Jee Hoon joined us his junior year of high school. He’s’ been a blessing ever since.
Although we didn’t know them, we could tell he was from a strong family in South Korea. He had a strong faith. He was kind and hard working and had a compassionate spirit.
We had a lot of fun together – highlights include our trip to LA, trips to the lake to see Grandma and Grandpa, and just hanging around the house figuring out life together.
Jee had a ton of talent. He would give back to his community by playing piano at the local old folks home once a week. He was a great singer, and the churches of the area enjoyed listening to him as part of Sanctified. After the group had been together a couple of years, and he was preparing to go back to his home in Korea, he pulls out a flute and adds background to a song. I said, “If only we had known this earlier…”
Jee’s a funny guy. One of my favorites was in the Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. We had just received our Sanctified CD’s with a few cool pictures of the kids. They were admiring themselves on the CD cover. Meanwhile, the hour we normally had to practice before services was passing fast. I mentioned to the kids, “Hello – if we’re going to perform today we should probably get after it…” Without hesitating, Jee quickly said, “Patience! We are admiring Korean Superstar!” How do you answer that?
Jee does a terrific job of keeping in touch, whether it was during his lonely military days, or in medical school, he always makes a point to keep us current on what’s going on.
His recent marriage to a terrific young girl, Jane, and the news of a little one on the way make it even better. We are blessed to be part of his family and can’t wait to meet the new ones to come.
Our grandchildren are a terrific reflection of their parents. Each is different, each is unique, all are absolutely wonderful. As I tell Alex and Tori, I feel fortunate just to know you guys. To think that you enjoy hanging with us is even better. To think that Mom and I had a hand in these wonderful creations tops the cake.
We have some terrific traditions. The kids love dancing to “Shirts and socks and underwear…”. I enjoy singing them to sleep at night, as I did frequently with Tori and Alex. And Bobo cakes are a requirement if we’re all together.
It’s going to be a blast watching these kids grow up. As Jayme told Thalia, “I’m staying in shape so I can see you get married and meet your kids.” Alex and Tori and Lindsey and Jake are wonderful parents, and the kids are wonderful people.
I’m hoping that they enjoy my Porch Swing book and Storysite, and that it helps them realize to a certain extent, where they come from. I love you guys…
Your Loving Bobo II
I believe that if you make a good decision regarding who to marry, all the other decisions get easier. I have always felt like myself around Jayme, and we’ve always had fun together. It’s one reason that I’ve never, for one day, regretted marrying her.
I met Jayme the summer before my senior year of high school, when her brother Gregg called and asked me to play the drums in the back of his dad’s pickup for the El Dorado parade. Her dad was driving, Jayme was waving from the passenger seat, and Gregg, Brad Doggett and I were in the back playing. Gregg and I remained friends, the band stayed together, and for the next six years, when I was at Gregg’s house, she was the cute kid sister who would bring us popcorn.
After I graduated from KU, I accepted a job in Oklahoma City for accounting firm Peat Marwick. The day before I left, I called Gregg’s house and Jayme answered. She started to get Gregg, and I told her I had called to talk to her. I was moving to Oklahoma City, I explained, and I wouldn’t know anyone there, and I asked if she would mind being pen pals.
When Jayme arrived back at school at K-State, there was already a letter from me waiting for her there. We wrote letters for a few months. On our first date we went to see Superman! over the Christmas holiday when we were both back home.
When I got back to Oklahoma City, busy season hit in the accounting world. Since I was new to the working world, I had no idea what to expect. The hours were intense. I was driving to work before seven a.m. and returning around nine p.m., seven days a week, and I was miserable. I tried to get myself to call or write Jayme, but I couldn’t. I was exhausted, I didn’t think I had anything to offer. I hoped she would understand, but I knew she likely would move on.
This went on for four months. In late April, busy season finally ended. The first day I got to leave at five p.m., I stopped at the grocery store, got a steak, went home and went jogging, and after dinner I decided I was ready to call Jayme. It had been months since we had talked. I was prepared to hear that she was either dating someone, engaged, or maybe just mad at me for ignoring her for four months. I got up the nerve to call. She was still interested. I was relieved. We got married a year later.
Jayme and I always managed to have fun no matter the circumstances. When we lived in Whitewater, money was tight, but we still made a point of taking weekend trips to Oklahoma City or wherever we could afford. We had frequent get-togethers with friends, often at our house. On weekends, we would load the kids up, go to El Dorado lake, stop by Kentucky Fried Chicken, and get a bucket of chicken to take to the El Dorado Drive In.
When we lived in Minneapolis, we found a way to take several trips across the U.S. A friend told us about Mackinac Island, Michigan. It was quaint, had no cars, and a cool place to go. We were sold, and booked a trip to the Grand Hotel. We loved it. In the years since, we’ve been to numerous destinations in several countries, but the Grand is our favorite. In the ten years we lived in Michigan, we made it up there about every year. Once, we were able to take Alex, Tori, Lindsey and Jake. Of all the fun we’ve had, the Grand may be the funnest.
Our routine is pretty much the same every day. We get up, I go down to the world’s best breakfast about 30 minutes before Jayme. After breakfast, we rent bikes and ride the seven miles around the island. Next is bocce ball, then over to the golf course for a quick lunch before teeing off. After golf, we change clothes and head to the Esther Williams swimming pool. I then take a quick shower, put on my suit (required on the lower level of the Grand in the evenings) and head straight to the Cupola Bar. The Cupola Bar is located on the top floor, and has a spectacular view of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and the Mackinac Bridge. I’ll have a Heineken, watch the ferry boats leave marks on the lakes, and think about life. Jayme walks in looking like a million bucks a little later, we stay and chat with the Cupola crowd, then we head down to the greatest evening meal in the world. Five courses, rotating menu. After dinner, we head to the ballroom and dance to the band. The dance floor is usually pretty empty when we get there. Not for long. Sometimes, we attract a crowd; other times, it’s just us. Before heading to the room, we walk the world’s longest porch and enjoy the terrific Northern Michigan summer evening. The next morning, it’s the same routine. If we’re there for three or four days, it’s the same thing every day. And we love it every day.
I think our marriage has worked so well because we really enjoy spending time together. On Mackinac Island, at the Grand, there are no cars, we never turn on the television. It’s just us. We take the time to reflect on how cool our lives together are and how much we love our family. It’s a special time.
I grew up in one of the better-off families of our little town. Potwin only had 500 people, so better off was a relative term, but Mom and Dad were business owners and owned 15-20 rental properties including three post offices. We had a nice house. We had a maid. We hung out at the El Dorado Country Club. My siblings all went to college, and Dad wouldn’t let me take shop in high school so that I could get ready for college as well.
Part of the ritual in growing up in our house was working in the family businesses. Somewhere in the grade school years, I started riding in pickups delivering appliances as had my older brothers. Back at the shop, I would be the one cleaning out whoever’s refrigerator we just took in on trade. As I got a little older, I started working on Dad’s rental houses and met Jim Ledgerwood.
Jim was a school teacher who worked for Dad on the weekends. The first time I met him, Dad had asked me to drive to El Dorado and help Jim install a garage door. I had been in this situation before, and normally whoever was hired to do the job wasn’t too excited that the the boss’ kid showed up. Jim smiled and said “I have no idea what I’m doing here, want to help me figure out how to hang this thing up?” I was a little concerned that I was the brains of this particular bunch, but I could read instructions, and a few hours later the garage door was up. I was treated like an equal and walked a little taller on the way back to the car to drive home.
After that, whenever I was available on a Saturday in high school, I was working with Jim. We put on new roofs on several rentals, fixed toilets, fixed floors, replaced carpets, painted, and did some minor electrical repairs. In especially cold winters, water lines would occasionally freeze. Jim and I would put on about eight layers of clothes, and crawl under the house to repair the pipe. I was the first to crawl in because there were places I could get to that Jim couldn’t. Once, I remember replacing a pipe while staring at a huge rat carcass, and lying on my back under a house. Lunch was always fun. If we were close, we’d grab a couple of veal sandwiches at Job Lunch in El Dorado and Jim would tell me about farming and ask what’s going on in my life.
Later, I spent a couple of summers bailing hay in the hot Kansas sun, so any self image problems I had went away pretty quickly.
I’ll always be grateful for Jim. He gave me the opportunity to prove myself. He seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. And I learned a ton. I think my allegiance to Jim surprised some of my friends. One summer, Jim and I were building apartments in Potwin for Dad. One day, we were working on the roof and it was hot. A friend and I were working and had walked back to my house for lunch. Jim stayed and ate his lunch there. I felt like my friend and I had taken too long, eating lunch and watching television in the air conditioning, and I was concerned that Jim would be up on the roof by himself. About halfway back to the apartments, my friend looked over at me and said “you realize your practically running…” I realized he was right, and I slowed down a little. But not much. I didn’t want to let Jim down.
Every young guy has a mentor, or mentors, who helps you work your way to manhood. Jim was a big part of my journey.
One day, the summer before my junior year in high school, my phone rang at home. It was Gregg Woodall from Towanda. I knew Gregg, but not well. He said his dad was running for County Commissioner, and that he was putting together a band to play in the parade in El Dorado, and needed a drummer. After a couple of weeks of practice we learned three songs (Eighteen by Alice Cooper, House of the Rising Sun, and Sweet Home Alabama by Lynard Skynard if I remember right). Gregg’s dad and cute younger sister (Jayme) were in the cab waving, and the three of us including amplifiers, guitars and a drum set were in the back. We must have been okay, Jammie won the election.
I had been in a couple of bands before. Crown Zellerbach, (the name was taken from the bottom of a napkin dispenser in a Burger King) was me as a freshman and a group of juniors and seniors from Newton and Eric Enns from Remington. We played at a couple of local Newton events. I had worked the summer after eighth grade at Dad’s appliance store, saved my money, and bought a really cool, eight tom-tom clear red drum set. So I’m not for sure if Eric and his friends liked me better or the drum set. Before that, my experience consisted of a 6th grade talent show with Pat Adams singing, Travis Mann on guitar, me on the drums and all of us wearing mom’s wigs.
Armed with our success from the parade, Gregg, Brad Doggett and I decided to keep the band together. Jeff Toews, who owned a bass and was musically inclined, joined us on bass guitar. We needed a place to practice, and Dad owned a former beauty shop in Potwin. We pulled together scraps of carpet, painted the walls in the bathroom, and we were set. Practices were a couple of nights a week, and became something for the local youth to do if nothing else was going on. Mike Adams was a regular.
By the time football homecoming season was coming around, we had enough songs, 17 or so, to play the dance at Remington. Gregg got us in at Circle High, and we did the winter dance in Peabody. We played mainly rock and roll covers, and our best feature was the fact that everyone could sing. Gregg was the talent and lead sang all the songs he could remember the words to, and we would take the rest. We could pull off the Eagles, Alabama, and some old Beach Boys because of everyone’s natural ability with harmony.
We developed a stage show as we went along. My next summer’s wages went to a sound board and microphones. Buddy Mark Vogelman built a lighting system by hand. Craig Wohlgemuth created the Wog Fog by dropping dry ice into water and pumping the smoke into the stage.
Gregg and I enjoyed song writing, and Throw Money was a hit (Throw Money, we’re a worthy cause, Throw Money, we don’t want your applause…). Gregg had written Why Did I Go? and Brighter Day for various old girlfriends. We wrote The Gomez Blues as an homage to our high school Spanish teacher who died his hair to look more Hispanic. Brad had written Travellin and he was a ladies’ guy so that one went over well.
My life started to change my senior year of high school. I had always been the baby of a well to do family in Potwin – dad had an appliance store, mom had a liquor store, dad owned three post offices and 15-20 rental properties. Shortly before Christmas, older brother Bob explained to us that Dad had a cash flow issue. Dad changed from a ever-go-lucky, spunky, gregarious, slightly over-the-top entrepreneur to sitting in the dark tearing up little pieces of paper. I knew something wasn’t right. We kept the band together, but I quit the basketball team and got a job at Taco Tico in El Dorado. Toughest time I had was early in my senior year, Brad needed a place to stay. And mom asked me to tell him no. We never did that. I lost it, and a couple of days later mom and dad asked a neighbor to check in on me.
As I entered my senior year, we decided we needed a manager, and Jerry Peterson, classmate Michelle’s dad and manager of the local feedlot, took the job. Jerry made us a promotional tape, business cards, Darlene his wife made us vests, and we kept pretty busy. One highlight was the Kansas State Cattlemen’s Convention (we had to learn a few more country songs for that one).
After graduating from high school, I started college at Wichita State and lived at home to save money, stay closer to the girlfriend who was still in high school, and keep the band together. Bad idea. I went from being around people I loved all the time, to driving back and forth to a school where I didn’t have the opportunity to bond with anyone. The band was my only source of refuge. Brad Doggett had moved on, and Ed Carlson, a friend of Trent Sprecker’s from his Wichita days, joined us on guitar. The first night we practiced, we moved our gear across the street and played for the local Watermelon Feed festival, Potwin’s biggest annual event. It was Ed’s first time performing with a band, and he loved it.
By the end of my first semester, I was going nuts, and asked mom and dad if they could float me going to KU. I joined brother Bill’s old fraternity, ATO, and ran across Doug Wolfe, guitar player, singer, and song writer from Wichita. Next thing I knew, Ed moved up from Wichita, and Doug’s friend Chris Boyd joined us on bass. The new band had a little different feel – not as great with the harmonies, but a step above on instruments. We upped our game and worked some Boston and Kansas songs into the set, and played local bars and smaller high schools around the area.
Along the way, I got guitar-envy, and learned to play guitar because you can’t take the drums around with you. But that’s another story.
Jayme, Tori and I moved to Whitewater when Tori was about two, and Alex was on the way. We purchased a terrific, 100 year old two story home across the street from the grade school and next to the city baseball diamonds. We were the second owners. Jean Joseph grew up in that house with her mom and three sisters. It had some terrific oak woodwork. We updated by adding central air and heat, updating the electrical and the plumbing, in addition to painting and a lot of wall paper. Thanks to my experience on Dad’s rentals, and some help from Grandpa and Jim Ledgerwood, we did a lot of it ourselves.
By the time Alex was old enough to run, he, Tori and I would head over to the ball diamonds. I would pitch, they would hit and take off running. Jayme would either join us, enjoy the view, or just enjoy the break. Bogie, the greatest dog in America, would normally help field. The kids were adorable, and it was a lot of fun.
Tori joined a T-ball team when she was old enough – in Whitewater, at that time, that would mean she was around six. The first year was a little rough. It was only t-ball, but we got creamed by everybody. It shouldn’t matter, but it was a little hard for me to watch.
So, the next year, I offered to coach. I got a couple of the parents to help, and we made sure the kids knew enough to be competitive and enjoy the game. T-ball remains the greatest American sport, and you could still see the occasional outfielder playing in the dirt or batter taking off running to third.
We moved to Minneapolis the summer before Tori’s third grade year, and Alex’s kindergarten year. Alex’s first T-ball team had several coaches. One was Steve Lee, a local attorney who had lost his sight several years earlier. Steve monitored the lineup in braille. Kevin Blocklinger’s barber shop sponsored the team. So when it was time for Alex’s first haircut in Minneapolis, we recommended he try Kevin out. Alex was not having any part of it. He simply refused. This was pretty out of character for our little guy, so we pressed him on why he wouldn’t want to get his hair cut by the guy who was nice enough to sponsor his T-ball team. Finally, Alex gave his explanation and we realized he confused Steve with Kevin. “Mom,” he said. “I can’t get my hair cut there. The barber is BLIND!” For years afterward, whenever Alex would get his haircut, Kevin would act like he couldn’t see, wave his arms around and say “Alex, where are you? Hold still, and come over here so I can cut your hair.”
Before long, I was coaching Alex’s baseball, basketball and football teams, and Tori’s basketball teams. Youth sports had become what scouting had been for Bob, Bill and Mom. It was a way for parents to spend time with their kids in a group environment, learning skills and habits that would benefit them for life.
Tori started playing basketball in third or fourth grade in Minneapolis. Practices were once or twice a week at the Minneapolis Grade School gym, so it kept us busy getting homework done, dinner served, and off to practice. Games were on weekends in Salina or in other towns in the area. As they progressed, the girls’ team got pretty good on a regional level. And it was a terrific group of kids. They encouraged and supported each other. They worked really hard. They had a lot of fun. By the time the girls entered junior high, they had become pretty successful against all the other small town teams in the area. After the junior high basketball season, we would form teams of 2-3 kids from different towns in the area. It was a great way to expand our circle of friends and Alex met some cool older kids to hang around with.
Alex’s friends all seemed to be about the same size, and fast. That made coaching most sports fun. They did well in YMCA football. They were competitive in baseball. In basketball, their skills and speed made them really tough. By the time they got to junior high, I found myself frequently saying, “That was a pretty good team you guys just beat by 30.” These kids stuck together, and made it to the 3A State Championship game Alex’s senior year. I was really proud of him, because of his effort. He didn’t start his junior year, but he and Trevor Adkins were the most supportive bench guys in the history of the game. His senior year, he started at the four position (large forward), even though he was only 5’11” or so. His effort and hustle were contagious. I was travelling back and forth from my new job in Michigan at the time, so I asked the local video crew to record the games for me. I ended up with a set of CD’s that Grandpa, Grandma and us have watched several times. I don’t know that we ever saw Alex not block out for a rebound. The undersized kid made All-League in both basketball (as a large forward) and football (as a defensive lineman).
The time spent coaching the kids and their friends in sports was really special to me. I got to bond with two special young people, and know where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with in the formative years. And we had a whole lot of fun.
It’s funny, but one thing that sticks with the kids from this time in their lives is when I would tell them while shooting in basketball “Don’t leave it short. Give your shot a chance by making sure you get it there. If it’s off a little to the right or left, you can fix that later.” My coaching style is similar to my parenting style, I’m more of an encourager than a disciplinarian. I hope that Tori and Alex carry this lesson to their lives as well – don’t leave it short. Give life all you have. Have a lot of fun. Work hard. Enjoy your family and your friends. Hug everybody. If you’re off a little to the right or the left, you can correct that later – but in the meantime, give life all you’ve got and don’t leave it short.
When Alex was a sophomore in high school, church wars were on in Minneapolis, Kansas. Well, war may be a little extreme, but our high school principal and his friends had started a praise band at the Bennington Bible Church and were drawing folks in, especially the youth.
So, we had a decision, watch our church struggle, or do something. I called Kathy McHenry and asked if she wanted to start a band, except ours would be different – the kids would be the singers. Since no one had a free night of the week to practice, the plan was to meet for an hour before church, learn whatever we could, and perform it that day during the service. Even if we weren’t great, we knew that older folks like kids and people always clap in church.
Kathy is a gifted piano player, and her daughter Kacia a talented singer. I played drums and a little guitar, and Alex sang in New Image, the high school song and dance troop. The first year, it was the four of us with one of the Kuder sons on the drums. We were a little rough, but still earned applause.
The next year, we upped our game. Jee Hoon Jang moved in with us from Korea, we recruited Trish Barker, Kim Baccus, and Tyler Crosson. Sarah Comfort, only a freshman, was a super sub if someone couldn’t show up. The Kuder boy graduated, so I moved from guitar to drums. Suddenly, we sounded pretty good. Within a few weeks, in the fall of Alex’s junior year, we started moving from church to church. Tyler and Trish attended other churches, so we visited those periodically, and we got the occasional invitation to play at other churches in the Minneapolis area or Salina.
Kathy picked the songs with input from the kids, and we still only practiced before church. The kids were really talented, quick studies, and pulled of some great harmony on the fly. Jee Hoon brought us a song in Korean called Jehovah. His translation wasn’t perfect (“I don’t know how I am supposed to do”), but the passion and enthusiasm of the kids more than made up for it. Jee sang the first verse in Korean, and everyone did the second verse translated to English. For the last line, everyone learned a little Korean. It went great.
One morning while driving to KC at 4am to catch a flight, and listening to a blues station on a skip out of Chicago, I wrote a song called Paul’s Lament. It occurred to me, that I had never heard a Christian song in a blues riff, and if anyone had the material for a great blues song, it was Paul. I started jotting down thoughts: “I was riding to Damascus, with my donkey as my steed, when a voice came out of nowhere made me get down on my knees and it said ‘Saul, why have you forsaken me?” and “I said I’ll be your mouthpiece, I want to spread your news – but there’s only one of me there must be fifteen million Jews.” I came back and taught it to the group. The kids and Kathy picked up on it quickly, Alex did the intro on the bass, and everyone took a verse.
On Super Bowl Sunday, we decided to take a shot at recording a CD of our top songs. Jehovah and Paul’s Lament made the cut. We spent the afternoon on the stage at Minneapolis High School, using the recording equipment the music department had ‘just received through a grant. We took a break and Jayme fed us chili and cinnamon rolls at our house, then we went back to the high school and finished up. We had a local photographer take photos of the session.
The CD turned out great, even though due to time, we only got one shot at many of the songs. We sold them for $10 dollars at the local churches and through publicity in the newspaper. The proceeds went to a local charity. Another cold weekend with a the photographer generated the CD cover and a couple of cool posters that adorned our basement for years. The band’s name was Sanctified, the CD was Not Perfect, But Forgiven.
I don’t know if anyone enjoyed this experience as much as I did. For a couple of hours a week, I got to spend time with some of the best people I know. Terrific kids, with big hearts, and tons of talent. Small, rural churches don’t have it easy, and it was fun watching the kids attract crowds at churches, and seeing the interaction between the kids and the older folks in the congregations.
On graduation Sunday at the church, I told the kids: “I plan to keep in touch. If your prospective spouse thinks that’s weird, then marry someone else.” We’ve kept in touch, but I need to do a better job. My goal is to contact them every once in a while just to let them know that someone thinks, actually is pretty sure, that they’re terrific. And not much is going to change that.
Tori was born an old soul. As a child, she was mature beyond her years. This made her a delight to raise, and traditionally difficult periods, such as junior high, much easier.
She has the gift of assertiveness. As a two year old, she was playing restaurant, and was taking our orders. Grandpa told her he wanted a hamburger, french fries, and cherry pie. She politely, but firmly told him they were out of cherry pie. Grandma was next, she ordered a hamburger, french fries and cherry pie – Tori cheerfully said, “Okay!” Grandpa quickly protested, “But you told me I couldn’t have cherry pie.” Tori was quick to respond, “Grandpa! I said no cherry pie!” Then she smiled, and confirmed Grandma’s order again.
Tori’s confidence has landed her some pretty good opportunities. One of her high school friends, Jeff Mortimer, had worked for months long-snapping a football at a target in the Minneapolis gym, with hopes of becoming a walk-on for nationally ranked Kansas State and legendary coach Bill Snyder. The big day came, and Jeff and his dad Scott were driving to his tryout in Manhattan. Tori called Jeff on his cell, “Jeff, while you’re there, ask Coach Snyder if Randi and I can be managers.” Jeff said, “Tori, I don’t know if it works that way – he’s pretty busy and if I get to meet him I’m sure it will only be for a few minutes…” Tori said, “Put your dad on the phone…Scott, this is Tori. While you’re there, can you ask Coach Snyder if Randi and I can be managers?” Scott said, “Okay, Tori.” Tori was a manager for the K-State football team the next fall, and Jeff was a long-snapper.
Tori showed her leadership abilities as President of her Senior class in high school in 2002. Terrorists had demolished the World Trade Center in New York City the previous September 11, and Engine Company 6 were the first responders. Tori thought it would be cool if a fireman came to Minneapolis, KS from NYC to address the Senior Class at graduation. She contacted them, and next thing I know, Al Siccianno (Fireman Al) is booking tickets to Kansas. Word spreads and this quickly becomes a big event in Minneapolis. Someone from the community offered their home to Al during his visit and the local firemen offered to show him around town and meet the crew. Other communities were trying to steal him from us. Al did a great job with his speech, had a great time, and gave all the graduates an Engine Company 6 shirt. At Tori’s graduation party, Al recommended we spend a vacation in Bar Harbor and Acadia National Forest. We did, and he had a buddy take us all on his boat to an island to have dinner. Tori’s vision and persistence created a lot of terrific memories for all of us.
Tori has a deep faith, a love of people, a love of life, and fortunately, a strong love of us.
When I was promoted to run Champion Bus, in Imlay City, MI, we moved a thousand miles away from her. She was a sophomore at K-State, a difficult stage of life for darn near everybody. She joined and was a leader in her sorority, but not a partier. She and Sunshine would hang out together while others were out. She and Jake spent a lot of time together. She did great in school, and was on the campus judiciary board.
While we were in Michigan, our goal was to see each other every other month at a minimum. When Tori and her friends got an apartment, Jayme and I got an extra room and furnished it. I don’t think we ever missed a Thanksgiving or a few summer weekends at the lake with Grandma and Grandpa. Christmas was usually in Michigan, frequently the week after Christmas. If there was a will, there was a way.
In the song I wrote for Tori’s wedding, I stole a line from Glen Frey: “Though the miles may separate us, deep inside I think you see, that I’m always part of you, and you’re always part of me. For the love that I had for you as I knelt beside your bed, will be upon you always, no matter where you lay your head.”
After their wedding, Tori and Jake lived in an apartment near I-35 and 75th in KC, and we got to visit them there. Not too long after that, they had James and we had a whole another reason to visit frequently. Tori also did a great job of keeping in touch by phone. One night, she called and was having a tough day. She mentioned that she really missed us, and if we lived there we could see each other more often, and drop by on a “random Tuesday.” On one hand, it was such a compliment to have our daughter, this amazing young person, want to spend time with us. On the other hand, it tore our heart out.
Fast forward a few years, and we’re living in KC, making up for 10 years of lost time at a high rate of speed. The kids may have 15 games in a week and we may miss one of them, or none. Church on Sundays. An occasional cookout or weekend at the lake.
Or we just stop by. If it’s on a random Tuesday, we always take the time to acknowledge that and be thankful for the opportunity to enjoy each other and this terrific group of kids.
In December, 1991, I was hired as Controller of commercial bus builder ElDorado National in Salina. ElDorado, as I learned shortly after starting, was in rough shape. People were dissatisfied, working way too much overtime, wages were low (around eight dollars an hour). We were behind in our production schedule, and losing a lot of money.
I learned that one of the RV plants in Elkhart, Indiana had a bonus system for its employees. I went to take a look.
I flew to Elkhart, walked into the plant at two in the afternoon, and thought the place was closed. The plant was dark, and there were only a few people mulling around in the office. I learned that the workers started at 6 am and normally left around 1pm. They explained to me how the bonus worked: each of the plants gave their people ten percent of what they produced. They totaled up the production from all the units for the week, multiplied it by 10%, subtracted what they paid the workers, and paid the rest to them in a bonus. Workers were happy, well paid, and they could leave when they were done every day regardless of the time.
I checked the math at ElDorado, found out that ten percent labor was a lot better than we had ever done as far as I could tell, and introduced the plan to our workers. The first reaction was skepticism – why should we believe a new guy in this struggling company when he says we could work less and make more money. I told him the mostly Amish work force in Elkhart was making $33-$35k a year. They didn’t believe that, either.
I just started posting the numbers every week – how many units we built, total sales, 10% bonus target. For the first several months the labor we paid them including overtime was over the bonus target, so no bonus.
One day, about six months into the process, the welders came into my office and asked if they had to work Friday and Saturday. I said no, as long as their work was done for the week. They said they could get side jobs welding that paid as much or better than they make here. So, the 7-8 people in the weld shop stopped working Fridays and Saturdays.
The bonus didn’t pay, but the numbers I posted each week looked better. Not long after, the plywood guys were in my office asking the same thing. They stopped working Fridays and Saturdays as well. The weld and plywood shops were the first two stages of bus production, so as long as they worked ahead enough, it didn’t affect the rest of the plant who was still working Fridays and Saturdays.
Before long, three or four groups started taking three day weekends, then the plant payroll got low enough that the bonus started paying. Not a lot at first, maybe $30-50 a week, but something. Soon after, half the plant was leaving Thursday night and the other half was working Fridays and Saturdays, and civil war broke out in the plant. Those groups who were going home early were convinced that the others were sandbagging, and that if everyone would go home early, the bonuses would be much bigger.
Before long, no one was working Fridays or Saturdays. The bonuses were closer to $200 a week. People were happier.
Next, we needed to increase production from 20 to 25 buses a week. We asked the production people how many more people they needed. They asked who got the money if they didn’t add any more people – I said they did. This cycle continued, and they didn’t add any additional people until we were doing close to 30 units a week. The bonuses got big. The time off was cherished. The morale and dignity of the workforce was increased dramatically. Since many of us lived in the small town of Minneapolis, Kansas, I enjoyed getting the see workers’ kids getting new bikes. Or a little better car. Or a new truck. The company grew quickly, aided by a dedicated and motivated workforce.
In December, 2004, I was promoted to President of Champion Bus in Imlay City, Michigan. I tried to implement the same or similar plan. I failed for four years. During this time, I had grown the sales and complexity of the company, so I had a real problem in production.
I told the production managers to give me the worst area of the plant, and I would go see what I could do. They sent me to Interior Rears, where thirteen people were failing daily to put the interior panels on the inside of the rear of buses in time to meet production. Workers on both ends of the plant were angry and waiting on them. I worked with Fred Jacklett, the lead person in the area for a few days, watching people work, talking to them, and trying to figure out what their problems were. The first day, I watched a young man try to cut a piece of hard plastic with a pair of tin snips to cover the hoses running up the corners of the back of the bus. He spent hours, and was really frustrated. After a couple of days, I asked Fred if we had any flexible material that looked okay. He found some. I asked if we had a couple of pieces of J-rail. “For crying out loud,” he said, and grabbed the J-rail, quickly screwed one piece up the side of each corner, and bent the flexible material to fit inside the J-rail. Problem solved, in about five minutes.
Fred and I watched his workers for the next couple of weeks, performing the 10-15 tasks it takes to finish the interior rear of a bus, each time helping the workers find a simpler, quicker way to do it. Within three weeks, there were six people instead of thirteen, and they were no longer holding up production. We introduced a bonus plan, and soon they were all making an additional $4-5 an hour and no longer working overtime.
We repeated this process thirteen more times in all the areas of the plant over the next few months. Turnover disappeared, pay went up, people were much happier, the company grew quickly.
In my career, I’ve done this 4-5 times at various locations. Each time, it’s been an extremely rewarding experience. I’m often asked why it works. I believe it’s because if you give people the respect to have some control over their own destinies, in pursuit of a clear and common goal, great things will happen.
I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to improve the lives of some folks who really deserved it, and it’s been fun.