Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Humble Heroes

I had a basketball coach in 6th grade who played every single one of his 19 players in every single game. He cared about developing our sense of belonging, teamwork, and self-confidence. I find it no coincidence that we only lost 3 games that year. He even ran an open gym every Saturday at 10:00am so that we all had a place to play ball in the summer.This was also a man that somehow kept thirty 11-year old kids completely enchanted by American History for 180 days of the year. Whether it was about Washington crossing the Deleware or the Underground Railroad, Mr. Phelan always seemed to have a story about his own childhood to compare to the history lesson. He passed away in 1997, but to this day he's one of the greatest guys I've ever known.

Then, in high school, I got a job working at the Dairy Queen in Clifton, and I stayed working there for three years. My boss, Bob Boudreau, was also my second cousin or something, so he really kept an eye out for me. Bob looks like the love child of Phil Jackson and Quentin Tarrentino, were such a union/pregnancy possible by the laws of nature, and he smoked, leaving him with this deep, raspy voice. I remember thinking he was just one of the coolest older guys I had ever met, and really, he was. There weren't a lot of guys that worked at the DQ, so Bob and I really stuck together when we worked the same shift. He used to love when I'd do my PeeWee Herman impression, and he'd wheeze out that raucous laugh. There was even a few times when he'd bring me back by the sink and hand me a $10 or $20 bill and say, "You've been working hard for me, so take this. And don't go putting it in your bank account or some stupid shit like that. Take a girl to a movie or something." We'd be in the store, scrubbing the grill, and Bob would always tell me, "Brigham, I'd buy you a beer right now if your dad wouldn't kill me for it." I, of course, was 16-years old, but I appreciated the offer.

Actually, Bob is the man behind the man in the greatest "customer satisfaction" story of all time. Allow me to explain: We were busy one day, and an impatient woman had just ordered a Pecan Mud Slide from Muggsy, a short defenseless little sweetheart who really did look as if she could be lifted up and blown away by even the smallest breeze. Well, Muggsy made the sundae and asked the woman, "Would you care for a lid, ma'am?" The woman, apparently peeved about something stammered, "Of course I want a lid!" Now Bob was always a pro at recognizing customer problems from afar, so he headed towards the counter, grabbing and flapping a to-go bag on his way. "Would like a bag today, too?" he asked her calmly, smiling as if to say "You've got the man in charge now... WhatCHU gon' do?" Unfrazzled, the portly customer stared Bob down, Clint Eastwood-style, and blurted, "How about a bag for you head!"

Bob, by no means Mother Theresa, took not even a milli-second to decide his next move. Plainly, still smiling, the owner of the Clifton Dairy Queen gazed into the black soul of the customer from hell and replied, "How about I shove this bag straight up your ass?" Alarmed, the woman cocked back the lidded sundae and threw (yes, threw) the thing at Bob. He caught it, prepared to return the throw, but instead thought better, and decided to further injure her with words: "That's fine. You're too f***in' fat to eat it, anyway!" The woman left the store, never to return, Bob went to the back and smoked a cigarette, and everyone else in the store applauded a little inside. Bob Boudreau was not a man to put up with shit, and I have respected few people in my life as much as I respect that man. He's family, but he's a great friend, too.

The world is full of humble heroes. Throughout my own life, I've been blessed with countless positive role models, wonderful teachers and coaches, and caring and patient employers. I can't for a single minute question the fact that I am who I am because people like Bob and Mr. Phelan helped me get there. So when one of these humble heroes leaves my life (or in some cases, I leave theirs), it stings a little, and today I had to experience one of those stings.

Wade Koehler was only my boss for the very first semester I worked for the Hansen Student Center at IWU, but he was always around the building thereafter, even when Kevin Clark took over the Sound and Light Crew. He was only about 10 years older than any of us (except Danny, who we think was actually old enough to be Wade's rhetoric and/or arithmatic teacher), which made him very easy to get along with. Since that time, whenever I had a problem at college, he was the guy I'd go to first. Girl problems, school problems, anal leakage... you name it, he helped me out with it (I was just kidding about the anal leakage, by the way. I took care of that LONG before I met Wade). And he even told me about all the problems he and Jeannie had conceiving, and I was one of the first to know when their adoption stuff went through and they got Paige. Turned out his wife was three months pregnant when that happened, so now they have two kids (a boy and a girl), six months apart. They're very happy, and I've always loved seeing the pictures of his little goombas on his door. He's a great guy, and he helped me out tremendously in college.

I bring all this up because Wade got a job at Vanderbilt in Nashville. He's moving pretty far away, so it really bums me out to see him go. I went today and said goodbye and good luck, letting him know how much I appreciated all the things he did for me. I didn't get a chance to do that before Mr. Phelan died, and I really wish I could have. It's sad to see a role model leave you to swim on your own, but it's even sadder to never be able to tell them thank you. So, I made sure I did that today. Best of luck in Tennessee, Wade!

We've all got our own stories of humble heroes. These people are absolutely vital to the formation of who we are as people. If you are able and have not done so already, let them know what they've done for you. It's a really cool feeling to see the looks on their faces when you do, and who knows? Maybe someday it'll be you on the other end of that exchange.

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