Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gifts from Dad

Like most people this weekend, I'm thinking about my father. My dad gave me many gifts: a love of Scotland and its history and particularly the history of Clan MacBean; an appreciation of a good leg of lamb and fine table manners (he said you use your best manners with those closest to  you and never said "it's just family"); a sense of the importance of meaningful work that you enjoy; a recognition of the need for faith--and church--in my life (though I haven't always been faithful); a love of a beautiful flower garden; a lifetime habit of reading.
But maybe the biggest gift he gave me was to make me an executive secretary extraordinaire, nurturing skills I have used all my professional life. Dad was the president of the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, then one of five or six such schools in the nation (depends on what year you're talking about) and, because he could find no one else appropriate to do it, the administrator of the associated Chicago Osteopathic Hospital. He knew how to light the boiler. This is significant, because he said if you were responsible for an institution, you had to know how all parts of it worked. He knew everyone from physicians to maintenance and housekeeping staff and loved to joke with the cooks in the kitchen--my mom swears one of them taught her to make potato salad. Dad always answered his own phone and made his own calls--one of the few things that brought him to anger was to answer the phone only to have a secretary say, "Please hold for so-and-so." He'd ask, "Does he think his time is more valuable than mine?" A lesson I learned from him but somehow wasn't always able to use: "Never fire a person; make them want to resign."
I have vague memories that my brother went to work at the hospital at a young age, doing groundskeeper work, I think. I know I began as a typist after school at the age of fourteen. I think I typed the same five-line letter ten times before I got it right that first day, but Dad's executive assistant, who became my mentor, was patient. Together the two of them taught me the world of business and office work, and eventually when I was at the University of Chicago, I was Dad's secretary, sharing an office with him. You may think that was a piece of cake--not so! I was expected to work harder because I was the boss' daughter, and I was clearly reprimanded when I snuck away to run the switchoard, the old kind with cords you plugged in--I loved doing that.
But I learned the basics--answer phone calls and letters promptly, deal with matters on your desk, and don't put them aside; be courteous but firm when you had to; write a coherent and intelligent letter, and much more, probably an instinct that I can't define. But, whether as diretor of a small press or head of a four-child, single-parent household (always filled with other people), I have always been an efficient manager. It was Dad's gift to me.
I like to think that Dad, who's been gone thiry-seven years (wow!), looked down with approval on my children and me (well, most of the time) and on my work at TCU Press and as an author. I know that on his deathbed, one of the last things he said to me was how proud he was of me. I hope that's still true. That, too, was his gift to me.

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