I’ve written before that my paternal grandfather, Laverne Ernst Claudson, was the grandparent I knew the least. Both of my grandmothers overshadowed their husbands in my young life, and I spent more time with my maternal grandparents as a child than I did my father’s parents, so I never felt I knew my Papa Verne very well.
When I was a small child, I knew my grandfather worked as a traveling salesman in the Pacific Northwest. He was based out of Vancouver, Washington, and called on retail stores in Washington and Oregon. I knew he handled the Carters line of children’s underwear and pajamas, because he kept my brother and me well-supplied. All our footie pajamas came from him as birthday and Christmas presents.
I learned much later from my father that Papa Verne loved to sell and worked in sales most of his career. When my father was small, Papa Verne ran the Woolworth’s store in Pratt, Kansas. Later, he managed stores in the Los Angeles area.
When my father, known then as Tommie, was in high school, Papa Verne ran a five-and-dime store in Klamath Falls, Oregon. In his teenage years, Tommie worked in his father’s store on weekday afternoons and on weekends. I don’t think Tommie enjoyed sales, but he learned some good lessons from his father, which my father later told me.
One lesson was about pricing. Tommie found out that the wholesale price of a pack of gum was two cents, and his father was selling it for ten cents. Tommie thought that was highway robbery. He told his father that the ten-cent price was taking advantage of his friends who came in the store and bought the gum.
Papa Verne took his indignant son into the back room of the store and opened the ledgers. He showed Tommie what he paid in wages, rent, and other expenses. By the end of that lesson, Tommie decided the ten cent price was quite reasonable.
Another lesson my grandfather taught was that the customer is always right. A five-and-dime store in a small town in the 1950s carried some of everything. Tommie was stocking shelves for his father one day, and a customer picked up a ceramic pan. “What a nice vase this will make,” she exclaimed.
“But that’s a—” stock boy Tommie started to say.
Papa Verne interrupted his son and told the woman to bring her vase to the cash register.
After the sale was completed, Tommie said to his father, “But that wasn’t a vase. It was a bedpan.”
“If she wants to call it a vase, who am I to tell her it isn’t?” my grandfather replied. “A sale is a sale.”
And that’s how my dad learned the customer is always right.
Today, November 9, 2015, would have been Papa Verne’s 106th birthday. He worked until he retired at age 65, and he died in February 1975 before he reached his 66th birthday.
What family stories do you know about your grandparents’ occupations?