints of everything. But now I’m glad that I ordered those double prints. As the kids married and moved away, I noticed that our photo albums’ contents seemed to dwindle as the kids expropriated their favorite pics for their own albums.

But even that purloining is good because it shows that they, too, have valued the times and memories of their past. Those old photos ensure that the memories will live on and the girls will tell their children stories of what life was like when they were little. Their heritage will continue to future generations.

Now, if I could only recall what I wanted in the garage before that box of old photos distracted me!

Writing Instruments I Have Known

It’s funny how the anniversaries of certain historic events make you reminisce. Today, I’ve been reminiscing about the typewriter, a writing instrument with which I’m almost as familiar as I am a pencil or pen. On this date in 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes patented a typewriting machine, a giant leap forward for his time.

Inventors had been working to develop a typewriter since as early as 1714 (Henry Mill) and then to “reinvent” it, making it something practical and useful. Sholes was successful in developing one of the first commercially successful such machines.

Sholes was a newspaper editor in Milwaukee. His newspaper’s compositors went on strike, prompting Sholes to try (unsuccessfully) to build a machine that would set type. He and printer Samuel Soule later were working together to develop a ticket-numbering machine when lawyer and inventor Carlos Glidden suggested that they might be able to make a machine that produced not only numbers but also letters. They began with a machine called a Pterotype, developed by John Pratt, and tried to simplify it. The result was the typewriting machine, which is shown to the right of Pratt’s machine.

The men received a patent for their invention on June 23, 1868. Their machine sold for an average of about $250 each, not a paltry sum in those days. Remington, a company better known for its firearms, bought the patent in 1873. The inventors continued, however, to improve on their original design, the most lasting improvement being the QWERTY keyboard arrangement to reduce jamming of the keys, and the arrangement is still in use today (although with computers it is no longer necessary).

The first typewriter that I worked on wasn’t quite as old as Sholes’s machine, but it was old. It was my mother’s Remington portable with a small suitcase-sized carrying case and a ribbon that allowed one to type in either black or red ink. I used that machine before I even took a typing class; I used the hunt-and-peck technique instead.

Then I took typing in high school. (My “wise” guidance counselor tried to convince me that I wouldn’t need to know how to type for college, but my father convinced him otherwise!) We learned on heavy Smith-Corona manual machines that required a heavy hand. To this day, I still pound the keyboard although it’s no longer necessary. (I guess I just enjoy both the feeling of strength it gives me and the sound of the keys being struck. It makes me feel as though I’m actually accomplishing something.)

I enjoyed the typing class so much that my parents bought me a refurbished but very functional Royal typewriter for Christmas that year. I took that machine to college with me and used the carbon paper, erasable bond paper, and hair spray to bond the ink to the erasable bond so it wouldn’t smear when the professors read my papers. I used that machine not only throughout college and grad school but also during much of my teaching career–typing mimeograph and ditto stencils–until I decided (foolishly, I now realize) that I needed an electric machine to be successful as a writer.

The electric machine that I bought was a Brother Correct-O-Ball, which had a golf ball-sized ball in the center where the letters used to be on long, curved arms. The ball would spin around to the letter that corresponded to the key one struck. The idea was that the keys would not get jammed when one typed too fast. I liked that idea because my writing was slowed every time I had to untangle the keys, and that happened often to me. The only problem was that I was so enthralled by watching that ball spin around that I ended up watching the ball rather than writing. And before I knew it, it became hard–and expensive–to get the ribbon cartridges for the machine. I decided I needed to upgrade.

A friend told me that the wave of the future was in word processors, so I bought a used Magnavox Video Writer word processor. It had an ugly yellow-on-black screen display about the size of the modern iPad screen. It also had a neat feature whereby when you began to type a word, the machine guessed what you meant and completed the word for you. When I began one day to type one of my daughter’s names–Tisha–the machine changed it to Tissue. For a while, that feature provided some interesting entertainment, but eventually it became frustrating because I had to proofread even more closely, and that slowed me down. For all the hype about speeding up my production, I found that I was wasting even more time.

Then I pursued a full computer, something that I could use for multiple functions, not just word processing. That’s when I bought and paid for the Tandy computer–and then the franchise went bankrupt before they could deliver it. Then they refused to deliver it. I was called as a witness in the resulting bankruptcy proceedings. When the franchisee lost, I won my computer, but by then I had bought another (a Gateway desktop). I didn’t need and couldn’t afford two computers, so I had to sell the Tandy at a loss.

More recently, I joined the laptop trend. I’ve had Gateways, Toshibas, and now an HP Pavilion. And I’ve suffered through crashes of hard drives, obsolescence of the 5 1/4- and 3-1/2-inch floppy disks, and constantly required upgrades to software and hardware. While this rapidly changing technology has had its advantages, I still look back upon the days of the old manual typewriter with fond memories.

Man’s Best Friend?

Groucho Marx reputedly quipped, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

I can recall many a night when, as a youngster who had been told to turn out the light and go to bed, I dutifully obeyed but then pulled the covers over my head and finished a riveting chapter (or even an entire book) by flashlight. And I’ve been an avid reader ever since, usually having multiple books in progress at once.

I just started another book, this one for instructional as well as inspirational purposes. It’s Writing with Quiet Hands by Paula Munier. Some of its contents promise to be welcome and much-needed reminders and maybe even a few gentle (or not so gentle) rebukes for not minding what I already know. But much of the contents are offering additional instruction on how to improve my craft, and there’s always room for improvement.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that there are no know-it-alls in any field. Oh, there are a lot of people who think they know it all (and they’re the ones who are eager to let everyone else know that they do), but in reality, no one knows everything there is to know about anything. One of my favorite quotations is from Will Rogers: “We’re all ignorant–just on different subjects.” So I’m reading this book to learn something new.

But I’m also reading it with the hope of being inspired, and we all occasionally need that, too. We sometimes tire of doing what we know we should be doing to be successful in our professions and callings. We often hit the proverbial brick wall when we don’t know what to do next, or we can’t seem to make things work just as we want them to. So we risk stagnating, and we need a little spark of inspiration to motivate us to persevere. Eventually, that brick wall will crack, and we’ll break through the impasse. But that won’t happen unless we’re motivated.

It’s sort of like when you’re just about to your last gasp on the treadmill and then you look over at the 93-year-old man beside you, and he’s running faster and for a longer time than you, and he’s not even breathing hard. Suddenly, you tell yourself, If he can do it, then I certainly can, too! And you get a second wind and press on, achieving more than you thought you could.

I haven’t even started the first chapter of Writing with Quiet Hands yet, and I’ve already encountered some interesting statements. Here’s one of them: “Books are our friends–and that friendship becomes a happy marriage when we sit down to write our own stories.”

In my office are two plaques. One reads, “Write your own life story.” The other says, “Home is where your story begins.” Whenever I read those two statements together, a small voice inside me says, “Now get busy!”

My lesson for the day: Read for information. Read for inspiration. But don’t just read; write. And that’s what I have to get busy doing right now! Time’s a-wastin’!

By the way, if you haven’t yet decided on your next book to read, may I suggest Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries? It might just surprise you!