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“OK kid, sit down and let’s see what you’ve got.” James Talbert was a gray-haired older man who always had a pipe in his mouth. The sweet smell of cherry tobacco sent a fragrant aroma well ahead of him that you could smell three blocks away. Seizing my brown cardboard portfolio and tossing it onto the dust-laden table, he shot a dubious glance toward me, then opened the portfolio and began to read my tattered letter requesting a job for the summer. I was a freshman in high school who wanted to pursue a business career. Except for an occasional grunt, Mr. Talbert didn’t utter a word.
This was my first attempt to try to land a real job. I believed Mr. Talbert was skeptical of my whole endeavor, but he continued to read and agreed to take me on as a clerk at his Western Auto store. The pay was 50 cents an hour. For the next three months, I would be spending 12 hours a day stocking shelves and taking inventory. I respected Mr. Talbert’s management style and wanted him to see the potential in me. I seriously hoped I would not embarrass myself.
The letter rustled as Mr. Talbert closed the portfolio. I reddened when he turned and walked away without saying a word. Crossing the office floor, he pulled a small gray box off a grimy shelf and came back, letting the heavy square carton drop to the table with a crack.
“Kid, if you can work as well as you write, we might get along,” he remarked. “Here, take this,” and he handed me a Waterman writing pen.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“There’s nothing better than a Waterman – $20 a pen. Consider it a sign-on bonus. From now on you’ll use this pen when you write anything,” he said.
The summer came and went. It was fall and time to go back to school. By the end of the summer-long internship, he would invest in me much more than an expensive pen – also the resources of his time, friendship, reputation and insight.
Personally, I believe in the harmony of divine purpose and human shortcoming that God uses people to stretch us, to encourage us, and lend accountability. A friend older in years is often wiser and can see possibilities in us where we see only feeble lines on a sheet of paper. Progress in life comes when we risk relationships with others who help us bring the picture into a fuller dimension. Today, it’s simply called being a mentor.
Mr. Talbert knew all about that. Taking me under his tutelage reflected the great concern he felt for me as his young employee, and friend. The risk was worth it to Mr. Talbert.
Well, I gave up a $1.50 per hour in pay after four years and joined the Air Force. Mr. Talbert’s values stuck with me through the coming years like chewing gum on the bottom of a shoe. Over the past three decades, I too have mentored hundreds, maybe thousands along my journey.
At one time, I thought leadership was all about being the person out front, about being the one with all the answers. I was so wrong. Reflecting how I grew into a young man while working for Mr Talbert, I realize how blessed I am to have had so many patient, loving, tenacious people who have assisted me on my leadership journey at every phase of my life.
Look no further than here for the living proof you are never too young or too old to change or learn something new. I have the dream job of my life as a writer for the Air Force Civil engineer community. I work with great people everyday who are kind and provide inspiration. One such person is Anne Kimmitt, the boss, who is equipping me and the others to become dynamic technical writers by asking all the right questions and providing subtle, yet effective, leadership.
“What do you need from me? How can I support you?” she frequently asks.
Her style of drawing out our talent for writing comes in the form of questions and challenges. For example, if I came seeking advice about a writing concern, she would say, “Ed, see this as a challenge. How are you going to handle it? Can you say the same thing with lesser words, being more active than passive? You know I like short!”
Yes, she is bringing out the best in all of us. In times of panic, concern, or disbelief, she reminds us that we are not alone. She always has the right answer for us from her many years of experience. I watch as she teaches sublimely about the power of reflection and, by her supportive teaching style, helps each of us see the best in each other. Teamwork.
Ms. Kimmitt helps us grow through her encouragement. She is a mentor who advocates that leaders need to speak the truth in love, and never to remain silent and allow injustice. She supports all of us with her camaraderie and wisdom, but most of all by her character and by what she models.
Mr. Talbert taught me about integrity, truth, and grace. His humility reminded me that as leaders, we are first of all servants. I have never once asked a subordinate to do anything that I would not do. I see that same value reflected in Ms. Kimmitt each day by the way she conducts business.
Neither of these mentors told me what to do or how to do it. Yet they each aided my growth in very different ways. I learned many things along my journey, mostly through my mistakes. What stands out as the greatest lesson I have learned is God continues to use the seemingly unqualified, like myself, to do the most unimaginable things. After a military career, I never expected to become a writer. Yet, here I am! Let me always strive to act as these two mentors have in my life: as authentic leaders who acted in ways that serve to elevate those around them. Mr. Talbert has since passed, but I think of him often and his kind and gentle ways.
Ms. Kimmitt continues to mentor and pull out our best work, regardless; she believes we have not yet produced it.
You know, I wonder if she, too, has one of those Waterman pens as Mr. Talbert gave to me.