I’ve written before that I am a lot like my mother. But I developed my attitudes toward work by watching my father.
My earliest memories of my father at work date back to when I was in pre-school. When he was in graduate school earning his Ph.D. in metallurgy, he worked a variety of jobs and studied at home in the evenings. Some of the other graduate students had wives who worked, but my father was determined that his wife would stay home with my brother and me.
My father’s desk was a tilted drafting table he had made himself, large enough to hold full-size blueprints or several textbooks at a convenient angle (this was long before personal computers). During the day, my brother and I played house underneath the table. But when Daddy came home, we had to evacuate and be quiet so he could study. My mother made it clear that helping Daddy study was important for all of us.
One of the jobs my father had during graduate school was as a butcher at the neighborhood market. When my mother walked to the store for groceries, my brother and I rode our tricycles beside her. At the store, I saw my father behind the meat counter covered in a bloodstained white apron. It seemed a yucky job, but his hard work impressed me even then. (He still can get the best steaks and roasts from any meat department in any grocery store – he makes friends with every butcher he meets.)
After he completed his degree, my father returned to his engineering role, and soon was promoted into management. Then he worked even harder. He left home before we children were awake, and returned just in time for dinner.
He traveled all over the world for his job, presenting papers at nuclear engineering conferences and touring production and research facilities in the U.S. and abroad. He had to cancel one business trip near the time my mother was going to give birth to my youngest brother, so he’d be home when the baby came. He wasn’t very happy about the scheduling conflict . . . particularly when the baby appeared earlier than expected, so he could have made the trip.
My father brought home stories from his job about his bosses and co-workers. As I grew older, I could tell when things were going well for him at work and when they weren’t. Usually, when he wasn’t happy about his job, it was because of corporate politics or budget cuts. Or because someone wasn’t behaving as ethically as my father thought they should be.
I learned from his stories. I learned that doing a good job meant working hard, doing the right thing, and doing the best work you could.
As my father’s jobs became more demanding, my mother raised four children. She volunteered as a school librarian for several years at a Catholic grade school. As the head librarian, she could have taken a salary, but my father claimed it would be a conflict of interest because he was on the school board at the time.
I don’t think he wanted his wife to work for pay. In his mind, it was his responsibility to support our family, and he would meet that obligation. My mother hadn’t worked when he was in graduate school, and she wouldn’t work even after the kids no longer needed her full-time.
Yet, though I was female, as I grew up, I knew my father expected me to be able to earn my own living after I finished my schooling. He paid for my undergraduate and law degrees from excellent institutions. After I graduated, however, I would be on my own.
Well, I surprised myself and got married before I got my law degree. But I still expected to work after graduation. I received my J.D. in 1979, and started work as a new attorney immediately after passing the bar exam.
I had never held a long-term job before, only summer jobs during college and law school.
So I only knew one way to handle a job, and that was how my father had handled his – by devoting as much time to the job as it took to finish it, by being honest in what I said and did, and by working for the best result I could achieve. His stories came back to me as I confronted problems in my work.
And when my kids got old enough to understand, I told them stories. As an employment lawyer and Human Resources director, I found plenty of stories of my own to tell about people who didn’t do what they should at work.
“Don’t ever do that!” I told my children, as I told them about someone lied about an absence from work, or stole from the company, or harassed another employee, or did any of the myriad of dumb things that people do at work (as they do elsewhere in their lives).
My children are now grown and working in careers of their own. As far as I know, they have been good employees. I hope they learned something from their father and me, as I learned from my father.
This week my father turns 80. He has been retired for many years, though he is still an active volunteer. He built a good legacy in his work and in his family – a legacy I am proud to be a part of, and one I hope his descendants will continue into future generations.
Happy Birthday, Dad!