What guides a successful career sometimes comes from sweat and tire jacks.
For the last 31 years I have taught the canonic wonders of Bach, the dodecaphonic procedures of Schoenberg, and the newer compositional approaches of Pärt, Corigliano, and Glass. I have taught and performed piano and chamber pieces by Brahms, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Creston and conducted choral works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Paulus, and Whitacre. Recently, I successfully defended my dissertation, and my advisor complimented my work ethic, saying she wish she could clone it. I pondered that comment, and wondered just where that desire was established. I believe it was formed and nurtured in my Dad’s tire shop.
Dad purchased the tire business when I was a sophomore in high school. This business sold new tires and also included a re-tread shop, where old passenger and truck tires could be prepared, fitted with new tread, and then baked in a mold.
I began working for Dad even before I had my driver’s license. Although I had little experience with things automotive, I was determined to work hard and learn. Dad’s early employees were colorful individuals whose language and lifestyle resembled the characters in Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In spite of their rough exterior, they were willing to take time to teach me about their trade. Most days, they were even patient with me.
The work was dirty and physically exhausting. At first we had to remove the tires from the vehicles outside, subject to the diverse elements of Pennsylvania weather. The re-tread shop, although comfortable in the cold winters, was particularly draining in the humid summers (the temperatures in the shop reached 120 degrees).
I worked for Dad from the time he bought the shop through high school, undergraduate studies, and even for my early years as a Christian school teacher. Every Saturday during school I was in the tire shop. As soon as summer vacation came I was there every day. I worked each Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation. In fact, the only time I wasn’t working with my dad was when I took four years off to serve in the Air Force.
Employment in the tire shop afforded life lessons in meaning, perseverance, humility, and fulfillment.
Work is meaningful when attached to a cause.
It was a privilege to work for dad. My overriding motivation was to have customers think well of him because of my work ethic. When I was in the shop I hustled. I did not sit around chatting with the other guys; I stayed late and worked at being cheerful and respectful. Anything that helped the business was ultimately helping my dad, and I rejoiced that I could do my part. After I became a Christian, my cause shifted. My work was meaningful because my overriding motivation was to change lives in accordance with Biblical values.
Some jobs are hard, but must be done anyhow.
Two of my dad’s accounts were sanitation companies. I recall times when garbage trucks, full of the morning’s collection, pulled into my dad’s lot with a flat tire on the way to the dump. It was my job to crawl underneath the rancid-smelling truck to set the jack, often while a putrid liquid dripped on me. My weak stomach often heaved, but the job simply had to be done.
Hard work is humbling.
The English pastor Charles Spurgeon said: “If you seek humility, try hard work.” There was something pride-leveling about needing to repeatedly use my sledge hammer to remove a stubborn truck tire, locating my missing pliers inside the tire I had repaired the previous month, finding myself unable to get the whitewalls clean, or failing to deliver the customer’s car as expected.
Effort is its own reward.
After a day at the tire shop, I was often exhausted, covered in dirt and grime, but strangely fulfilled. Of course, some days were more difficult than others but the confidence that I had given my all, that my work was meaningful made the pain and effort worthwhile.
Dad retired, and sold the business to my brother, who has expanded it and continues to run it ably. When I return and visit the property, walk through the various corners of the building, smell the distinctive aroma of new-tire-rubber from the stacked piles of tires, I recall the many cars, trucks, and tractors I serviced, and the thousands of wheels and hub caps I installed. More importantly, I also remember the immense feeling of satisfaction that accompanies honest labor, no matter where it is accomplished.
Thanks, Dad, for everything.
David Ledgerwood chairs the music department of Maranatha Baptist University in southern Wisconsin. He and his wife Kim are the parents of eight grown children whom they love to visit, counsel, and debate. His academic interests include the history of church music, the compositional process, and homeschooling. For fun, he and Kim enjoy traveling, reading promiscuously, and solving Sudoku puzzles.
Image by Moreno Tediosi.