One night after we bought our cottage on High Rock Lake 20 years ago, I saw the light of a Coleman lantern on the dock of the property next door. I wandered over to investigate and Dick greeted me warmly, offering me one of his catfishing poles.
At the time, I was making great progress building a career as a successful medical school professor. But I was also often late, inwardly focused, worried excessively, agonized over trivial decisions, jumped to conclusions and over-reacted, slept fitfully reviewing regrets and “what-ifs,” and most importantly didn’t give my wife proper priority. Dick was the perfect role model to help me smooth these rough edges.
We became regular fishing buddies. Although Dick let me choose the meeting times for our Saturday fishing outings, I always arrived 10-20 minutes late. I’d find Dick waiting patiently in his boat he’d launched long before our appointed time, equipment in place, boat motor idling. I was stunned to one day overhear Dick’s wife tell someone that Dick’s biggest pet peeve was people being late. I silently pledged to do better.
Being on time was drilled into Dick when he was in the Navy. Dick spent a year in Southeast Asia, most of it off the coast of Vietnam, loading 80-pound projectiles into 5-inch cannons firing every minute.
Dick had boarded his ship just two weeks after he married his high school sweetheart. After being away from her so long, he decided he didn’t want to be apart from her another single night. No matter what the day has brought, come bedtime, they are together. A few years ago, the family business arranged a splendid three-day fishing trip to the coast for all the employees. The first evening, after a full day of fishing when everyone else was joyfully hoisting their second round of beer, Dick looked around and realized something important was missing. He packed his bag and drove straight home to his wife, crawling in bed around midnight.
One day I remarked to Dick that I could never reach him during the hour after he’d had dinner. After a long silence he said, tersely, “foot rub time.” I eventually coaxed an explanation. His wife has bad feet, which always hurt terribly at the end of the day, and it pained Dick to see her suffer. One night out of desperation, he sat next to her and gently but firmly rubbed her feet for a full hour. The pains dissipated. He has done that nearly every night since. When I tell Dick that his devotion and doting on his wife makes me and other husbands in the neighborhood look bad, he smiles and tells me I need to up my game.
Dick was a milk deliveryman the morning his wife went into labor with their first and only child. He told his boss he needed to go to the hospital. His boss replied, "That baby doesn't need you to deliver it, but I need you to deliver this milk." Knowing his priorities, Dick quit his job and left for the hospital. While his wife was in labor, Dick informed her that he’d just lost his job. Later that day, Dick was at his mother's house, informing her he was now a father and unemployed. A plumber who was fixing his mother’s kitchen sink told Dick of a job opportunity. Within an hour, Dick was working as a plumber. When someone asks Dick when he started in plumbing, he only has to recall his son’s birthdate.
Later, Dick struck out on his own and built a major residential plumbing business. His success relied on his natural gift for positively interacting with others. Upon meeting him, you feel that he is genuinely interested in you and your welfare. He seems to know what’s important to you, what you need to be happy, and works to provide it.
Lest you think Dick’s perfect, I note two flaws. He’s an extraordinarily picky eater and refuses to try any unusual food. He strenuously avoids accepting help, even though he is generous and quick to help others.
So, here’s what I’ve learned from Dick by example: greet people warmly and strive to understand and fulfill their needs; be on time, it’s a show of respect; be generous to a fault, but receive sparingly; make your best decision and move on; avoid worrying, as worry drains your energy and changes nothing; always do the right thing so you can sleep well at night; treasure your wife above all others, she is worthy of sacrifice.
But don’t ask my family how much I’ve actually adopted these valuable life lessons. I’m a work in progress.
Dr. Dalane W. Kitzman’s writing focuses on how we all have the potential to positively influence others.