In her excellent blog today, author J.A. Jance had a post titled The Road Not Taken that talks about how her life might have been if she had been assigned to a different teacher for second grade at her little school in Bisbee, Arizona. For it was in that classroom that she discovered the wonders of books, and determined that someday, she too, would become an author.

Her blog post got me to thinking about something that has been kicking around in my head for a long time. I wonder how many of us ever know how our words might impact somebody else’s life, or how another person’s words impact the path we travel in our own lives?   

Many times we say something, or hear something, and forget it as soon as the moment passes. But there are times that a few simple words, maybe spoken in anger, maybe with sarcasm, or possibly with love, can change a person’s whole world. Or impact their entire impression of us. And there are times that words can bring comfort to someone when they need it the most.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a woman who reads my daily RV blog, telling me that the Thought For The Day that I always put at the end of the blog helped her and her husband cope with the death of their daughter. I wish I could take credit for those words, but in looking back, they were sent to me after the death of my cousin in September. But I am still glad they they helped those people at such a terrible time in their lives.

Just like J.A. Jance, who I mentioned above, from the time I was a kid I wanted to be a writer. In fact, I wanted to be a newspaperman. I came from a blue collar family with very little money, and the opportunities to continue my education looked pretty slim to me when I was in high school. But I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher named Jim Summers, who always encouraged me, and drilled the same message into me that my father did at home – that I could do anything I wanted to do, and become anything I wanted to be, if I was willing to work hard enough and sacrifice enough to accomplish it.

I went into the Army right out of high school, and I was very fortunate to have a company commander early on who recognized something in me. He urged me to take advantage of the educational opportunities the military offered, instead of becoming just another barracks rat sitting on my bunk waiting for payday. I followed his advice, and when I returned from overseas, I spent a lot of my off duty time taking classes in everything from college subjects to military skills. I signed up for every class and Army school available, from photography classes, to truck driving school, to leadership courses, and even demolitions school.

When I got my discharge, I went home to Toledo, Ohio, ready to start the next phase in my life. The day after I got home, I took myself down to the Toledo Blade newspaper and applied for a job as a reporter. I didn’t have a college degree, I didn’t have any experience, but I was full of enthusiasm, and I just knew they wanted me! As it turned out, I was wrong.

It took me three or four trips to the newspaper’s office before I ever got past the receptionist and into the office of an editor. I don’t know his name, or even what his title was, but I still remember the large man who gave my hand typed resume a very cursory glance, then flipped it back across his desk to me and said “Kid, do yourself a favor and go down to Jeep and get a job on the assembly line, because neither you nor I are ever going to live long enough to see your name in print.”

Before I went into that office, I wanted to be a writer and a newsman. But when I walked out, I knew I was going to become one, if for no other reason than to go back someday and show that SOB just how wrong he was! I never did get back, of course, and I’m sure he forgot me the minute I walked out the door, but those words changed my life more than any other, before or since. It wasn’t many more years before I started my first newspaper, and over the years my name has been on the masthead of a dozen or more publications, and even a few books. 

Early in my small town newspaper career, I was having lunch with the owner of a small chain of papers when an older lady came to the table and spent several minutes telling him about how her paperboy never got the newspaper onto the front porch, and how she had to fish it out of her rose bushes everyday. He put down his fork, looked at her, and listened patiently, and then assured her that he world speak to the young man.  She hadn’t been gone for more than a moment or two when a local shopkeeper stopped by to complain about something in the paper. My friend again nodded, said he appreciated his input, and promised to share his thoughts with the reporter who had written the story. By the time we had finished our meal, a third person stopped by to thank him for covering some club meeting that they were involved in. He thanked them and said he was glad to do it. 

I told him that it must be hard to eat a hot meal with so many interruptions, and that I admired how he never seemed to lose patience with the interruptions. He then told me something that I have always tried to remember; “Get used to it, Nick. A small town newspaper editor is a big fish in his little pond, and you become something a celebrity, like it or not. When a reader or advertiser or anybody else stops you to say something, you had better give that person your full attention and make them the center of your world for that minute or two. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re hungry, or tired, or have a migraine headache, or you just got word that your mother died. If you don’t give them the attention they need and really listen to them, in their mind you’re just a stuck up SOB who thinks you’re better than them, and doesn’t care what they have to say. On the other hand, if you give them your time and show them you are listening, you just made a friend. They may not agree with you, but they know you care enough to hear them out. Because whatever it is they want to talk about, that’s the most important thing in their lives at the moment, and they need it to be important to you, too.”

I’ve always tried to remember that lesson, and yes, I ate many a cold meal in my newspaper days. Because we never know what impact the things we say or do have on other people. If we’re lucky, we do it right and make a friend, or comfort somebody at a painful time in their lives, or leave them with a good feeling about themselves. If we do it wrong, we may hurt their feelings, or make ourselves appear to be cold or callous. Or who knows, maybe we inspire some other young person to make something out of themselves, even if it is just to show us how wrong we are!

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11 Comments on We Never Know

  1. Melissa says:

    Love this blog, Nick. It’s great to hear how you started and to be reminded again of how our words can be heard and have such meaning — even beyond the scope in which they were originally intended.

  2. Stu says:

    Hey,
    I am always amazed how often a young Firefighter mentions something I taught them in one of my classes. Most of the time they attend just to get their “ticket” punched but apparently something I said stuck…feels good.
    Stu

  3. Upriverdavid says:

    I still remember the names of teachers I had that made a difference to me and our community.They had their hearts in their chosen field. Thanks for bringing that back from my past.
    Upriverdavid

  4. Mike Ellsworth says:

    Thanks Nick for this days blog. It got me to thinking over some of the less than stellar comments that came out of me before thinking. I read your blog late at night and do enjoy most. Tonight we sit in -40 Deg F weather in North Pole, Alaska. Thinking we should have chosen to go south for the winter.
    In any case thanks for your words and insights. Mike, 72 years.

  5. Butch says:

    Well said Nick, I can add nothing.

    Butch

  6. Tom Slate says:

    Thank you, Nick, for the reminder that all of us, and especially those of us who work with the public everyday, need to really listen to whoever is talking to us. Like so many Sunday school lessons, we should oughta know it by now, but it is still good to hear it again every now and then to keep us on the right path.

  7. Paul Dahl says:

    As I look back I find I’ve learned so many things from many people, good and bad, but the most important lessons came from the “bad” people.

    As with your editor, not only did they unknowingly challenge me to do better, or work even harder, but more importantly how I was never going to act or treat people like they had treated me.

  8. Steve says:

    It sounds like Bad Nick is getting soft. More like Good Nick, not Bad Nick. I appreciate posts like this on the other blog.
    Cut the “feel good” pablum and give us the real stuff you old fart.

  9. wayne says:

    Listened to my Grandad and also a friend of my dad that had both been in the Navy. Those tall tales made me join the Navy after high school to see those far away places I had heard about … and I am with Steve, I did enjoy this but soft nick ???

  10. Jack Wells says:

    Give the man a break, theres more to life than muckraking and stirring the pot. I like the posts that get a lot of debate ring, but I appreciate one like this from time to time too.

  11. Candace says:

    Funny, how YOUR very words have changed MY mind about you, Nick. At some point in the last 10?? years, someone sent me a link to a “Bad Nick” blog post they thought was funny. I don’t even remember what it was about, but I do remember I did NOT agree with them or you. So I wrote off the blog (and you) as some whiner I didn’t care to waste any time on.

    Fast forward to Sept 2010 …. I am now a fan, have read my first Kindle ebook on my smart phone (Big Lake) and just renewed my GJ subscription for 2 years.

    Now, I mostly agree with you… and when I don’t at least I know you are speaking your mind and won’t mince your words to suit the audience. I like that.

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