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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The man who changed my life

Today's post is radically different from the spiritual journey chronicled in previous posts. Today's post is about the man who radically changed my life.

I was not exactly a high-flier in high school. A straight-A student through elementary and most of middle school, things started sliding in high school. Quitting band after making regional honor band my freshman year began the slide. "Extra curricular" activities of the really extra variety became much more important than academic achievement. But by my junior year, I began thinking about life after high school and started to make an effort again.

One afternoon in FFA "shop" (Future Farmers of America...I attended a really small high school in rural Texas), I spoke to my teacher, Ira B. Franklin, about pursuing a welding career after high school. I enjoyed welding in shop class and thought it would be a worthy pursuit.

Before I continue, I need to describe Ira B. "Chief" Franklin. Chief was a short but really heavy, stout black man with a voice probably two full octaves lower than that of James Earl Jones. Legend had it that a soon-to-be-steer got loose during the procedure and made a run at Chief. While the high school boys screamed like girls and hit the fence, Chief stood his ground, landing a forearm across the young bull's forehead, dropping him instantly, allowing the procedure to continue; Point being, Chief was a man's man and commanded respect from his minions.

Back to my story. I asked Chief one day, "What do I need to do to become a welder?" Chief had always been kind and respectful to me, despite my losing ways, and it soon became apparent why. Chief's smile quickly morphed into a grimace as he shouted "PAIGE! INTO MY OFFICE!" The rest of the class cowered as my jaw hit the floor, my face blanched white as a sheet, and I turned to follow him as ordered. I'm pretty sure I could have used a spare set of underwear as well.

I walked into his office and he closed the door behind me. "Paige, you gotta get thoughts like that out of your head. There's nothing wrong with being a's a noble profession, but you need to leave crafts like that to ****** and the like. You could be anything you want to be in this engineer, a banker, and executive...ANYTHING! DON'T SETTLE FOR THAT! GET YOUR ASS IN COLLEGE!"

Even as I write his words, I wish there were a way for me to re-phrase them into a more politically acceptable way - in the manner in which he meant them. Chief would never, ever, disrespect any hard-working man's craft. But he saw something in me that neither I, my parents, nor anyone else saw - academic and professional potential. That conversation (or more accurately, monologue) would be pivotal in my life, but not immediately.

Months later, just after beginning my senior year in high school, my mother would commit suicide. The next couple of years were a blur. Somehow I managed to finish high school, despite being kicked out of the house by my step father and "couch surfing" with a friend's family. Because of the Reagan budget cutbacks, in order to keep "Survivor Social Security Education Benefits" which were being fazed-out, I would need to be enrolled as a full-time college student by 12/81...yep, midway through my senior year in high school. So I worked a full high school schedule, 12-hours of night school at college, and worked a job to feed myself, while still grieving the loss of my mother and living on the edge of homelessness.

After graduating high school, my father (not my step father) allowed me to move in with him and his family for the summer to allow me to "earn as much money as I could for college" before the clock ran out and I had to move on.

I made a feeble attempt at continuing college, but was failing miserably. I wasn't ready. My father suggested that I might not be college material and perhaps I should consider dropping out of college to "learn a, whatever."

But Chief's words came screaming back to me. Despite my condition and failure, somehow I believed what Chief did about my potential; that seed wouldn't die.

I decided that academics would need to wait until I was ready and I entered the U.S. Navy to get it together, serving four years as a Search and Rescue Swimmer and Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Operator in helicopters; I had the time of my life and was given a fresh start.

After leaving the Navy, I earned an Bachelor of Science degree in Business from The University of Texas at Dallas (with honors. Again, working full time, taking a full course load at night), then a Master of Business Administration from Southern Methodist University.

As much as I would like to take credit for "boot-strapping" it, I shudder to think where I would be had it not been for the seeds that Ira B. Franklin planted in me that day - and he meant it. I'm ashamed to say that I've never sought him out to thank him for the faith he had in me when no one else did. I owe him my life.

To my beloved Chief: Thank you and may God bless you. I know I'm not the only one you touched with your life.