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What Works Things to Do - Learn from LaRue

October 26, 2001
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One windy winter day, I looked out a side window and saw my neighbor teetering on his roof. He was using a long shovel to chop away ice that had filled the gutter. This would've been fairly standard homeowner stuff -- except for the fact that my neighbor, LaRue Etling, was 96 years old at the time.

LaRue turns 102 in December. He was born in 1899, when William McKinley was president and people flocked to Alaska in search of gold. Imagine it: LaRue has lived in three centuries.

The first time I saw LaRue on a snow-covered roof, I had to force myself not to call 911. But the longer I lived next to him and the more I got to know him, the more I came to admire his work ethic and just-do-it approach to life. Long before some management guru coined the term "empowerment," LaRue Etling was out there seizing each day, the risks be damned.

It is said that age brings wisdom. This is certainly the case with LaRue, but his is a humble, homespun wisdom, the kind you might expect from someone who was born in rural Glenmont, Ohio, and traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike back when it was dirt.

During the years when we were next-door neighbors, I tried to catch snippets of his wisdom whenever I could. One time I went for broke and asked, "LaRue, what's your secret to a long life?" "Tom," he said, "I always have a to-do list." As he said this he was walking toward his back door, and he never broke stride. Something on the list had to get done.

LaRue has a long history of getting things done. In his first job, he labored as a mechanic's assistant in a repair shop for steam locomotives. When his father suddenly died three days before LaRue's high-school graduation, he went to work as a clerk in a small grocery store to support his mother and two younger siblings. Later he worked for Kraft and Pillsbury as a salesman and account manager. Pillsbury wanted him to stay beyond retirement age, which he did for two years. Then he went to work for a food broker.

Through all of this, his height and weight have held fast: 5 feet 4 inches, 103 pounds. He still gobbles up sweets and pours down coffee, and he walks with the swift gait of someone who's determined and highly caffeinated. If he knows your first name, he'll always use it. He talks with the clear, steady tone of someone who has something important to say. And hearing him recount his experiences, you get the sense that this person loved and still loves the whole notion of work and accomplishment.

You also pick up some remarkable lessons. Here are a few of them, in LaRue's own words.

On finding the silver lining:
"In 1916, when I was a clerk at a grocery store, customers would come up to a big counter and we'd get the items they wanted. When a crabby customer showed up, all the clerks would scatter, because they didn't want to deal with that person. The boss came to me and said, 'Your first responsibility is to wait on the customers who come in.' The other clerks heard and snickered -- they saw me as the goat. But you know what? That was the biggest favor that guy ever did for me. Whenever I had to wait on one of those nasty people, I had to find a way to deal with them, to keep them happy. That was a blessing, but I didn't know it at the time."

On influencing people:
"When I had a territory and was selling flour and cake mixes, I had one customer who was especially difficult. One time he mentioned that he was having the Amish people in that town build him a boat. So the next time I called on him, I didn't talk about my company or product. I had a boat, so I talked boat. 'So,' I said to the customer, 'how are they getting along with your boat? Where are you going to put your boat?' After a period of time, I told him what I had to sell and I asked him to buy it. And he bought it."

On learning and adapting:
"I got a call (from a sales manager) one Sunday night and was told to call on a group of stores the next day and sell a specific item. At the first store, I got zero sales. At the second store, I got zero sales. At the third store, again, I sold nothing. I pulled off to the side of the road. I wasn't very happy with where I was, I wasn't very happy with Etling, and I wasn't very happy with the assignment. So I asked myself, what was my sales pitch? What was the response from the customer? I analyzed what I was doing and saying and what the comeback was. I changed my approach. And you know what? I went the rest of the day without a miss. You have to figure out what you are doing and how you can do better."

Last year, LaRue's dear wife of 67 years passed away. That's when he traded in the icy Ohio winters for Atlanta, where he lives with his daughter and son-in-law.

Unchanged through it all is his work ethic. A steep hill leads from the house to a main road, and he takes it on with missionary zeal. "I walk up that thing and back every day," LaRue says. "I do it to keep up my strength."

The property covers several acres, and he works to keep it clear of sticks and fallen branches, just as he did when we were neighbors. Whenever he gets the chance, he heads to a grocery store to check out the latest products. And I suppose that when Atlanta gets its next freak ice storm, he'll be on the roof chopping ice out of the gutters.

I sure miss my neighbor. But it's great to know he still has a to-do list.

Workforce, October 2001, pp. 30-32 -- Subscribe Now!


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