I can honestly say that I have been called many less than flattering names over the years for voicing an opinion or saying something that was less than complimentary. On many occasions when I speak with my father to discuss all that happens in my life I hear him laugh on the other end of the phone and say “you are your father’s son”. In his career he was known to be the guy that sat in a meeting and make the obvious point that no matter how much you wanted something to work, it wasn’t going to due to whatever reasons applied. That doesn’t mean they listened to him at the time, nor does it mean that his predicted outcomes were always correct, but that was a trait that he passed down to me.
Over the weekend, my uncle passed away. My uncle was a brilliant man of science who had worked for “Ma’ Bell” back when it was still a unified company. Some of the work that he did is just now being declassified. I told the story of my father because my uncle was very much of the same ilk. They are not the typical characters that most people would look up to if you weren’t family. These are men that tell it like it is because that is what’s required. They were less concerned about making sure that it was done in a way that preserved feelings. Quite often these are the kinds of people that get called names that I’d rather not repeat but the most common I hear is ‘arrogant’. But these are the men that helped shape my image for the kind of person that I sought to be. Someone who was willing to stand up in the professional world and be open and honest with people to make the circumstances better for everyone involved.
I have two favorite stories about my uncle being just this kind of guy. Back in the days when you would reach out to the phone company to get your home connected and they would provide you with a handset there were the Princess phones. When my uncle moved into a new place he reached out to get his phone and the line connected. At the time the Princess phones were finally coming out in colors to improve home décor. My uncle, being a very pragmatic man, couldn’t have cared less. The person on the other end of the phone was just trying to be helpful while also trying to drive interest in these new colored phones. All that my uncle really wanted was a simple black phone. After about 15 minutes of trying to convince my uncle that these phones could improve the view of the home and match the environment the operator went for what probably seemed like an easy question to aid in the color choice. They asked my uncle “what color are your walls?” This seemed like the good question to ask as it would allow the operator to select a phone color that could fit in nicely and present a good image. But my uncle replied with only one word: “black.” And so a black Princess phone was sent to him.
The other story comes from his days in college. As many people can attest, science courses (and the professors that teach them) can sometimes be a bit dry. In one course, at the start of the term, the professor stood in front and told the students that while the course material might be dry, it was their responsibility to keep not only themselves awake, but also their lab partners. If they were unable to do so, the party that fell asleep would lose a letter grade and the lab partner would lose a half letter grade. One day my uncle’s lab partner fell asleep and my uncle continued to focus on the course and take notes. After a while the professor noticed the sleeping student and had them leave the room to return to meet with him during office hours. The professor berated the sleeping student at first, but eventually turned to my uncle asking the simple question “if he fell asleep, why didn’t you wake him up?” Ever the pragmatic man that my uncle was he simply replied “you put him to sleep; you wake him up.”
I didn’t spend a copious amount of time with my uncle as we lived on opposite coasts, but the time I did spend with him was always treasured. He helped to instill the value to stand up and say something when it’s wrong in his children and between him and my father I would like to think I will carry on that same mentality. We all have ideas on how we can make things better. Not all ideas are good, but if you don’t work with people whom you trust and who will be honest with you, nothing will ever get better.