I’ve been doing some reflecting lately as my next milestone birthday looms. By looms, I mean it’s still nearly three years away, but it’s never too soon to start fretting.
I was thinking about some of the people who have been impactful in my life and what made them influential. While I could write a book listing all the names, I paused on a narrow window of time — around the time I started my first newspaper job at 19.
Growing up, I was not the most outgoing or secure person you ever met. I often felt invisible, or perhaps, tried to make myself invisible. If I went to a party, I spent the whole night backed up against the wall looking down at my shoes. If I felt real courageous, I might look at your shoes.
My siblings were much better known than I. It was not unusual for someone to meet me for the first time and remark, “I didn’t know there was another one.” Even my younger brother had his own fan club, undoubtedly founded by himself. But, as my mother would say, sometimes you have to toot your own horn because nobody is going to toot it for you.
So, it might have seemed odd for me to embark on a career in journalism, which can be pretty high profile in a community. But when you think about it, the reporter isn’t the one in the spotlight. He’s the one shining the spotlight. As a friend of mine once told me, “You’re always the kingmaker, never the king.”
When you live in a small town such as Tuscola, there are plenty of royal folks, starting with the publisher, Bob Hastings, a bigger-than-life icon in the community. Large personalities cast large shadows; Bob was good to me and put a lot of faith in me, but I was never going to be him. It was during those early years working for him when I gained a lot of confidence in myself. Bob had a hand in that; we didn’t always agree, but he always heard me out and respected my opinion.
Those years were a slice of Americana that doesn’t exist everywhere anymore. I wonder sometimes if it exists anywhere.
The newspaper office was the beehive in our little garden patch. Town leaders would come in frequently to check out the next day’s edition, place an ad, talk politics, etc. There were a lot of big personalities — people like Bill McCarty, Doug McCumber, Bill Huber and Mike Carroll. There were others but those are the ones that come to mind quickly because they all had one trait in common: They were all nice to me.
Oh, I don’t think it was just me. I think they were generally nice to people. But they were influential, busy people who didn’t have to be nice to me to get what they wanted. Maybe they needed to be nice to Bob, but they didn’t have to be nice to me.
When I say they were nice, I don’t mean that they smiled and said “hello.” They would engage me in conversation. They didn’t speak down to me. They were complimentary of the work I was doing. They made me feel like I was important, too. What they gave to me has value but cost nothing. They knew that you get from people what you give to them.
We’re not keeping score, but I’ll go so far as to say that there was not a more influential person in my hometown in my teen years than Bill McCarty. He ran a bank, was active in community organizations and his church, attended school events, etc. Think James Stewart in A Wonderful Life.
Bill gave me a gift one day that was simply huge. I’m sure he thought nothing of it at the time. For me, it was huge.
When he retired from the bank, I went to a reception in his honor. It wasn’t the type of thing I normally went to; I didn’t hobnob with the local elite. That was Bob’s job. But my family had banked with Bill for years, and I wanted to offer my well wishes and due respect for whatever they were worth.
During the reception, Bill pulled me aside and spoke to me in a low voice. The room was full of town leaders, and he was taking time to talk to me? That was almost huge, but not as huge as what he told me. He wanted to tell me something about my father.
My father was a coal miner. Tuscola was not what I’d call a coal mining town, so mining was not held in the same esteem as other professions. They were lumped into the “strong back, weak mind” category of laborers. I knew my father was smart, thrifty and a hard worker. But he’s not a particularly social person, and the mine was 15 miles out of town, so he didn’t brush elbows with too many people too often.
But Bill knew my dad from working at the bank. “I just want you to know,” Bill said, “that I think your father is the smartest man I ever met financially.”
Wow. It blew me away. It made me think about my dad in a whole different light. For all I know, Bill could have said that to a dozen people that night. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that he said it me. I wonder if he knew how it would alter my perceptions and reset my priorities. To hear such a compliment from someone who I regarded as the most influential person I had ever met was incredibly uplifting.
He didn’t have to do it. How much change could we all effect if we simply said something nice when we didn’t have to? How many lives would be better if we habitually treated people with kindness and respect? You just never know when something you say is going to impact the person you’re saying it to. Wouldn’t it be better to stack that deck with kindness?
© Copyright David Porter who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All rights reserved. With this kind of influence in my life, you’d think I’d be a nicer person.