The first thing I noticed about John Vrba was his bright green sport coat and multi-colored tie. His grooming was impeccable. His eyes were clear and full of life. His skin was somewhat wrinkled at age 92, and yes, there were some age spots, but his face did not sag. Mostly, he tended to smile. He usually had a funny little story to tell, and often the stories were true, based on some encounter he may have had either that morning, or 40 or 50 years ago.
I had asked John to stop by my law office to be interviewed. I am an employment lawyer. My occupation and my interests in writing often overlap. I sometimes say I write for a living, because most of the power of my communication is in what I write. But my writing include marketing pieces as well, and when I first met John at a LeTip networking meeting several weeks ago, I knew he was a story waiting to be told. I also knew I could not capture more than a sliver of the narrative, but I wanted to get his views on how the workplace had changed over the years, what made for a great employer, and what made for a great employee. I also wanted to know if he encountered ageism, and how he dealt with it.
We met for about 1 ½ hours on a Friday afternoon. I knew early on that when you examine a long human life, you will find some interesting twists and turns that make you wonder if fiction can ever match fact. For example, I learned in casual conversation, with something of a sly grin from John, that his current wife was the daughter of his first wife’s sister. He recounted that he first met his second “three year old wife to be” at the wedding reception for his first wife. His wife’s niece was named Connie. John’s first wife died many years later. John again met Connie after her father’s funeral, at her mother’s place, when John went to express his condolences. During that meeting, Connie, 19 years his junior, asked him to escort her to an upcoming Christmas party. (Yes, John has always been younger than his biological years). They have been married since, and the irony is that John has been in generally good health, while Connie has been struggling with serious problems.
But my goal was not to focus on the past, but to understand the present. How is it that this vibrant man could actively continue working at age 93, and continue to add value such that he somehow got past all the age barriers that stopped other workers? Is ageism real in our work culture, and why does it seem to afflict some more than others? I had only a short time, and I scanned which of my listed questions would likely be most revealing.
John’s industry is the media advertizing sector. Specifically, he has built his career in the field of radio and T.V. media sales. His company’s prospects are Ad Agencies who need media planning and buying assistance.
So I hit John with the tough question first: How has his industry capitalized on the social media phenomena of the last 7 years or so? John’s eyes lit up. “This is big,” he said. “Social media allows for the targeting of regional and local advertizing. We can place an ad now that is specific to predefined criteria that our customer [the ad agency] wants to hit. The “ads” we now generate and help place are the sidebar and banner ads on Facebook, Twitter, or Google searches.” I stopped right there, and I looked more deeply at this 93 year old man who was energized in conversation. “John,” I said, “I realize as you are talking to me that you could just as well be a 23 year old man. This body of yours, at 93, is just a vehicle you’re using.” John smiled. He obviously liked the compliment.
The elephant I wanted to bring into the room was ageism. I didn’t spare John. “Tell me,” I asked him, “How do you go up against the young turks, that is, how do you run with the competition?” John answered with a story. “I used to brand myself as the “Patriarch of the Ad Industry” but this morning a creative friend and I came up with a new moniker: “Test Patterns to Tweets.” He smiled. “Do you tweet?” I asked him. John was now patient with me. “Of course. Just this morning I created a tweet that was for short guys like me. I entitled it, ‘Bring Back the Elevator Shoes.’ I bemoaned how women are wearing shoes that make them taller and taller. We short guys need help.”
In my own work, I explained to John, I see hundreds of employees each year. I hear so many stories of bad employment relationships, often the result of dysfunctional bosses, but just as often, the result of employees who skirt responsibility as well. I wanted the “view from the mountain.” I knew that John in his career had managed people. “John,” I asked, what distinguishes the ‘OK’ or ‘average’ employee from the great employee?” For John, the great employee had the ability to think deeply, to find creative options, and who had a positive “can do” attitude, with lots of energy. I realized I was looking at a “great employee” who just happened to be 93.
I shifted the question. “John, what in your opinion distinguishes an ‘OK’ or ‘average’ boss from a great boss? He thought awhile about this one, and it became apparent that he was thinking of his current boss, Dennis Holt. John didn’t pull any punches. “What employer would look past my age, and give a 93 year old a chance to prove he could still add value to the company?” he asked. “Dennis Holt is that kind of guy.” I searched for adjectives. “OK,” he added: “personal, empathetic, smart, and driven.” He recalled the “bad boss” environment of a job he held many years earlier in a Midwestern city. His boss there was tyrannical. He ordered John one day to take him to a private party at which only John had been invited. While there, the boss drank too much, and began harassing one of the women. Embarrassed, John managed to convince his boss to leave, but was required to take him to a bar, where his boss told him: “John, your job tonight is to get me laid.” That was enough for John. Within two weeks, he had left the company and re-settled in Southern California.
That little story led the “employment lawyer” in me to ask for John’s view about whether sexual harassment had abated or increased, or remained about the same, in the workplace. Again, the answer came with a story. He remembered an employment of years ago when long drinking lunches were common. “We don’t do that kind of thing today.” But he noted that in those days, bosses would often get frisky with the female staff over lunch, and carry that behavior back to work. “Things have definitely gotten much better,” he noted. I wasn’t satisfied with this answer however, because in my law practice I had noted a trend that mystified me for a while. The older men seemed to be behaving better while the younger men were getting more out of control.
Again, I didn’t hold back, because I realized the man across the table was fully in touch with current realities. “John, we all know that internet pornography is pervasive and easily accessible. We know that a generation of young men has formed its ideas of women and sexuality based on that exposure.” John nodded his understanding. “Do you think the harassment has really abated over the years?” John stuck to his guns. “Men now are learning where they can and cannot act out,” he said. “A lot of that harassing behavior is happening outside the work place.”
John noted the time. He had an appointment, but graciously offered to meet again. You’ve given me a lot to work with, I told him. I rued the lack of time or skill to capture much more of this energetic man’s life and wisdom. “Have you considered employing a ghost writer to write your memoires?” I asked. Ironically, he had just spoken to a writer that morning about the possibility. Apparently, our appointment had led him to think about leaving something useful behind.
I returned to my desk, to resume my usual lawyering. I looked up at my original war photo of Abraham Lincoln, a picture of the President in his 50s, with deep lines and tired, almost sad, dreamy eyes. Yet, I was amazed to see not a touch of gray in his hair or beard. Looking at Lincoln, and thinking of John, I wondered: What is the value of a life, what is the content of a story that makes the story worth telling, or a life worth living? One answer I derived from meeting John was not from the answers he gave, but from the attitude he brought to the process itself, the same attitude he brought to life: he was curious and engaged. He was creative, and alive with stories and opinions, ideas, and observations. Just the way he dressed communicated a statement of “Here I am world.” But that would not be enough. The thing that was most clear in my meeting with John was something of that same quality I saw in the Lincoln photograph: decency and character.