Considering Perspectives

IMG_2128The man in the picture is my grandfather, Earl C. Mayers, better known to many as “Smokey”.  To me, he was “Grandpop”. My whole life he served as “the Fire Marshal”.  I say it like that because he carried that title in several jurisdictional responsibilities, the most visible being the Chief Fire Marshal for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania until his death in 1981. At different times, he was the fire marshal for North Wales Borough, he served the Fifth District, he was the federal fire marshal at Warminster Naval Air Development Center, and served as Fire Chief at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. I may even be missing some credentials.

The point I wanted to make was that he was considered a very passionate leader and his efforts were remarkable.  What some people don’t know is that Smokey was not a learned man in the context of formal education. In fact, he didn’t even have a high school diploma. What he lacked in letters after his name he made up for in devotion, common sense, perception, and command presence. Nobody gave Smokey a hard time except maybe Grandmom, but even then, she was his biggest cheerleader.

Smokey’s influence was remarkable. There are generations upon generations of fire service leaders who learned at his feet or at the feet of others who were taught by him.  These leaders include my uncle, Pat Mayers, the long time Ops Chief for VMSC of Lansdale; and my father, Chuck Mayers, who in his own right assumed the role as “the Fire Marshal” for many different jurisdictions. What made Dad’s accomplishments more special were that several of the jurisdictions were the very ones Smokey had served.

The Montgomery County Fifth District, long considered a leading organization in starting the Montgomery County Fire School and many other initiatives, gives an annual fire service leadership award in Smokey’s honor. When you consider all the people Grandpop’s influence reached, the impact is stunning.  Just keeping it in the family, I think about all the people Uncle Pat and my Dad likely taught and mentored, then all the people Brian and I have done the same for, and we are likely talking thousands and thousands of people if you were to map it out. When we put it into the perspective of fatherhood, as a father, the legacy you leave is the testament of your true leadership. Smokey’s legacy was not only to his children, but to many, many, many others, as he was a mentor and a shining example of achievement even faced with adversity.

But the other reason to talk about Smokey today was that in my own time in the fire service, I have seen overwhelming change, and Smokey was a change agent before anyone even considered the term to be appropriate. As old school and salty as Smokey was, he was, if nothing, a groundbreaking individual, who agitated for things like education and better fire protection, at times when in our business, those weren’t popular concepts. This might be surprising also in the context to some, having little formal education, mentoring and educating someone might prove detrimental to your own career. Smokey never paid any attention to that. I know people have told me repeatedly, what he cared about was his work. He considered his work to be life-affirming, and he didn’t dwell on his weaknesses, he focused on what he was able to do, and he took action.

I heard a firefighter say recently, when faced with taking a class, that they only had a few more years until retirement, and maybe someone who has a few more years ahead of them should take the class instead. I took the comment somewhat tongue-in-cheek, knowing the individual, and especially since they elected to take the class after all,  but how many people do we know that to be their true rationale? That they have learned everything they already need to know, and don’t need any further education? Grandpop, or Smokey to everyone, gave me advice in the days before he passed away. We were talking about my enrolling in the very thing he and others helped form, the Montgomery County Fire School, and I was relating the hard time I was getting from some individuals in my department about signing up for so many classes in my first few years.  He had some colorful language for them, as he always did.  But he looked right at me and told me to ignore them; take every class I could get into, and especially if someone else was going to pay for it.  But he was even more clear: Never pass on an opportunity to learn something.

Thirty-five years later, I have a file drawer full of certifications. But I didn’t get those certifications in order to pad a resume.  I sought them because each were chances to learn something from someone else. Sometimes the learning didn’t even come as a result of the course.  Sometimes it was the networking, or other times, it opened up a different opportunity. On occasion, having that particular course paved the way to a different, more lucrative role.  For many of them, I wasn’t paid for the experience. In some cases, I even had to take time off, and even PAY for the experience myself.  But every opportunity creates more opportunity. The exponential nature of life experience isn’t in the pieces of paper you collect, but in the purposeful moments that accumulate along the way.  From each of those moments, we can derive meaning, and we can put that knowledge to work, or use it to consider what we shouldn’t do instead.

When I reflect on the things that I have done, I realize that I am good at what I do not because of the certificate, but because of what the certificate represents. Every interaction we have with another human being, or every interaction were have in another personal experience, these interactions add up to a wealth that you can’t put a dollar figure on. Furthermore, when we take those opportunities to share what we know and mentor others and treat others respectfully, we create value.

Someday, God willing, people will look back at the interactions they had with me and feel like I inspired them.  It is in that where I get my reward.  But understand, above all, the impetus was created before me, by a guy who didn’t walk an aisle in cap and gown, but knew the value in that knowledge and inspired it in me.

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