A number of years and several jobs ago, I worked with a coworker who knew my schedule better than me. Her job was to help keep a number of projects that I led moving and out the door. She’d let me know when design and layout had something for me to review, when the print shop ran into issues, and most important, when we were close to missing a deadline.
I remember her once describing her job as a glorified train engineer. “I keep the tracks clear and the trains running on time.” She did more than that, but I always thought it was a pretty accurate description.
We talked pretty much on a daily basis, so I got to hear stories about her children and her life outside of work. I remember one story she told about bringing home a puppy to her girls and how it would chew on everything that it could get into its mouth. We worked closely for a year or so and then we went our separate roads.
Gone but not forgotten
We’d still chat occasionally when we saw each other. She would ask about my kids. She had extended family members outside of State College, so she’d ask me about growing up in my small town in Mifflin County. In turn, I would ask about her girls. They were a few years older and were busy with sports and dance lessons.
A few years after we last worked together, I heard that she had cancer and was taking a leave of absence. She returned to her job a few months later and it looked like she was on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, she ended up losing that battle.
I haven’t thought about her in ages, but I got to thinking about her the other day. She used to always say that you have to treat people with respect. “They want to do a good job, they want to help, it just doesn’t always come out that way. You need to help them get back on the right track.”
We worked together only a short time, but I’ve never forgotten how she made people feel. In fact, I found myself quoting her recently to a young friend. I told my lunch friend how my coworker got more done with a teaspoon of sugar, than most people get done with a bucket of vinegar
In-and-out of our lives
In our lifetime, we tend to come across hundreds of acquaintances and friends. They’re coworkers, teachers, coaches, mentors, former bosses, a little bit of everything. Some stick around for years, others drift off after only a few months, but I think they all leave something — a lesson, a memory, a virtue, a challenge, — to learn from and remember. The challenge for us is to pick up on, remember, and act on those lessons.
As I thought about what I learned from the woman, I thought too about the lessons I learned from one of my first bosses. As a young college student I worked in Penn State’s Graduate Admissions office, a bustling office full of professional staff and administrators. The job responsibilities were pretty simple — stuff envelopes, type a few addresses, file a few folders — but also very thankless.
The woman I reported to was a relatively young manager and just getting started in her career. I didn’t know her well, but I’ve always thought she epitomized leadership. She was tough, but fair. She would look you directly in the eye and tell you what she needed done that day. She expected work study students like myself to work hard, but she also treated us like adults.
My friends with other jobs used to complain and tell horror stories about being humiliated by poor managers and being forced to perform crappy, meaningless work. My boss never made myself or the other student who worked in the Graduate Admissions office feel that way. Of course, we were doing entry level work, the lowest-man-on-the-totem-pole-type of work, but we never felt that way.
She made us feel that we had the most important job in the university. I remember leaving the office one day and feeling like I had accomplished something, like I had helped bring in a new student to the college. Had I really done that much? No, but she made you feel important. She made you feel special, that you mattered. I find it funny, but all these years later, I’ve never forgotten her message.
In fact, both women came and went in my life in a flash, but left a stamp on my life and a lifelong example to follow.