A Different Path
"It's hard to believe Jeff did that."
"Did what?" I replied.
It was 1975 and I had just started at Iowa State. Reb's mom and I were were standing by the fence, watching Saydel play their first home football game of the season.
"You didn't know ... Jeff committed suicide."
Reb, Jeff, and I had graduated the year before in '74. With my parents divorced and me out on my own, it looked like life after graduation was destined to be working at a machine shop. Jeff – my best friend since Cornell Elementary – headed off to Iowa State.
He came home for Christmas break that first year. One snowy night Jeff changed my life. He convinced me to turn everything upside down and try going to college. Broke, I owed money on my car, and every pair of jeans in my closet had holes (before it was fashionable). I'd given up on much of a future for me. Jeff hadn't.
Now I was his pall-bearer. Lost in a Lost World by the Moody Blues played at his service. That day I lowered a close friend into the ground.
The Machine Shop
Townsend Products was small (50 employees) and sat in a cornfield outside Altoona Iowa. Bob Townsend (rolly-polly, always chuckling) owned the shop. Bob's nephew Don (the joking magician) managed it. Everyone was like family.
I was not an apprenticed machinist, however after years of high-shool shop I could run anything from a lathe to a CNC machine. Tonwnsend was a great place ... but I learned that making the same part every day, for weeks and weeks ... wasn't a great career.
The fringe benefits were good (a yearly fishing trip to Canada), the pay was not. I could make my rent and eat but not much else. I could use the shop on weekends to keep my Opel running, but my career options were pretty limited.
Off to Iowa State
As a junior in high school I had good grades. When my parents divorced, my senior year went into the dumper. I spent a month in the hospital with asthma, had several incomplete classes – I shouldn't have graduated. I was not prepared for college.
But I borrowed money from Dad and the bank, sold/gave away everything I owned, then piled the rest into my Opel and headed up to Iowa State. A year older than other Freshmen, I had learned what Dad meant when he said "Sometimes you don't learn what TO do, you learn what NOT to do."
My Freshman engineering competition was a blast. Our team won first place for a project on CB radio security systems. We had working products and a detailed report, but most importantly we filled Marston Hall with our multi-media presentation. Color photos on a huge screen, trucker music (Breaker, breaker 1-9) blaring, live scenario based demonstrations; when we finished the whole room was clapping and laughing. That was a great feeling.
Back to Math 36
What was NOT a great feeling was realizing how totally ignorant I was at math. I was supposed to take Calculus my first quarter, but I hadn't even had Trigonometry in high school!
I decided to fall behind a quarter: take Algebra II to brush up then come back and tackle Calc 120.
It was one of the lowest points in my life was when I realized I couldn't understand Algebra II. I got scared. I mean really scared. I had no money, no home to go back to, and no Plan B if I failed college.
I thought seriously about quitting, but I made a decision. Several times when Bob Townsend had given me a $0.25-$0.50/hr raise at the machine shop, he'd written on the back of his business card to "keep pushing". I took his words to heart and dropped all the way back to Math 36. It was Algebra I, no engineering credit, no college credit, and it put me 2/3 of a year out of sequence for most of my engineering classes.
Stepping WAY back to go forward turned out to be the best decision I could have made. I aced Math 36, then finished off Math 101 (Algebra II) Winter quarter with a strong C.
That spring I picked up Calc 120, and for the following three quarters I pushed through all my remaining math classes. I had to juggle my schedule like a circus acrobat, and often take prerequisites at the same time as core classes, but I made it.
If dropping back to Math 36 was an all-time low, then the final exam for my last quarter of Calculus put me on top of the world. I spent weeks studying at the library. When the instructor placed it on my desk, I looked over every page before I lifted my pencil. I literally knew the answer to every problem on that test! One silly mistake, but I SCORED 96 on the hardest 2-hour final I took in college. Knocked it out of the park!
Five Elements of a Story
There are lots more stories about college, but here's the best one: I graduated in four years and one quarter. My job offer from John Deere Dubuque was the highest paying in my class. When I walked across the stage at graduation, and that diploma landed in my left hand, I looked up and said a silent "Thank you Jeff."
So why tell this story?
- It speaks to who I am. I always keep pushing.
- It's part of a talk called Me, Inc. Dan Metz & I did for IndieConf 2012.
- It has all five STORY elements:
- S – Situation, what is the backstory?
- T – Trouble, what adversity did you confront?
- O – Obstacles overcome, how did you conquer your problem?
- R – Results, what did you accomplish?
- Y – You, why should you care about my story?
If you wanted someone to remember you for a story that spoke about who you are, what you had done, and what you could do ... what would it be?