This is a continuation of my 52 People Who Matter to Me series. The first few were family and were in somewhat of an order; from here on out there is no order because they are all important to me in different ways, and I can not begin to quantify one over another. I will only use first names when discussing these folks because I know that privacy is important to some. In some cases I may only use an initial, and in a select few, I might not even use that.
The Man Who Taught Me the Double Windsor
I first met Tom while working at a movie theater in high school. I was a recent promotee to assistant manager, and Tom was one of the other three assistant managers. Of all the employees, Tom was the one who seemingly didn’t fit in. Most of us were high school or college students, with a few young “adults”. Tom was in his mid 40’s. We lived in town, Tom commuted from 45+ miles away. We were single kids with thoughts preoccupied by the opposite sex. Tom was happily married with two kids. We worked part time to earn money. I don’t think Tom needed the job. I never really knew the particulars, but I knew Tom was friends with the owners of the theater, and I believe they brought him in to teach us how to really do our jobs. He was good at that, because he did the job well.
This man could be a bit of a hard ass when it came to some of the employees. At first, I thought he just didn’t like to have fun. He was always making sure we completed our tasks before goofing off. He didn’t let us slouch around or take frequent breaks. When he was on duty, it was all about the job. Of course, looking back, I realize why. We were in a service industry, and what I failed to realize at the time was that I wasn’t just doing a job, I was giving people an experience.
Tom understood this. He understood that our laziness could ruin a night.
Imagine saving your cash from a few paychecks and looking forward to taking your sweetheart to the newest blockbuster movie. We all know that a trip to the theater is not cheap, and I lived in rural farm country Iowa, where money didn’t exactly flow freely. Now imagine that the kid taking your order is not paying attention to you, but instead is laughing it up with his buddies while he half-asses your popcorn and candy. He doesn’t treat you with a smile as he gives you your change. Next, the usher taking your tickets doesn’t look you in the eye nor direct you to which screen your movie is playing on. And finally, imagine arriving at your seat only to find the floor littered with empty candy boxes, spilled soda and popcorn.
Not your idea of a great time at the movies, is it?
Unfortunately, I would have to raise my hand if asked if I ever could have let that happen.
I was hesitant about working with Tom at first. I was 17, knew it all, and I’d have sworn there was no way some 45 year old farmer knew more about working in a theater than I did. After hearing about his first few shifts from some of the other employees, I expected him to be yelling and screaming half of the time, a veritable Nurse Ratched in slacks.
Instead, I met a soft-spoken, hard-working, diligent, gray haired gentleman who simply insisted we do our jobs when it was time. Between shows, the bathrooms were to be checked and candy was to be stocked while the floor was swept and vacuumed. Popcorn was to be made and soda nozzles cleaned before we served our first patron. When all of this was done, we were free to do whatever we wanted, provided it was out of sight. (Most of the employees were students, so homework was frequently done whenever the lobby was empty, especially on school nights). Tom didn’t yell or scream. He just walked over and reminded us that the cups weren’t stacked, the trash wasn’t emptied, or the printer wasn’t restocked. Frequently, it was while he was carrying an armful of candy or sweeping the floor: he preferred to lead by example.
“Every contact we have with a customer influences whether or not they’ll come back. We have to be great every time or we’ll lose them.”
Within a few months, I noticed two things. One, there was a turnover of employees from the “old guard”. I guess some folks didn’t like having to actually work while they were working. Two, we became more efficient, and there was more free time throughout the shift. When you focused and worked, the work took care of itself quickly.
I didn’t work by myself all that often with Tom. We were both duty managers and, as such, had different shifts. But during the winter, when business was slow, people took whatever shifts they could, and I was no exception. We did work several nights together, just the two of us. And it was on those nights that I came to respect Tom immensely. Tom was extremely intelligent, a very loving family man and devoted father, and the man didn’t know how to slow down or quit (much like my father). Tom also laughed easily when the work was done, and wasn’t afraid to talk about hard work and loyalty.
Tom also taught me how to tie a double windsor knot on a necktie. We were discussing job interviews and suits one day when he whipped out a tie and asked me how I tied mine. My father had taught me a single windsor, and being a young man, I’d never asked for any other instruction. But Tom insisted that the double windsor looked more professional. Over the ensuing hour, I practiced the knot he showed me until I felt I had it down. The next day, I tied it in the mirror a dozen times. Within a week, it was my go-to knot. To this day, I use it almost exclusively.
I’m remiss to say that I’m not sure where Tom is now. After heading off for my final year of college, we kept in touch a few times. I invited Tom to my first wedding. I don’t know when the last time was that I spoke to him. I hope that his kids are excelling in school now and the family is getting on well. Wherever he is, I have no doubt he is working hard. It might behoove his coworkers to learn a thing or two from him. I know that my work ethic today was certainly defined by what I learned from my father, but Tom is among the next few who have also had significant influence on me.
So Tom, wherever you are today, I want to let you know that I still know how to tie my tie “properly”. And when it’s time to work, I work.