I work in IT.  That’s my day job.  I love “easy button” fixes.  The other day I went to help one of our users and it was a simple solution.  Done in 30 seconds.

The user was one I don’t know well and she thanked me profusely for being timely and fixing her problem.  But she also apologized for bothering me for such a simple issue.  She would have probably fixed it herself if she’d thought it through.

I was happy to assist.

She continued to apologize for wasting my time.

I stopped her.  “First of all, I get paid to help you and I like getting paid.  Second of all, if this is the worst thing that happens to me today, I’m having a GREAT day!”

I smiled.

She smiled back and her shoulders came down from apology mode.

When I walked away, I had a little spring in my step.  I always do when I pull that chestnut out.  Both people walk away feeling better.

I had to learn how to do that.

Decades ago, I worked with an Italian man named Joe, known affectionately as Papa Joe.

He’s 83 now.  Still alive.  I haven’t talked to him in over 20 years.  But I’ve thought about him a lot.  I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on lessons Papa Joe planted in my head.

Joe was tough.  A taskmaster.  But he would never ask you to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

My current job description says I must be able to lift and move workstations that weigh 50 pounds.  I do it more than I want to.  With the exception of a couple of years ago when I twisted the wrong way unloading a van, I’m able to carry off the charade, despite my age and spindly arms.

Joe is a lot tougher than Doug.  Always was.  Joe once showed me the government job description for his first employment out of the military in the 1950s.  The job entailed unloading freight trains.  There is literally a sentence in the job duties that reads, “Must be able to lift and throw 100 pounds.”

Joe did it all day, every day.

100 pounds.

Lifting.

Throwing.

At my work, even though we’re only lifting and moving 50 lb. workstations, we often opt for the 2-person lift.  But even at only 50 pounds, we don’t presume to be able to throw them.  I take that back.  We could probably throw them – from our hands to our feet.  A short toss.

Joe’s job hurling around 100-pounders came on the heels of his Navy service at sea during the Korean War.  At the age of 17, he was a radio operator transcribing Morse code.  He had a visual feed in front of him and two audio feeds – one in each ear.  His job:  Monitor 3 separate streams of dots and dashes simultaneously and translate messages without crossing the rays.

Joe said he learned in the Navy that when his boss told him to do something, he meant it.  The punishment for disobedience was to be led down to a locker room where the boss would literally apply wall-to-wall counselings.  Joe said after he was taken down there and bounced off the lockers a few times, he figured his boss meant what he said.

Joe started out old school.  His mother and father came here from Italy.  He had loving, strong parents who instilled in their children the realization they were lucky to be welcomed by America.  And the parents were adamant:  They would all learn English.

Joe’s father had a job at Rome Cable he went to each day.  Joe’s mother worked at a store owned by her father.  In addition, she raised 8 kids.  Joe remembers going out to pick bushels of beans to help support the family.  Each kid that picked beans was paid 50 cents a bushel, and each kid came home at night and promptly placed their hard-earned quarters into their mother’s hands.  And they were happy to do it.  Because they loved their family and they especially loved their mother.

I started seeing Joe decades ago at IT system design conferences I went to back in my traveling days.  We didn’t interface much.  But in 1989 when General Dynamics transferred me from southern California to be the field rep at Griffiss Air Force Base in upstate New York, my contact with Papa Joe amped up.  I was on Joe’s home turf.

Joe is another of those greatest generation people.  He just missed World War II, but I think he still qualifies.

You want a government person to safeguard how your tax dollars are being spent?  Papa Joe’s your go-to.  As an example, Joe once had to go on a lengthy trip to the UK.  Driving on the left side of the road is disorienting to start with, but try doing it with a manual vs. automatic transmission.  Everything has to work with direction from the wrong side of your body.  Doing it with a stick-shift and a clutch is harder.  But Joe went with the manual rental.  Why?  He found out the automatic would cost the government more, so he opted for inconvenience.

Yeah, I know.  We get jaded.  We don’t think there’s people out there really looking out for us.  But there are.  I know, because I’ve met them.  I’ve worked with them.  But even amongst good people, diamonds like Papa Joe are rare.

Joe screwed me over once.

He took me for a stroll one day outside of the building I worked in.  It was like something you’ve seen in a Godfather movie.

I knew something was up.  And not in a good way.  Not for me anyway.

Joe had proposed a unique project to my company.

As a computer hardware watchdog, Joe had become increasingly concerned about sites we supported experiencing equipment failures.  He did a bunch of research and discovered that most of the failures could have been prevented.  Manufacturers were routinely putting out firmware updates and advisories for their computer systems and the updates weren’t being applied at sites because sites didn’t know there were updates to apply.  Joe delved into specific issues sites were having, and through massive cross-checking, figured out many of their problems could be cured with an all-encompassing set of documents that would be distributed to the sites.

The information had always been available, it was just never consolidated and put in the right hands.

Joe wanted to fix that.

What I didn’t know was he’d already greased the skids with my company.  They’d already told him I’d be Joe’s right-hand person if he so desired.

Joe chose to exercise his desire.  That’s when he asked me to take that walk outside with him.

Joe was being charming, but Joe was often charming.  We sauntered slowly side-by-side and when he put his arm around me, I knew he was coming in for the kill.

He told me about the project.  He told me how much work it was going to be.  And then he told me I would be intimately involved in taking “this diamond in the rough” and polishing it.

He smiled a fatherly smile and shook my hand and I was off to the races.

The months ahead were grueling.  I ain’t gonna lie.

I spent many, many weeks pounding thousands of single line item entries into this set of documents.  And this wasn’t normal typing, I was entering convoluted serial and part numbers that I had to double and triple-check for accuracy.

Whenever I met with Joe during this process, he stressed how important our efforts were.  He was a wonderful cheerleader, I’ll give him that.  He maintained and referenced ancient swollen file folders that were 2-handed lifts.  Joe kept everything.  Including that first job description.  Joe would drag his folders out and dip into them to show me site examples over and over, no matter how many times I told him I got the importance.  He would look at me with this “No, I don’t think you get it” face and force me to pay even more attention than I was.

I have a pretty good work ethic.  I might be misguided sometimes, but if you want someone who’s going to stay awake nervously in the trench all night, I’m your guy.

Joe tortured me.  It wasn’t enough that I had a good work ethic or that I was staying true to the task.  No.  Papa Joe wanted more.  He squeezed me.  I started stressing out.  At one point he called me into his office.  He wanted me to estimate how long it would take me to finish.

I was already working overtime hours without pay.  And not just a few.  I told him we were not going to make the deadline.  That was clear.  There was just too much data to wade through and input.

Joe found my answer unacceptable.  “How many hours would you have to put in over the next couple of weeks to make the deadline?”

“I don’t know.  16, 18 hours a day.  Every day.  But that’s impossible.  We’re not gonna get there.”

I flashed on a quote in one of my user’s cubes, uttered by their first boss:  “Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.”

Joe grinned at me when I choked.  “Can you do that for me?  Can you make the impossible happen?  Can you polish this diamond in the rough and make it shine?  It’s really important.”

“I’ll try,” I sighed.

Joe gave me a look that said, “I knew you would.”

For the next couple of weeks, I only came home at night.  Screw 16 and 18 hour days.  I was doing 20-hour days.  Every day.  I’d eat dinner and sleep for 3 hours, then head back up the road to the office.

I got so stressed that my back went out.  This was during my pre-chiropractic days when I just endured the pain for weeks on end.  My left knee followed accordingly, to the point where my leg became so painful, it went swollen stiff and I had to elevate it the whole time I was typing.

I told you Joe was a taskmaster.

He’d call me when I was working.  At 3 AM.

I’d pick up the phone and I’d hear an old man half-chuckle.

“Doug.  Are you working?”

I must admit I had my moments of impatience during this whole affair.

“Well, why else would I be here at work in the middle of the night?”

“Okay, Doug.  I just wanted to make sure you were working.  You keep polishing that diamond in the rough.”

And then he’d hang up.

One night as I awoke at midnight to go back to the office, Judy jumped on my case.

“Who the hell is this Joe guy and why is he slowly killing my husband?”

I didn’t have enough energy to retort.  I put on my clothes and went back in.

Our deadline was on a Friday morning.  Joe had already made arrangements for a shipping pick-up of the armload of documents I was required to deliver.  I drove cross-town with a body that had given up on me.  And then to add insult to injury, we’d had a bit of an ice storm the previous night, and when I pulled into Joe’s parking lot, it was covered with ice.

I got out of the car trying to heft an armload of documents with my bad back and my stiff leg.  I promptly slipped on the ice.  Feet went out from under me like I was Buster Keaton.  Fell right on my bum leg and slid halfway under my car.  Documents skidded across the ice.

I don’t know if there ever was a time that I coupled Joe’s name with an expletive, but if I did, that was the moment.

We made the deadline.

The diamond in the rough now sparkled.

I eventually healed up.

The hardware documents Joe lobbied for became a Godsend.  Sites were notified they had updates to apply and after applying them, machine performance was greatly enhanced.  Across the board, IT performance was in a better place.

Weeks went by.

Joe invited me to lunch.

He didn’t invite me to lunch a lot, so in the back of my mind, I was hoping we weren’t going to take another stroll.  I’d just finished healing up.

When I walked into the dining room he’d invited me to, I was gob-smacked.

I had to take a surprised second and drink it in.  There had to be 30 people in that room.  Joe.  Co-workers.  Management.  They were all there to pay tribute to me for my efforts.  Joe sat at the head table grinning that famous grin of his.

That’s when my company presented me with an engineering award.  And a nice bonus check to seal the deal.

Not to mention they picked up my lunch tab.

That’s how old school works.

In 1995, I left the base I worked at with Joe and arrived to work in South Carolina at Shaw Air Force Base.  My system was wedged into a transportable van roughly the size of a U-Haul truck.  Inside was a narrow center corridor to navigate the floor to ceiling computer servers on either side.  It was so tight inside, if you were sitting down at a console and someone had to pass, you just accepted their butt rubbing against the back of your shoulders.  Trust me.  All day long, butts, both male and female, rubbed your shoulders.

The van was situated on an asphalt pad next to the base runway.  Routinely, jets flew over doing touch and go maneuvers, vibrating the van back and forth like that set of shakes you get when you’re waiting to turn and cars in the through-lane are whizzing by.  Not to mention the jets often passed so low, they set off car alarms in the adjacent parking lot.  If you were on the phone trying to do tech work, you had to wait for planes to pass before you could hear yourself or the person on the other end.

My first day of work was on a Friday and when I got there, I met up with a guy from our plant in California who’d been sent out to install my new system.  He was putting the finishing touches on the installion and wished me luck on his way out to fly home.

When I came in on Monday morning, the system was toast.  One entire disk array was fried.  Nobody knew how it happened.  Nobody cared.  Just get it running again.

Acquiring a new disk array was not an easy task.  Not through government channels.  That was complicated and time-consuming indeed.

Joe got wind I was in dire need and called to tell me he was getting on a plane.

The next morning, Joe bristled into my area carrying a complete disk array under one arm.

No box.  No paperwork.  Circumstantially, you’d think Joe had stolen it.

“Doug!  I’m not here to play games!  Point me to your machine,” he said as he brushed past me.

As we walked out to the van, I pointed to the array.  “Joe, where in the hell did you get that?”

“Don’t ask,” he gruffed.

I was back up and running in a day vs. going through the system and being down for days plural.

Joe got things done.  Old school.  Mission first.

Joe was good at self-deprecation.  He would often laugh and say, “Doug, I’m a worthless human being!  I’m an old man!  All I know how to do is eat and go to the bathroom!  I’m a mopine!  You know what that is in Italian?  I’m a dishrag!  I’m a mopine!”

On some occasions, he would switch it up by comparing himself to a scolapasta.  “You know what that is, Doug?  A spaghetti strainer!  That’s all I’m good for!”

Joe liked to espouse his philosophies on a regular basis.  Anyone who worked with Joe knew his signature catch-phrases.

He was fond of “God made you and God doesn’t make junk.”

Joe always spoke with great love for his parents, his children, and especially his beloved grandkids.  And now, he has 6 great-grandchildren whose names he proudly rattles off.  He regularly made it a point to mention his much loved wife.  He’d grin at me and say, “Who’s got it better than me?”

One of Joe’s best was, “If that’s the worst thing that happens to me today, I’m having a great day!”

As you know, I adopted that one.  And the others as well.  They’re winners every time.

I’m sure Joe wasn’t the first person to say any of those things.  He was just the person who manifested those thoughts in me.  And these weren’t just rote things for Joe, they were kindnesses to live by.

I’d like to think I carry that torch a little bit every day.

Joe reminisced sometimes.  He said his departed father would come home on Friday nights and drink wine.  “Sometimes a little too much – he’d get a bit tipsy.”  Joe’s father sang Italian songs to the kids gathered around his chair as he sipped.

His mother died during a period when I was working with Joe.  He was deeply affected.  Deeply.  I’m not a poet, but I wrote a poem for Joe’s mother that weekend and took it to Joe on Monday.

We shared a private moment over the words on that paper and we never spoke of it again.

Over the years, Joe has always visited his mother’s grave to leave flowers and say a prayer.

When I left upstate New York in the mid-90s, Joe was still Papa Joe.  In everything.  Work-wise, he was at the height of being a pistol.  He might tell you that’s not true – that maybe he was more of a gunslinger when he was a young man, throwing those 100-pounders.

On a personal level, I know Joe did things like making it a point to shovel his elderly neighbor’s walk when it snowed just because he knew she couldn’t do it herself.  He never asked.  He just did it because it was the right thing to do.

Given life expectancies, if Joe and I both age minus unexpected calamities, he will go before I do.  But even then, he never goes completely away.  Because I carry a piece of him around.  I have this polished diamond named Papa Joe that glints in my memory and watches over me.  And I’m not the only one.  Joe has touched many people in his lifetime.

God made me and God doesn’t make junk.

I do remain, however, a diamond in the rough.

Character is built over time.  Through layers.  For Joe, he started out as a child picking beans for 50 cents a bushel to help the family.  In return he was blessed to grow up in a family that wasn’t rich financially, but they were cemented in other treasures.  Food.  Shelter.  Love.  A tight-knit family was his foundation.  I know personally that Joe is very appreciative of the good things that have come into his life.  His natural inclination is to give something back.

I’ve had a lot of people lend aid to help me in my character development over the years.  I can’t say Papa Joe started that process.  Indeed, I had worked with quite a few talented mentors by the time Joe came along.  But I can say that he was a cornerstone.  A part of what makes me do the right things.

Rather than end this piece with a lament that I wished I’d kept in touch to thank him for what he did in my life, I thought we could end in a better place.

Some friends who still know Joe provided me with a phone number in upstate New York where Joe still lives.  His friends told me he’d been kind of forced into retirement when he was 81, but at 83, he remains a firecracker.

I called Joe.

He still sounds like the bull in the china shop.  You can hear the twinkle in his eye.

Joe was always about life.  And more importantly, he seemed content with life.  Work hard, play hard.  He’s still giving it the college try.  I try to emulate that lifestyle, but I fall down a lot.

I remain a diamond in the rough.  I dim in comparison to a real diamond like Papa Joe.  I don’t twinkle in the light like he does.

But I’m working on it.  And Joe works on me, too.  Every day.

He just didn’t know it.

So I told him today about his wax-on, wax-off influence.  That I’m still working on turning his gems into words to live by.  Trying to live the words until they just become another breath.  Content with life, if you will.

And when you get to do stuff like that, you really are having a full-circle great day.

A day where you ask yourself, “Who’s got it better than me?”