THE VALUE OF UNCLES
One tribe of Native Americans says than an uncle is an un-renewable natural resource.”
My Uncle Francis died at age 95. He was from the Great Generation. He did not finish high school, but graduated from college while in the military. He became a pilot of B-24s. The book Band of Brothers written roughly about George McGovern was Uncle’s story.
Francis was the youngest of five siblings. My mother was third in that line. They all learned a stern work ethic from their father. They learned family and love from their mother. Because of the age disparity, Francis learned to cook, clean, and all that my generation calls “his feminine side” during the time spent in the house with his mother. He was, in spite of that, a man among men. Recalling him, I first thought of his hands.
He was a Christian—serious follower of Jesus—a father, husband, gardener, entrepreneur, pilot, military man, patriot, role model, grandfather, golfer, friend. He was also a mentor using his military connections to empower at least one young man who worked for him to go the Air Force Academy.
He stayed in the military as a reservist-trainer while operating a gas station, rental properties and then as the “king of renters.” He rented U-Haul trucks and trailers, everything for weddings, digging holes and throwing an up-scale, china goblet kind of gathering. My cousin said he once borrowed a stereo from her room to rent.
His hands had grease in all the creases. Lava soap was in the station’s bathroom, but Lava didn’t cut the stain. His fingers became gnarled from the mechanical work.
Francis was affectionately called “Smitty” by many. He was called “Papa” by his biological grandchildren and those who came with his cherished second wife. My sister and I called him “Uncle Francis.” Mom thought we should speak the honorable title. To his death, I expressed my affection with the word “Uncle.” He showed what a good uncle is. I am self-condemned by the fact that I am not a good uncle.
Several of his nephews worked with him. He “adopted” several non-biological boys and men whom he taught. I worked for him off and on depending on school, and other factors. I was not his best employee. I learned several important things from Francis about life and business.
At his life-celebration, all the pictures featured his military uniforms from his induction into the air corps to his retirement as a Lt. Colonel. There are other pictures of another uniform. He is wearing his Cities Service cap, suit and leather bow tie.
He took serious the name Cities Service. It defined his approach to business. He bought the station at age nineteen at a high visibility corner overlooking the Des Moines airport. It was the hottest spot in the summer, the coldest place in the winter and because it was in the primary flight pattern, it was the noisiest. All who worked there learned a voice pattern interrupted by jets on their way up or down. He sold the station when he went to war and bought it back when he came home.
Francis had instinct I tried to define and adapt. When I asked him about it, he looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. I was not yet a teenager when we were with his family on a major holiday. It was unseasonably, extremely warm that day. After dinner, he and I got bored. He asked me, “You want to go pump some gas?” He explained that the warm weather would push people into their cars to ride around. Everyone else would be closed.
He was pleased that we set a record at his Cities Service station for selling more gas that afternoon than any comparable afternoon. At that early age, I knew he possessed innate knowledge I would benefit by learning.
Between Francis and my mother, I learned what full service meant. As convenience stores began to appear, he frequently reminded me what “full service” meant and how we demonstrated that on the driveway with checking oil and cleaning windshields, asking to check tire air pressure. In the car wash bay, it meant cleaning the inside of the windows and wiping down the door frames.
Something you offer. One of the rigid rules was that a waiter or service man never said, “Will that be all?” We always asked, “What else may I get for you?” or “What else may I do for you?” In later days, it would be called “value added,” but at our businesses it was how we did full service.
Something you give. It was not just about business, it was a character trait. Francis would instinctively know what to buy, when to sell. He was an early investor in companies we now consider natural landscape companies. He planned to retire at age 55. He retired at age 57 freeing him to do other work and to travel worldwide.
One summer, he plowed up his backyard to plant cucumbers. He got a contract with a pickle company to provide quality cucumbers which Heinz would make into pickles. They provided free specialized seeds. Then he hired me to pick cucumbers. I’m a city boy. I knew nothing about harvesting cucumbers and his training didn’t help. At the end of the first day, he fired me. I was missing too many cucumbers. I was costing him too much money. In addition to his AAA contract to haul broken cars, his U-Haul business, a full service mechanical garage and a fast-paced gas station, he became a cucumber picker. He hired me back after some extensive training about looking for the hidden cucumbers.
It was an important lesson. I’m still talking about it 60 years later. I learned you give full service to your employer. Uncle was a workaholic. His businesses were his mistress and second wife. He and each of his siblings measured their personal value by how hard they worked and they all did work hard and not without personal cost.
Each of his siblings were serious, independent, fundamental, missionary Baptists. Francis and his family were Methodists. We wondered about their theology and salvation. It was a quandary to me. Francis seemed to express the most joy. When he retired, he came into a different dimension of faith in Jesus Christ. He became fascinated by faith visionaries. I think he regretted not investing in television stations. I know he invested in television ministries just as his mother had invested in early radio preachers and singers.
Francis ministered in his church and in prison ministries.
Before Moses died, he blessed each of the tribes of Israel. He spoke of their characteristics and their special places in God’s plans. Five years ago, friends, family and my cousins gathered in Overland Park to celebrate Uncle’s 90th birthday. He blessed me during that weekend. I cherish his words and desire to grow into them.
We celebrated his life yesterday. He was an unrepeatable natural resource.
©2012 D. Dean Benton