--by Mike Murray
It is often said that “we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.” It is recognition that, no matter how self-sufficient we imagine ourselves to be, each of us is beholden to others: people who cleared a path for us to tread, people who helped us through difficult times. Family, friends, neighbors (strangers, even) – all sometimes lend a helping hand.
The most famous example is the reference that religious folks make to “footprints in the sand.” The story goes something like this: A man is reviewing the course of his life, traced by impressions on a beach. For most of the way, there are two sets of footprints. But he becomes dismayed when he discovers that – for some stretches – only one set exists.
“Lord,” he moans, “you said you’d never abandon me. Yet, during the most difficult periods of my life, there was only one set of footprints.”
“My son,” answers God, “it was at those times that I carried you.”
In one way or another, someone occasionally carries each of us. During the early years of my life, my mother did most of the carrying. Married to an alcoholic who was possessed of various shortcomings, she somehow managed to keep it all together and provide for her seven children.
And then, when she was left a young widow with a houseful of kids and few resources, she carried on still. For such a small woman, she had wonderfully broad shoulders. She did the best she could for us, which was a lot.
Still, turmoil and dysfunction (common in such family situations) left me unprepared for a future beyond high school. I liked to run, and I enjoyed competing on my school’s track and cross country teams. But I was clueless about what might come next.
Fate intervened, in the person of Charles A. Reichheld III. Reichheld was an economics teacher at the local community college, and he also served as its cross country coach. During my senior year at Cleveland’s (now defunct) West Technical High, I was one of the athletes he scouted.
Although I received inquiries from several colleges and universities regarding athletic grants (the one from Colorado State was especially intriguing), I was wholly unprepared, psychologically, to make the leap. My father was dead. And my mother never went beyond high school. There was no one at home to offer me guidance.
Plus, I was in love. And my high-school sweetie didn’t want me to go away to school. Bottom line: I was rudderless. Into that disorder stepped Charles Reichheld. It is fortunate for me that he did.
And so, before I served a single day in the military, before I set foot on the campus of a four-year college, before I landed my first professional job, I began higher-education study at Cuyahoga Community College.
That was nearly 37 years ago. Professor Reichheld is now retiring from his full-time position at Tri-C. He was one of the people who carried me through the sand during trying times. As a small token of my appreciation, I offer him the following tribute.
Fond Memories of Dr. Reichheld, on the occasion of his retirement:
It is a sign of aging, I suppose, that I recall events that occurred decades ago more easily than I do ones that took place only a few short weeks ago. Whatever the reason, I clearly remember the day that I met Charles A. Reichheld III.
It was during the winter of 1971, when I was 17 years old. The occasion was the West Senate indoor track championship, held that year at Lincoln-West High School. I was infected with some kind of respiratory virus, which left me in a weakened state.
As I awaited the start of the half-mile race (I had already bombed in the mile, finishing a disappointing 4th), I found myself with nothing but my sweat suit into which to blow my nose. The 880 went better than the mile, in that I finished a close 2nd to the famed Ron Addison of Rhodes High. (Addison was one of America’s finest middle-distance athletes, nearly breaking four minutes for the mile as a prep.)
Still, in the locker room at the meet’s conclusion, I was feeling low. I had hoped to do better. That’s when Reichheld approached. He introduced himself and offered congratulations. Sensing my disappointment, he said this: “Look, Mike. I’ve been following your racing career for some time now. And it seems to me that you win a lot more often than you lose.”
Needless to say, I was heartened by Reichheld’s consoling words. And I wound up following him to Tri-C, where he coached cross country (in addition, of course, to teaching economics).
Mr. Reichheld (which is what I called him then), went out of his way to help me – on and off the athletic field. Aware that I came from a low-income family, he arranged summer employment for me at his father’s machine shop. I don’t believe that his dad really needed the help; but coach knew that I needed a job.
Later on, Reichheld did something even more remarkable. It was late one evening – well past any decent hour – when he received a frantic telephone call from me. My difficult family life had boiled over. I didn’t know where to turn.
After I had babbled on for a while, he asked: “Are you strung out?”
I didn’t know what that term meant. After he explained, I revealed that, no, I wasn’t on drugs. It was the use of drugs by others in my family, in fact, that had me emotionally distressed. I had just come from a confrontation with siblings who refused to quit – and whose behavior while in an “altered state” I could no longer tolerate.
I apologized for the intrusion and prepared to hang up. But before I could do so, Reichheld did something extraordinary. He instructed me to remain at the phone booth from which I was calling. And then he drove out to meet me.
Reichheld and I rode and talked for a while, eventually arriving at his apartment in Parma Heights. His wife was waiting, and she welcomed me inside. After a brief discussion, Reichheld advised me to leave home. All things considered, he concluded that the time was right for me to strike out on my own.
He offered me his couch for the night, the temporary use of his car, and a loan of $70. His instructions: put the unpleasantness aside and get a good night’s sleep. And then in the morning, go find a job and a new place to live. Remarkably enough, I did both within 24 hours.
Eva’s IGA was hiring, and another student at Tri-C had an apartment he was willing to share. The stock-boy job at the grocery store didn’t pay much. And the apartment didn’t even offer me a bedroom of my own (just a corner of the dining room in which I could place a sleeping bag).
But it was freedom. It was a passport to a new life.
Things worked out well for me. Many opportunities grew out of Reichheld’s benevolence. I managed to complete a bachelor’s degree (and eventually a graduate one, too). I have held several good jobs. And I have experienced 22+ years of marital bliss with a woman who, ironically enough, is also a professor who has spent the bulk of her teaching career at Tri-C: Pam Hardman.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me nearly a decade to get around to repaying the loan of $70. And I am grateful that Dr. Reichheld (an economist through and through) graciously overlooked the “time value of money” element involved, sparing me the burden of compound interest.
Now, I’m not going to try to convince anyone that Chuck Reichheld is all hearts and flowers. I doubt that anyone who knows him would buy that. But I will say this: when I desperately needed help, he offered it. And he did so generously, without hesitation. I will never forget that. Or him.
Copyright © 2008 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.