Lessons of a Lifetime

As published in “Master Paperhanger Magazine”

1935, at the height of the depression, at a train station in Egg Harbor, NJ. A young man talks to his father:
“Yes, dad. I’m taking the train to New Brunswick. I’ve got a hundred and ten dollars. I’m getting married.”
The father:
“What are you going to do for a living?”
The son:
“I’m going in the painting business.”
The father:
“What do you know about painting?”
The son:
“Not a damned thing. But I’m going to learn awful fast.”
And so it started. A twenty-one-year-old man left home to get married and raise a family. In order to support his family he went into business with his father-in-law, knocking on doors in the middle of the depression telling people, “Your house looks like it could use a coat of paint. We can do that for you.” He was too young to understand that people didn’t have a nickel for a loaf of bread, let alone the money to paint their house. But he sold a job. He was on his way. He never looked back.

I remember hearing that story so often while I was growing up I could recite it with my father while he told it. I was too young to appreciate it then. Things are different now. The lessons he taught me must have been stored in the back of my brain somewhere, because they come back to me now on a frequent basis, and more clearly every day.
There are intangible benefits to learning your trade from a parent. The most important one is usually the last one you understand. You inherit the experience of another person’s life without even trying. The moral and ethical teachings that you learn not by being preached to or lectured on, but by watching and listening are lessons no school can possibly teach. I hope to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from my father. I call some of his quotes “Dadisms” and will borrow them from time to time to give you an idea of his character.
I didn’t realize until recently that my entire youth was a time of learning business and life from my father. The stories he loved to tell about the hard times, the good times, the problems, and the rewards were his way of teaching. Every one was told with pride. How he had raised his family, how he had provided for them, how he had given of himself, and how he had earned the respect of those who knew him were the underlying themes of most of the stories.
The business I now have is a result of his lessons and stories, run with a desire to earn the respect of every customer, to give them the absolute best job I am capable of, and to have the most loyal customer base possible. The only way to achieve this is through honesty and integrity. The way I learned this was through his teaching combined with my own youthful denial that he knew anything and learning the hard way that he did.
I remember vividly the night of December 29, 1975. I stood at my parent’s kitchen table and announced that I was going to quit college after just one semester. Of course the inevitable question of, “What are you going to do?” came up, and flying by the seat of my pants, as I have been known to do, I said, “I guess I’ll just work for you till I figure out whether I’ll go back to school, or something.” He told me I could go to work with him, but there were some things that I needed to know. I was told that he didn’t really care what I did for a living, so long as I did it as well as I could. “I don’t care if you go into the painting business with me, dig ditches, or open that music store you talk about. Just do it to the best of your ability, and you will always be among the best.” That became an obsession with me. I go overboard frequently, doing little things that no one else would bother with and probably no one else will ever notice. But I know it, and it all adds up to doing it as well as I can. The finished look I deliver to my customers stems from those words.
He also told me that night, “Make sure you enjoy what you do for a living. You’re going to be doing it a long time, and if you hate getting out of bed in the morning to go to work you’re never going to make it.” Wow! That was a tough order for an eighteen-year-old to comprehend. I didn’t understand that one until I had gotten out of the business for a while and tried a couple other things. I finally got it, and now make a living doing what I love.
Until that night, I had been a helper and a painter. Dad did all the paperhanging. The first job he took me on after that night was a kitchen wallpapering job. It was January 2, 1976. He let me hang a sheet or two on a soffit and I was hooked. He saw that I enjoyed the wallpaper much more than painting and started showing me a lot of what he had learned over the years, and sharing stories I hadn’t heard before.
I was taught to appreciate the advances in the business that had made life simpler. He showed me how the “old timers” cooked their paste the night before the job, mixing wheat and molasses. I saw the perforators that were used to trim pulp paper around trim and ceilings. I learned to use them, even though they are no longer used. I have tools in my garage that other hangers my age can’t identify. But I can use them. I learned to appreciate what he had to go through, and how much easier it is now in many ways.
As we worked together I learned how he handled customers. He never sold his work on price. He sold his reputation for workmanship and integrity. That lesson could be the most valuable lesson of all, financially. When you develop the type of reputation he enjoyed you don’t even have to give estimates many times. Customers call and tell you what they want done, and ask to be put on the schedule. “Just give me a bill when you’re done, Phil.” I heard that so many times I thought that was the normal away business was done.
Another valuable lesson I never realized I had learned was another of his sayings, “You will always get the respect you earn.” Think about that. How many people do we know who demand respect? Do they get it? Not usually. But a person who earns respect, commands respect. Dad never demanded. He simply did things in such a way that even if you disagreed with him, you respected him. That is not easy.
Dad shared his knowledge of how things had been done in the past, how older homes were built, and the idiosyncrasies that went with them. I know how to handle a six inch paint brush on a ceiling with oil base semi-gloss paint, and can still achieve a better finish than most of my peers with a good brush on most surfaces. But he also understood and embraced advances in the trade. He knew wallpaper was changing and sent me to the US School of Professional Paperhanging to learn the new materials, primers, adhesives and techniques that he hadn’t seen. He never claimed to know it all, and always wanted to learn more. “I learn something new every day.” That was a standard remark.
When I came out of paperhanging school he was ready to retire, and he felt I was ready to take over. He had to cool my jets a couple of times, reminding me that I didn’t know it all, and that there was always someone better than you, just to keep me on track. The lessons I learned from him from that time on were usually recollections of lessons taught but forgotten. His influence is on every job I do.
My father passed away in January of 2001, and as I wrote his eulogy, I keyed on the one trait that I felt was more a show of his character than any other, pride. His greatest lesson to me was to do whatever I do with pride and I hope the pride I take in my trade has him smiling from above.

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