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When My World Changed -- 09/01/2002

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of two events: First, I left what I still feel was the best job I ever had, working for Illinois Bell Telephone Company (IBT) after almost three years of employment. Secondly, I moved to Grand Marsh, WI, and discovered the serenity of a small country town. My world changed for the better on September 1, 1972. Here is that story and some stories since...

I started working for Illinois Bell on October 7, 1969. I had quit college several months earlier due to a series of bad events: mostly because of being a poor student, partly for a romance gone horribly wrong, The Vietnam War, and the constant harassment and mental torment at the hands of my older college roommates. Yet, the telephone company job gave me a new sense of perspective. I got reacquainted with my high school friend, Bill Artus, and life was starting to look good again.

Bill Artus plays an important role in my adult life. He introduced me to his Dad and to the Wisconsin area where he and his father owned property. Little did I know then how fate would play its hand. But I'm jumping ahead of myself.

I was a Installer/Repairman for IBT and I enjoyed the freedom of that work back on the South Side of Chicago, IL. I worked in two districts during my years at IBT: South Chicago and Hyde Park. I enjoyed the Hyde Park experience better and it was there that I met one of my best supervisors, Jim Higginson. I liked Jim and he gave me the best compliment I ever received in any job. In 1971 he told me, "Don, if I had ten more guys like you I could do this job from home."

Once, I gave emergency first-aid to a small boy who had been struck by a fuel-truck and was bleeding from the head while people stood around doing nothing. I don't know if the boy lived, but I tried to help him until the ambulance came. That story was published in the IBT company newspaper in the spring of 1970. It was also reported in local papers around where I lived. I have a letter below from the late, Charles L. Brown, who wrote me of my actions. The newspaper article calls me a 'hero'; I wasn't. I was a helper and a comforter at best. I still have those papers. I was so different then.

May 19, 1970

Dear Don:

I am sure you have had many comments and words of praise for the admirable action you took when the little boy was struck by the fuel truck.

Although, according to 'Telenews", you may not have trusted your ability to recount what happened immediatly afterward, there was no absence of clear-thinking on your part during those initial moments when aid to the youngster was so vital.

The recognition you have received is most deserved, and I too congratulate you!


CLBrown (signed)

I helped a lot of people while at IBT. I worked through the very cold Chicago winters; rainy days of early spring and late fall, the hot, humid days of summer. One evening in the fall of 1971, I worked late into the night to provide service to a woman expecting a baby at home. I was cold, wet, and hungry that night long ago, but I wouldn't trade those hours for anything. I knew I was doing what needed to be done. Not all good things happen in the bright warm days of our lives.

I spent my last year at IBT training for a job change from Installer to Switchman. Becoming a Switchman was not easy at all. I made it happen, but perhaps I should have thought more about what I was doing then. Stress at home, another failed romance, and a inner calling pushed me into leaving IBT. I gave my fateful notice on August 16, 1972 that I was leaving my job on September 1.

In the years that passed, I've made far more money, traveled all over the country, traveled to Europe, started my own company, started a partnership, and worked for Fortune 100 companies. Yet, I still think of being an Installer at IBT as my best job ever. Maybe it was the sense of accomplishment of doing something tangible and understood by my customers. Maybe it was the freedom of youth expressed in a solid Midwestern work ethic. Maybe I left something undone back then, back there?

As I alluded to earlier, Bill Artus, was one of my best friends. Actually we were more like brothers. We both liked motorcycles, the outdoors, the West, the movies; we even loved the same woman, although he loved her months after I broke up with her. Anyway, Bill and I used to go to his property in Wisconsin almost every summer weekend throughout 1970 and 1971. It was during those trips that I met his Dad, Elmer Artus. His Dad is 35 years older than I am; yet over time, we too became good friends.

When I left IBT, I went to live in the small cabin on the property down from the house Elmer and his wife, Bertha, resided within in Grand Marsh, WI. Elmer and I worked on a farm there. It was hard, physical work; a change from my previous occupations. I enjoyed it! I learned to drive huge trucks and tractors in the fields. I think I earned 75-cents an hour back then.

I found that Elmer, who I called Monty (after Monty Hall) had a strange influence over me. I lost my father at age five and I discovered that Monty treated me like a son. Although I have only one Father, I've had more than one Dad!

I can't explain how a best friend of mine initiated me into a close friendship with that friend's father to the extent that he is like a Dad to me. There are a lot of things in life I can't explain. I am able to enjoy without understanding all the curious twists and turns of my life.

After a couple months of living in Wisconsin and helping Monty and Bertha finish the building of their house, I was off to California to make my fame and fortune. California had been on my mind since I was a child. This state mysteriously drew me to it. When I left Grand Marsh, WI, in November 1972, I thought I would never return. It was a short trip.

I found Santa Barbara, CA, to not be very friendly to me. I couldn't find a job and I was going broke faster than I anticipated. Tucking my tail between my legs, I returned to Grand Marsh, WI, in late January 1973. I felt depressed and like a failure, but I was welcomed back with open, loving arms.

One pair of loving arms was Sherry's. When I saw her upon my return, I fell in love with her immediately. She was still 18 when we married a few months later and I just turned 23. We lived in the cabin where I had lived months before. We still think of that as wonderful times. Monty was my Best Man at our wedding. None of our families attended.

We had no pressure or stress at our wedding, it was fantastic. The next youngest person at our church wedding was 48 at the time and the oldest was 71. I wouldn't trade that wedding setting for any other kind. I've written about Sherry's thoughts of that time. She tells me she loves me as she did at 18, so I'm not doing too badly after 29 years of marriage.

Yes, I've done plenty in my life. Along with my wife Sherry, and our married daughter, we remain as close as ever. For a guy who never finished college I've come a long, long way. I'm glad I lived the life I have. Those earlier sufferings and pains of losing a parent, dropping out of college, heartbreaks of failed young loves, paved the way for a much broader perspective of life. I learned the ability to look back on events in terms of their historical perspectives.

Do I have any regrets? Sure I do. Would I change anything? Hmmm, that carries a lot of sacrifices including the knowledge that our daughter would not have been born. Just for the sake of some simple fantasies, here is where I should have zigged when I zagged instead. :-)

For starters, I would have gone to a Junior College and stayed at home instead of going to the University of Illinois at Champaign, IL. I would have been in a better position to adjust to the pressure of my studies. I didn't need the extra stress at a time when I was under threat of the Draft for the Vietnam War. I hated that war; I still do.

I should not have gotten involved with a young girl from my high school during my senior year there. I'm glad I met her, but we were much too involved with each other and too intense for each other. I wish I could have stayed her friend instead because that's how we had started out. Besides, I was too young for such strong emotions. That whole emotional experience came back to haunt me during 2000 and 2001.

I should have listened to Jim Higginson, when he was subtly trying to tell me that my future with IBT was better served if I remained an Installer for the next few years instead of moving to the inside job of Switchman. He intuitively knew and understood me. I wish I had stayed in touch with him over the years; I often needed his wisdom and friendship without knowing that I did.

That's about it for second-guessing my choices. The reality is otherwise and I overcame those poor choices eventually although the emotional cost of my "first love" was pretty high. Nonetheless, I look back and say those experiences only helped to make me who I am today, so I try to take them in stride. I certainly don't hide from them.

It's become a habit of mine to reflect on certain anniversaries in various numerical combinations. Time is my friend, most of the time. When I hurt, it's over things that happened long ago; when I was vulnerable and inexperienced at dealing with complex situations whose outcomes were almost always out of my control.

I know one thing; 30 years ago I made two ironic decisions, both out of character for who I was at that time. Or is it that who I was then was not the real me? Maybe I needed the change to free myself from complacency? I tend to think my Spirit was crying out for attention and I finally listened to that voice. I never stopped listening since.


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