It was late at night before I was heading off to college and my dad was getting a little philosophical. He had consumed a few of what he now proudly called “Purdue Boilermakers.” These used to be just “boilermakers,” but since I was going “to do Engineering at Neil Armstrong’s School,” the name got upgraded.
In the middle of repeating his mantra, “Keith don’t worry about getting A’s at Purdue, C’s are just fine. Just get some college knowledge along with the sheepskin and come back to the machine shop.” He suddenly broke off and said, “Do you know the sure-fire way to always get out of a bind when you feel trapped?”
I said, “Dad, what are you talking about?” He perked up, “You know, like you’re a boxer and you get cornered in the ring and you can’t get out.” (He always used boxing metaphors since he boxed in the army.) I said, “Yeah, like when you get in trouble and you get that burning sensation in your gut, and it feels like there’s no escape?”
“Yeah, that’s it,” he said, with his big eyes getting even bigger. “That’s exactly it. And you just want to curl up into a ball like when you were a baby.” As he said it, he took on a thoughtful expression, like he was remembering an experience of being cornered himself.
“It’s called a pre-dic-a-ment,” he said, with a staccato tone, like he had just invented the word. “Yeah, I definitely know what you’re talking about now,” I said, nodding my head. Then he said, “Well, do you know how to get out of being trapped every time? Do ya?”
I had no idea what the secret was, but I could definitely imagine needing to use it. By now I was on the edge of my seat, a young Skywalker, looking for wisdom from Yoda. “Tell me, Pa.”
He leaned toward me, and cautiously looked both ways as if trying to make sure no one else heard the secret, and he quietly said, “Ok. Here’s what it is. Mock yourself out… Just mock yourself out. It works every time. Let people see you laugh at yourself.” And he burst into a fit of laughter. (He would always call himself, “his own best audience,” and then have a good laugh.)
Then he exclaimed, “The best defense is a good offense.” (As the former captain of his high school football team, he loved football analogies too.) He finished off the last of his Purdue Boilermaker, and said, “Let’s go to bed. It’s almost morning and we’ll soon be burning daylight.”
As we walked up the stairs, he put his arm around me and said, “Remember, only mock yourselfout. Not other people. You can hurt someone’s feelings doing that.” Then he turned to me at the top of the stairs, gave one of his patented quick winks and said, “Besides, that’s not funny.”
I loved my dad so much. Everybody did. His quick humor and eagerness to engage with people lit up every room he entered. And he was my first, best, mentor. I learned so many important things from him. About courage. About honesty. About connecting with others — no matter who they are. About using humor to encourage, or inspire, or disarm. And how important it is to put others first — family, friends… and customers.
When he encouraged me to “mock yourself out,” as a way to get out of tight situations, he didn’t use this language, but he was telling me the importance of a self-deprecating sense of humor. This advice has come in handy more often than you might think, to defuse a tense situation or to put others at ease if they’re feeling a little intimidated.
But the thing that means the most to me about this story is remembering how his eyes lit up when he was giving some advice that he thought would help me. He was always like that. He never ran a multinational corporation, but he was one of the best leaders I ever knew, and the world’s best dad too.
One of his other favorite sayings was, “You never know how good a father you are till you see your children’s children.” My dad is gone now, but I see him in my own kids’ faces and actions. Every time I catch a glimpse of him, I smile, shake my head, and think to myself, “Great job, Dad.”
Watch Keith doing a hysterical impression of Papa Krach talking about his drink of choice: Purdue Boilermakers