Rebel: Beat Down or Growing?

April 9th, 2011 Comments

dad in armyThere is a picture of my Dad that is very telling.  It was taken when he was in high school.  He, and his three siblings are sitting on a couch – all of them dressed in their Sunday Best.  Sitting from oldest to youngest, his brother is sitting tall, looking proper – as are my two aunts.  But down on the end of the couch, my Dad is slumped with a cocky look on his face.

My Dad, the rebel.  He’s the only one who moved out of Clark County.  He’s the only one to start his own business – several times.  He was the risk-taker, heart-breaker, dream-maker.  He pushed, he risked, and often he lost – but he has never stopped rebelling.

My Dad, the rebel.


In 1968 my Dad bought a small furniture factory in SE Portland.  He had worked there when he was a kid and now was his opportunity to become a millionaire.  Unfortunately, the economy took a dive and Von’s Fine Furniture didn’t survive.  The good news is that he sold the business for twice what he paid for it.

A few years later, my Dad was able to buy into a contracting partnership.  Pipeline construction is what he knew – and what he did well.  After a few years, my Dad bought out the other two guys and became the sole proprietor of Cornell Construction.  Having grown up driving dump trucks and running backhoes, I worked for my Dad through high school and when I was 19 and 20, I was his foreman.

My Dad was driven”

My Dad was driven.  He accepted nothing less than fast.  He was the penultimate “get-er-done” guy!  Whatever it took, he got the job done.

Although my Dad knew how to put pipe in the ground, and was probably one of the best in Portland at doing that, he had little or no education on how to run a business, manage capital and finance, or develop long range plans.  The recessions of the mid and late 70s took everything from him – including our house and dignity.

But my Dad bounced back.  His dream was to be a contractor and for several years he continued to do small jobs here and there.  Then, around 1980, he became the Superintendent of the Raleigh Hills Water District.  This was a salaried job for which he was more than qualified.  For the most part, he was the only employee – but occasionally he would hire part-timers to do special projects, read water meters, or work on larger pipeline replacement projects or repair jobs.

My Dad was perfect for this position…”

My Dad was perfect for this position.  He understood water systems, he knew all the other water district managers, and being a get-er-done guy, he was able to complete many tasks on his own.  However, a salaried position, working for “the man” isn’t always a good fit for a cocky rebel.

Home-run HeroMy Mom needed (and pleaded for) the safety and security of a regular paycheck and knowing that she wouldn’t lose her home again.  My Dad knew that and adapted.  Being a pipeline contractor doesn’t always provide a regular, or steady stream of cash inflow.  There can be long periods without work, and if you don’t manage your capital well, it is very difficult to feed your family and pay your bills during those lean times.  So, my Dad adapted to being a salaried manager and gave up his dream of being a millionaire.

Throughout the next 25 or so years, I watched my Dad evolve into a mere shell of his former self.  Some of the changes were good.  He became more humble, more available, and easier to be around.  But he was losing his characteristic spark.  He lost his drive and enthusiasm.  His vision was being snuffed out.

I didn’t really understand why until this past week.  I remember him talking about his elected board of directors.  He would talk about how they didn’t know anything about how to manage a water district, but how that didn’t seem to stop them from telling him how to do his job.  He constantly felt his employment was at risk, that they didn’t respect him, and that they wouldn’t let him do what he was hired to do.  Almost three decades of this pressure really devalued and deflated my Dad.

To be fair, I believe God was going my Dad an opportunity to grow – painful as it was – and my Dad didn’t really see it as an opportunity.  He did grow, and I believe he eventually forgave most of the trivial micromanagers, but as I’ve said, it really took a toll on my Dad and he is a mere shell of his former self.

My Dad is gifted and brilliant”

My Dad is gifted and brilliant.  He came from very humble origins, and rose above the poverty and abuse of his childhood.  But without the advanced education that today’s society requires, not everyone in his life appreciated how much my Dad had to offer.  His superiors at Raleigh Water were affluent and powerful people.  Raleigh Hills is a very affluent, old-money neighborhood.

The men and women who were elected to serve on the board of directors were people who were used to directing employees.  They saw my Dad, not as a leader in his field, but a minion to serve their needs.  In my opinion, they were the ultimate losers – for my Dad had much more to offer, but their lid kept him down.  My Dad was an innovator who was well ahead of his time.

During my Dad’s time at Raleigh Water, I was working for a local fire district.  I remember feeling some of the same pressures.  In fact, one of my complaints was about micromanagement.  I would say, “I don’t mind being told to clean the toilet, but you don’t have to tell me to swirl clockwise, or counterclockwise – let me figure that out on my own.

wax on – wax off”

RebelMany micromanagers are well-meaning people.  However, I don’t know if they realize how demoralizing this can be to creative, innovative people.  Yes, it’s true, they way we’ve always done it works well – but without experimentation, we may never find new efficiencies and better systems.  Experimentation is risky though – sometimes experiments fail.

I remember someone showing me how well furniture polish worked to make cars and trucks look shiny.  I had tried it on my own car and it worked really well.  When it was my turn to wax the rescue vehicle, I decided to try furniture polish, instead of the tried and true method of “wax on; wax off.”  I was about halfway through when my lieutenant walked by and was confused as to my motives.

Actually, his confusion quickly turned to anger.  That anger soon turned to livid rage.  He began to yell at me – accused me of being lazy, a slacker, and not doing my job properly.  Next thing I knew, he had me waxing the top of the rescue – just to teach me a lesson.  Now it was my turn to be livid.

My Dad would tell similar stories.

My Dad would tell similar stories.  He would single-handedly spec out a new water line, draw the plans, and put it out to bid – avoiding tens of thousands of dollars and in engineering fees, but his board would complain because he hadn’t washed his pickup before the meeting.  Sometimes people can’t see the forest for the trees.

Over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure and the opportunity to work for some very empowering people and organizations.  The plaques and certificates I could hang on my office wall, are due in large part because of the people who gave me freedom to do some crazy, exciting things.  However, for the first time in a long time, when we first came to Oregon in 2007, I ran into a brick wall.

Unlike my Dad, I didn’t handle the situation very well.  I told the micromanagers that they were wrong, that their focus was misplaced, and I stood my ground.  I tried really hard to keep my employer informed and stay on course – without sinking into the dysfunction that is so prevalent in mediocre organized religion.

I could have, and should have, been more tactful about saying no – but in the long run, I am thrilled to be out of that mediocrity.  They wanted peace more than they wanted to excel – and they were having trouble seeing that some temporary pain would bring great benefits down the road.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to understand my Dad’s career (and life) better;  I was provided insight into surviving as a rebel in the structured machinery of American culture; and I was offered the choice of sulking or growing.  I chose to grow.

During that same 24 hour, mini-wilderness experience, I received great insight into the care and feeding of my Wonderful Wife.  I realized that my criticisms, no matter how small, trivial, and well-meaning, were killing her spirit.  I just want her to succeed, and to thrive as a mother, but I need to focus on her strengths, not her failures.

When others focus on my failures, I need to receive it graciously, try to allow for growth in my life, and move forward.”

When others focus on my failures, I need to receive it graciously, try to allow for growth in my life, and move forward.  When others fail me, I need to receive that graciously, try to allow growth in my life, and move forward.  I accept that I can’t change others, even if they can’t accept that in me.  I can try to change, try to improve, and continue to be the best I can be.

I just don’t want to lose my creative, innovative, and experimental strengths.  Can you relate?

NOTE:  As I was finishing this post, my kids both epitomized the extremes of this post:

Smiling Son (3yo): “That’s not how we usually do it Daddy!

Darling Daughter (6yo): “Hey!!  I’ve got a brilliant idea!


  1. Therese says:

    I enjoyed reading about your dad, although it made me a little misty eyed because my dad is no longer with me. (I still miss him so much, and I know I always will, especially since I was born a daddy’s girl– and still am.) He was a born entrepreneur, and although he received (with a lot of hard work and no grants or loans because he was a Canadian citizen) a college education, ran his own business, always supported us (his family), he was still regarded as a simple salesman. I don’t believe he ever really minded what other people thought because he was always true to himself. He lived his faith 24/7 and everybody knew it. It amazes me how he took care of us all those years working on commission only, but he did. He had always wanted to sell houses, and he got his own business going. When the recession hit he started travel in 80… he told me later on he didn’t realize how well it would complement real estate because when one is going well, the other is its off-season. It also amazed me how he gave everything for his family and the only thing he really wanted for himself was to travel. I’m so glad he got to do so much of that, and in the meantime gave so many other people opportunities to do the same.

    Once again thank you for not only listening, but hearing what I have to say. ~Therese

    1. gwalter says:

      Thanks for the feedback and story Therese! Your Dad sounds like he was a great guy!

  2. aluminum says:

    Interesting post.

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