Friday, July 13, 2007

Here's to You, Mr. B.

Reading various other bloggers posts this morning, my favorite graduate student down in Alabama had something in her Friday Feast today that struck a chord with me. She was talking about a boss she had who she considered to be a great role model and that reminded me of "Mr. B" - what all of us used to call our boss way back when I worked in D.C. for the wonderful National Rifle Association.

When I was hired at that organization, "Mr. B" was the Director of Administrative Services which meant he was responsible, ultimately, for every inch of the organization's operations, although initially, he was not my direct supervisor as I started out as a lowly "clerk typist" in the Membership Division as part of the area that took care of all Club operations for NRA clubs across the country.

After working in that section for about a year or so, the NRA converted their membership files from using a Remington Rand set-up over to a huge IBM computer and I transferred into the "data entry" section as an operator. I "Slaved" there for around three years. I use the term "slaved" there very loosely though. Granted the wages were not the greatest but I liked the work and we seemed to always be swamped, so I put in loads and loads of overtime so we could make our end-of-the-month runs on deadline. Our figures for memberships processed each month had to match up with the money the accounting office said had come in to the organization when they closed out their monthly accountings. It could be very stressful work sometimes to process as many memberships as we received each month, but the people I worked with there made the job a lot of fun while we pushed on to get the work done!

Around about the end of 1969, I was having some work related issues with the woman who was over the data processing unit and went to Mr. B and asked if he had any openings in his section where I could transfer over to as I really liked working for the NRA, didn't want to leave, but was very uncomfortable with working for that particular woman.

He immediately offered me a position to handle all his correspondence - dictation and purchase orders as well as putting me in as a trainee to handle a new section they had just formed called "Coupon Awards." I accepted it and thus began a really great employment experience.

The majority of the offices in the NRA operated with a fairly casual, open relationship between the managers and the workers and being in Adminsitrative Services working for Mr. B was really no different. We often referred to him, even addressed him directly too by his first name -Bill -and just as frequently, we also referred to him as "Big Daddy." After the old tv sitcom hit "All in the Family" came out, because Bill had a lot of physical characteristics like the actor, Carroll O'Conner, and he also could at times be just as bullheaded as the character on that show, Archie Bunker, we sometimes called him "Archie" too! And, he took all of these names in stride, even at times, taking pride in being compared to "Archie." (I said he was a really good boss and a lot of fun to work for and with but I never said he was perfect or an angel, did I?)

One thing I learned early on in working for Bill, he was terrible at dictation! Trying to make heads or tails out of what he was trying to say on the tape in response to various letters he had received, sometimes was about enough to drive a person to drink! He had more oo's and ahs and um's and you name it changes and such in his dictation, that I started studying how he was handling various types of problems being addressed so I understood what was going on better and then, I started to "edit" his letters. When I first started to do that, when I would take the correspondence into him for his signature, I would point out where I had "edited" -the changes I made and why - and before long, he would just say on the tape about many of the letters he wanted done, "Just tell 'em what I mean there Dummy cause you know what I'm trying to say." (And yes, he often called those of us with whom he felt he had an easy enough relationship at work, lovely little pet names - "Dummy" or "Toadie" or "Gopher." Although I suppose some people might take offense at nicknames like that, if Bill called you a name like one of those to your face, it was kind of like a badge of honor, not an insult. Because if he didn't like you very much, he tended to not really talk that much then to those people. You always knew when he said something to you if he was just teasing or if he was really upset, you could definitely tell the difference there!

In retrospect, with all the 'politically correct' stuff everyone is always carping about these days, the atmosphere of that office would never fly today! NEVER! And, that would be a shame because we all actually worked very well together, got things done quickly and rarely had any issues amongst the staff, much less with Bill.

He loved nothing better than to regale us with jokes too - some just funny jokes, others often a bit ribald too. And he also very much enjoyed pulling practical jokes on whoever he possibly could too! He had no problems with the staff "getting even" either with respect to the practical jokes, as long as the work was done, finished properly and no one got hurt in the process.

I remember one Monday morning coming in to work and being a bit on the testy side because I had gotten a ticket the day before from a Montgomery County motorcycle policeman. He claimed I had been travelling 45 mph in a 25 mph speed zone and I know darned well I sure as heck was not driving that fast. And, as I told Bill, I planned to contest that ticket too. Bill asked how I knew I hadn't been speeding and I explained it to him. First off, I was driving in Montgomery County and wasn't really all that familiar with the streets there, therefore, I would have been driving slower. My mother was with me, sitting in the "shotgun" seat, holding my daughter who was about three years old at the time and Mom didn't have her left leg braced on the floor boards, didn't have her right arm braced on the dashboard plus, she wasn't leaning across, glancing at the speedometer and yelling at me to slow down, that I was going too fast. And, finally, my car wasn't shimmeying either! (That car begin to shimmy as soon as you approached 40 mph!) Bill wished me luck with that logic when I was going to go before the judge in traffic court and I went to my desk and started working.

The next day when I came into work, there on my desk was a black and white promotional type photo of Richard Petty and written across the front of it were the words "To my good friend and great driver, Jeni" and it was 'signed' Richard Petty. Now, I didn't know diddly squat at that time as to who the heck Richard Petty was but one of the other secretaries there told me he was a very well-known race car driver. I knew of course this was not from this Richard Petty person anyway though because I recognized Bill's handwriting immediately.

Now, that was a fun joke in our section of the office and I proudly displayed that picture on my desk. A few days later though when I went back to the Accounting office and a girl who worked back there asked me about that photo and if I did really know Richard Petty.

If I see an opening to further a practical joke, it is not beneath me to lie and I saw a fish on the hook then and there so I told her yes, we went way back and in fact, I used to be engaged to him! I should add here too that anyone with a lick of common sense would HAVE to recognize how preposterous that statement was, but good old Rosemary bit - hook, line and sinker! So for months after that, the other secretary, Bill and I often tossed out more little lies when Rosemary was around about my former, so-called relationship with the great Richard Petty.

Another time, Bill called me into his office and asked me "Is there some particular reason why Barbara (one of the typists ) has clear finger nail polish on her neck?" So, I had to explain to him what I had done there too and why. Barbara had come in that morning with a lovely hickey on her neck - big, plain as the nose on your face too but she was trying to find something to use to conceal it. So, being the kind, generous soul I am, I told her if you put clear fingernail polish on them, it will draw the blood to the surface and the bruising will go away. I thought Bill was going to split a gut laughing over that one. He, like the rest of us in the office, was amazed to think she was dingy enough to believe a line like that.

One summer, as he was leaving the office late on a Friday afternoon - he reminded us that he was going to be gone for two weeks - on vacation with his family at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware and he very sternly told us he didn't want any of us to be camping out -for any reason at all -in his office while he was gone. As a matter of fact, he told us there had best be cobwebs growing in the doorway to his office, on his chair, across his desk and phone when he returned to work in two weeks too.

And, you know what? When he came back into work that Monday morning, bright and early, there was a huge cobweb strung across his doorway, another big one across his chair, one on the desk from the phone to the other end of the desk as well as some smaller ones hanging in various spots around his office too! The cobweb in his doorway even sported a nice big, ugly as sin, paper mache spider too! He looked around at all that and asked us if we had managed to get any "real" work done while he was on vacation? You bet we had - in addition to making all those spider webs and spiders and carefully hanging them, we still had all the work up to date as well!

In the spring of 1970, Bill approached me and asked if I would be interested and willing to be sent to Phoenix, Arizona to work for the month of July and also for the entire month of October out there doing data entry for the 10th U.S. International Shooting Championships in July and for the 40th World Shooting Championships which the NRA was hosting there in October. Would I? Man, I jumped at that opportunity! And, so I worked with a guy from the programming section of the NRA to set up the way the data would be entered and the way the reports would be generated and we both got sent out to Arizona for two very hot but also very fun filled work assignments.

Bill and I had differing opinions on several things - politics, unions, baseball - just for openers. Bill was a staunch Republican, very much conservative in his beliefs pertaining to politics, etc. He also disliked unions immensely. We used to joke that the NRA was the bastion of Republican ideals, conservative to the max especially with respect to salaries, extremely anti-union and would tell Bill - to his face -that he really fit in perfectly there. I, on the other hand, have always been a Democrat and was very, very liberal back then. I was also a bit of a feminist too - no, I never burned my bras but I did support equal rights for equal pay and the like. I also grew up hearing about how wonderful unions - in particular the United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis were too. Oh -and the baseball - I've always been a Pirates fan, loved the National League and hated the American League teams - especially the Yankees. As you've probably guessed by now, Bill was an American League fan. And, he also worshiped President Nixon and considered him and V.P. Agnew as his "highway heros." Several of us frequently ragged Bill with jokes about never buying a used car from Nixon, etc.

While we were in Phoenix in July, the time came for the All-Star ballgame to take place. The evening it was being broadcast, the programmer guy (Earl) and I were in Bill's room, waiting for him to shower, shave and get dressed because he was taking us all out to supper that night. Earl and I had the All-Star game tuned in on the tv and were under orders to try to keep a blow-by-blow description running as to what was happening in the game to Bill while he was shaving and dressing in the bathroom. At one point, someone from the National league got a good hit and the crowd was cheering loudly -which Bill could hear that noise and he called out to us -"What's happening?" I told him and his response was "Oh those damned dummies! They don't know what the heck they're doing!" Because President Nixon was also in attendance at the game and I noticed he was applauding that earlier play there, I made a comment to Bill that "Well, your hero there, Tricky Dick, seems to think it was a darned good play." And his retort to that was "Oh Hell, he doesn't know what he's doing either!" After he said that, he immediately opened the bathroom door, stuck his face out (shaving cream over most of it) and sheepishly he said to me "I'm never going to live that comment down now, I suppose."

Quite right Bill! Thirty seven years later, I've still not forgotten you said that!

Those are just a couple small examples of the type of fun and games we had going on back and forth at work back then.

Bill was a great boss - taught me many, many things about the NRA, about work in general, about people. I loved working there but even more, I loved, totally enjoyed, working for him. He was a terrific boss, he really was.

When I left there in 1972 and my ex-husband and I moved here, back to my home area, Bill and I maintained the great friendship we'd developed over the 8 years I had worked for the NRA. He often wrote me letters, called to check up on how we were doing, to fill me in on news about so many people I'd come to know while working there. And, he even played practical jokes on me for years after I'd been away from the place.

When V.P. Agnew resigned from office, my son was just a baby at that time and I'd just sat down to feed him and figured I'd watch some of the soap operas on tv while doing that when the news bulletin about his resignation flashed on the screen. And, all I could do was sit there and keep telling myself to stay away from the telephone. DO. NOT. MAKE. A. LONG. DISTANCE. PHONECALL! Okay, I managed to stay clear of the phone for about an hour and then, I just couldn't contain myself. I called Bill, disguised my voice on the phone and when he got on the line, in the softest, sweetest voice I could muster, I asked him what happened to his "good buddy, Spiro T?" It took him a little bit before he realized who it was that was calling him and he just started to laugh then!

When he retired in 1992 as Treasurer then of the NRA, I got a call from one of the executive office secretaries in charge of planning his retirement party and was invited to return to D.C. to attend that function. I was also asked to make a few comments about Bill too - which I did! My gift to him at that party was a copy of the term paper I'd done that semester for a Labor Relations course I was taking about Unions. I'd done that paper in a make-believe dialogue between Bill and me with him explaining how it was beneficial for big business to relocate work to other countries, thus creating mega job losses here (specifically in the auto industry at that time) and me countering each of his explanations. I wrote it exactly the way Bill would have spoken to me too, even using some of the "pet" nicknames, like "Dummy" etc. My professor loved it! Gave me a A+ for the paper and I told Bill as I handed it to him, I owed that A+ all to him for having been a really great boss and a terrific friend over the years.

Sadly, Bill passed away last spring. I wasn't able to leave her to go down to D.C. for his funeral but I wished I'd been able to be there to tell him one last good bye.

I've used more of what Bill taught me over the short two plus years he was my direct supervisor than just in work settings though. He was a tough boss in that he wanted things done and they'd best be right. But he was also a great boss with the way he led us always with so much humor as well as compassion many times too.

Every job I've held since I moved back to PA those thirty five years ago, I have compared, point by point, to Bill and not a single one of them has ever been able to hold a candle to the type of boss he was.

He was more than just an employer, a boss, a mentor to me. He was indeed, a true friend - one whose memory I will carry with me the rest of my life.

Here's TO you, Mr. B!

3 comments:

Linda said...

Your Mr. B sounds like he was a wonderful man to work for and you have lots of happy memories.

Too bad it didn't work out with you and Richard Petty, though! LOL!

mcewen said...

It is extraordinary the effect [long term] that other people can have in our lives.

It sounds like a great work experience but I think you're right that these days, things differ considerably.

I had to come over here to see and I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the two of them Maya and Kurtis - lucky you [lucky me]

Best wishes

Paula said...

What a good story and remembrances! I had my own Mr. B in my past work experiences. Thanks for the reminder!