Six of the Most Important Things I Learned from my Father

Ernest Knowles

My father was highly respected for his integrity and competence by all those with whom he associated. Of more importance, he was a remarkable man who taught by example and brought warmth, humor and stability to our family. He and my mother were, until his much too early death in 1962 at age 55, very much in love with each other. And he was openly affectionate with her, and with me and my older sister and younger brother, even in public. He was always available to me and would alter his plans to talk with me when I was in trouble or needed his strength and advise. My father also taught me that showing heart-felt emotion was neither dishonorable nor unmanly and that a father hugging his children was both natural and desirable. I passed that on to my children and they to their children.

Now I am more than two decades older than my father was at his death. In remembrance of someone so special in my life, I would like to share with you six of the most important things my father taught me and describe the events from which I learned these things.

Take responsibility for your own actions -- don't blame others.

Living in our neighborhood was an elderly couple (Mr. and Mrs. House) who didn't like noisy children and who, for reasons not understood by us then, got very upset when we ran across their carefully manicured lawn or through their rose garden. One summer evening when I was about ten, my younger brother (by thirteen months) and I decided it would be great fun to drop a large firecracker in the mailbox that was mounted on the outside wall by the front door of their home and then hide and watch their reaction. We waited until twilight when they would not likely see us approach. then crept up onto the porch, opened the lid and dropped a lighted "cherry bomb" into the mailbox. We hid in the bushes in the next-door neighbor's yard to observe and could hardly contain ourselves when the explosion blew the mailbox completely off the wall. Mr. House ran onto the porch yelling and cursing, but he did not see us. Unfortunately, however, the neighbor whose yard we used for our observation post did, and he called our parents. When we returned home we could see that my father was very upset and we knew we were in serious trouble. He sat us down on the footstool in front of his chair and sternly told us that we could have caused one or both of them to have a heart attack. He also told us that destroying property was totally unacceptable to him and that we would use our next several month's allowances to pay for a new mailbox. Much to our horror, our father also told us that we had to deliver the money ourselves and personally apologize to Mr. and Mrs. House. We told him we would rather have him spank us with a belt (something he did only once in our lives when we destroyed another neighbor's birdhouse). His reply was that we had only ourselves to blame, that we had to take responsibility for our actions, and that we had to deal directly and personally with Mr. and Mrs. House. He gave us the money (with the understanding that we had to pay him back) and we took an agonizingly long walk across the street. We stood on the porch for a long time before we worked up the courage to knock on the door. Mr. House's anger was much worse than we thought it would be and, after he stomped back into his house and slammed his door, we ran quickly back across the street to our home with our heads bowed. It was the most effective punishment my father could have administered to us and I have never forgotten the lesson it taught me.

Don't quit when a job is hard -- wait until it is easy.

In the early summer just after my ninth birthday I got a paper route delivering over 150 papers in the neighborhood surrounding our home. I worked all the following winter and summer, but during the second winter (which had record snowfalls) I told my father that I was getting tired of the route and was thinking about quitting. He told me that I had done a very good job during the previous year and half and showed that I was dependable and could work hard, but he asked me to consider staying with the job until the winter was over. "If you quit now you will always wonder if it was because the job was too hard. Wait until summer when the job is easy and then if you still want to quit, you can do so knowing that the job did not defeat you." I took his advise and worked until the next June, quitting only so that I could play little league baseball, just then starting in our city. The principle he taught me that day I have never forgotten and have used my entire life.

Make your word your bond -- keep your word.

My father was Traffic Manager and later General Manager of the Ogden Union Stockyards in Ogden, Utah, which, until the early 1960's, was a very busy and thriving facility. At the crossroads between the main east-west and western north-south railroads, it provided rest, feed and water for sheep, swine and cattle traveling across the country, and as an auction center for local animals. From the high mountain valleys of Northern Utah, Basque sheepherders would bring their lambs each spring to the stockyards for sale. The Basque sheepherders were a rugged and generally suspicious lot who expected a good price and drove a hard bargain. My brother and I spent many days during the spring and summer working with our father to herd the lambs from the trucks to the loading pens and scales and sales arena. We also had many opportunities to meet and talk with the sheepherders who told us repeatedly of the respect they had for our father. Before he became General Manager my father was the best rate man at the stockyards and always closely estimated the price that the lambs would likely bring in an auction, and he often was called upon to settle disputes between the buyers and the sheepherders over the price of their lambs. If my father said the price was fair they would accept it with only a handshake. I heard them say many times in their broken English, "If Rollie (my father's nickname for Rowland) say it true, then it true." To them, my father's word was his bond and they needed nothing else. I learned by his example and from his unfailing belief, often expressed, that if we gave our word, whether confirmed by a handshake or a written agreement, we must keep it.

Live within your means -- don't buy anything you can't afford.

My father's attitude about debt, like most others of his generation, was forged during the great depression. He was working for the Union Pacific Railroad in Reno, Nevada when he was laid off his job but, unlike many others caught in the same situation, he stayed in Reno working odd jobs until he had paid all his debts. My father took his financial commitments very seriously and felt honor-bound to pay them. He said it was unfair to those who had given him credit if he left town before they were paid. He also did not buy anything without a good reason. I recall going to him as a teenager wanting him to buy me a car. He told me that if I wanted one badly enough I should earn the money and buy the car only when I had sufficient income to maintain it -- I did not own my own car until I graduated from college. We were also one of the last in the neighborhood to buy a TV, both because my parents thought it was a waste of time, but also because there were other things our family needed that were more important and, therefore, had a higher priority. Our home was the only large debt my father ever incurred and even then he managed to pay it off well before the time required by the terms of the mortgage. While I use credit much more freely than my father, his admonition to only buy those things you can afford has been a guiding principle throughout my life.

Be respectful in your dealings with others -- it costs nothing to be nice.

My father always taught us that we should be respectful in all our dealings with others. "It costs you nothing to be nice," he often said. My father pitched for the Union Pacific Railroad baseball team when he lived in Reno. Their schedule included regular games in the Utah and Nevada penitentiaries against teams made up entirely of inmates. My father always treated the inmates with the same consideration and respect he would give any player outside of prison. He also had a keen sense of humor and, because he so enjoyed playing baseball, he always smiled and the inmates called him "Smiley". They liked this gentle and sincere man and when he had a long count going against him they would yell encouragement. Even years after he stopped playing he sometimes met a released inmate on the street, and the man would call out, "Hey Smiley" and come over to shake my father's hand and ask him how he was doing. By example, my father taught me that good working relationships and long-lasting friendships are built upon mutual respect and consideration.

Do a day's work for a day's pay -- give back more than you receive.

When I was fourteen my father got me a job working for Wendle Hunsaker, the man contracted to sell hay to the stockyards. I was to be part of a crew that traveled to the hay fields of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah to load 410 bales of hay on a semi-tractor trailer for delivery to the stockyards. As I waited at home to be picked up for my first day on the job, my father put his arm around my shoulder and told me that while he had used his influence to get me the job, it was mine to keep. He also told me the job would be physically demanding but that I was a big kid and had already proved that I could work hard. "What is more important," he said, "is that you give Mr. Hunsaker more than he asks for. Don't complain about the work or the hours you work, nor the remote locations where you go to load hay or where you sleep at night." I put to practice what he taught me and worked in the hay fields for two summers. Our crew often spent weeks away from home, routinely worked from dawn to dusk and sometimes slept in the back of the pickup truck. During those two summers I grew big and strong and continued to develop the confidence I have carried with me all my life.

 

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