Webb: Words of wisdom for my son on his first job

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rory dad

Life and work lessons from my father in 2013 during one of his biggest shows, where Rory found time to have fun while helping my dad run his booth in St. Charles, Missouri. Dad actually paid him, too. He did not pay his son. Work ethic runs in the family. I often envy my father for running his own business for 40 years.

A year into a job search, my son was frustrated. At one point after a promising interview didn’t result in work, he was exasperated: “Am I ever going to get a job?”

For those who don’t know Rory, he is autistic. Many things are a struggle. He thinks differently than most of us do, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable. In fact, he has an admirable work ethic and gets more done around the house than any of us.

After graduating high school in 2014, Rory worked for his grandfather for several months, helping him remodel the in-laws’ home, among many other tasks. When he came home a year ago, he was eager to begin a career in Kansas City.

We did the best we could to help. My wife and mother-in-law took him job-hunting. He did exhaustive searches online. He even had a job coach. Nothing panned out.

Finally, more than a year into looking, a friend of the wife tipped us off on a gig that looked like a perfect fit at Waldo Pizza. On the night before the interview, Rory and I went over questions, and I ironed a pair of pants and shirt so he’d look the part. I’ve never enjoyed ironing clothes until that moment.

A few days after the interview, Rory told us that he had an email from the manager at Waldo. My wife opened it to discover that he was on the work schedule! He started on Monday and has thoroughly enjoyed his first two days of work. Most importantly, he’s proud and happy. That’s all you can ask for as a parent.

When he graduated, I wrote a blog to Rory offering him advice on being a man. Now that he’s secured a job, who better to offer advice about work than somebody who worked at six newspapers in 10 years and has had nine jobs in 17? (To be fair, most of those jobs were promotions, and I’ve never been fired or laid off).

Work hard: This will be easy for you. You already do it. Remember that you will never be successful without hard work.

Don’t work too hard: This is an easy mistake to make. There are times I look back on my career, especially in newspapers, and realize I did not take time to enjoy life. Work isn’t everything.

Learn as much as you can: This probably won’t be your last job. Take in as much as you can to prepare you for your next job. Ask a lot of questions. There is no such thing as a dumb question.

Know that you can’t please everybody: Regardless of how hard you try, someone is going to be unhappy. Don’t take it personally. Be courteous, kind and respectful. Remember that your job is to serve your customers.

The customer usually is right: At some point, your patience will be tested. Keep your cool, smile and say “thank you.”

Always say “thank you”: “Thank you” is the most important phrase in any workplace, not only to customers, but also co-workers.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: This will not be easy. You’re going to find that little things will gnaw at you, but don’t let them consume you. Focus on the positive.

Don’t be the suck-up: Every workplace has at least one. Be respectful, but don’t compromise your integrity. Rely on your work ethic and performance. That should always be good enough.

Build your network: More now than ever, it’s who you know. Build relationships with your co-workers. Those connections will lead to another job someday.

Don’t be afraid to speak your mind: Honesty in the workplace isn’t guaranteed, but you can control your truth. Speak up if you have something to say. Be courteous and thoughtful in your delivery, and you’ll be respected for it.

Don’t worry too much about money: Said best by a journalist, right? Money is great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not everything. Do not keep a job that you’re miserable in just for the money. Take less money if you’re going to be happy. That said, don’t take a job that leads to living in a van down by the river.

One last thing: I am proud of you, son.

 

 

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Webb: A step in fatherhood

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dad and ern

With my dad before my wedding in 2013. Ironically, I’m teaching him a Windsor knot for a necktie. 

“You know, you’re not our dad.”

Those words came at the end of a conversation during a family gathering. I was disciplining two of kids, trying to pass on what I’d learned from my father. Those words cut like a knife.

I calmly left a room full of family members, walked upstairs, tears welling in my eyes, and cried for the first time in years.

Perhaps it was the realization that I was never going to be their dad in the sense I wanted to be. Perhaps it hit me that I was never going to be a biological father. Either way, it hurt. Immensely.

Ever the kind, loving soul, my wife knew immediately how much it hurt. “Please give it time. They do love you. Kids say things like this sometimes,” she said.

I knew that. I said some pretty awful things to my parents when I was their age. Still, it hurt.

For years, I dreamed of being a dad. I grew up with an amazing father, and I desperately wanted to pass on all the things I’ve learned, and continue to learn, from him.

As the years passed, I began to wonder if it was going to happen. When my wife and I began dating, I knew the chances of having a baby were slim. We talked about it. I’ll never forget my future wife crying because she didn’t want me to feel like something was missing.

Unbeknownst to just about everybody, we did talk about having a baby together. It was during those conversations that I realized how much my wife cared about me. Even though she wasn’t exactly thrilled about going through another pregnancy, she said we could try if I really wanted to have one.

ernie koen

The latest perk: A beautiful granddaughter.

I thought about it briefly. I’d probably have to pass on graduate school. Writing those books wasn’t going to happen for a long time, if ever. My workout routine was likely history. My mother-in-law might kill me. Literally. Most importantly, this could be a health risk for my wife. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I decided to try to be the best stepfather I could.

Being a stepdad when the biological dad is in the picture is tricky, regardless of his performance in that role. He is always going to be their dad. I’m always going to be their stepdad.

But I’ve never approached that responsibility like I’m a pinch-hitter. I don’t think that’s fair to them. Kids need love, kindness, understanding, stability, wisdom and much more. Somebody has to provide those things.

For a few weeks after the first words written in this blog, I backed off quite a bit. Basically, I pouted. I was annoyed. I felt unappreciated. I felt like a dad!

I realized, of course, that that was wrong. My father never would have acted like that. Within a few weeks, some wonderful things happened. I took one of my sons to lunch and consoled him for hours the day after a girl broke his heart for the first time. My daughter and I spent an evening playing basketball. I bought her a brand new ball for her birthday, and she wanted to learn how to shoot. I taught my other son how to tie a bow tie for his prom.

There have been so many other awesome moments. Teaching the boys how to shave and drive. Delivering a corsage to the daughter before her first big dance. Holding my first grandchild a few weeks ago.

Shortly after our son broke the news to us that he was going to be a father, he and I drove around Overland Park running errands. I had a heart-felt conversation with him about being a dad. How he had examples how to treat his child, and how not to treat his child.

I told him that even though I wasn’t his dad, I’d tried to pass on all the things my dad has taught me through the years. When I was finished, he said, “Ernie, you’ve been more of a dad to me than my real dad.”

I cried later that evening. Tears of joy.

 

How to treat a lady, take five: Her kids

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The girlfriend's daughter and two sons at Nathan Sawaya's LEGOs exhibit.

Dating a girl with kids. Going to be honest here. It’s not something I’d thought about before the girlfriend and I started hanging out. Not that I was opposed to it. I’d just never considered it.

What I do know is the fact that she had kids sure as hell wasn’t going to prevent me from dating her. All you have to do is look at her for the explanation.

The girlfriend and I at Winefest.

In all seriousness, I love kids. I was fortunate enough to live with my brother’s kids for a couple of years after moving back from Texas in 2003. It’s proven to be one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life.

Changing diapers, feeding babies, crisis management, reverse psychology. You name it, I’ve taken a course in it thanks to those two years.

My niece and nephews climbing all over their uncle.

Nonetheless, I wondered how tricky dating somebody with kids was going to be. Let’s be honest, if they hate you, it’s a deal-breaker. All there is to it. But if they like you, even love you, that’s pretty damn special.

I didn’t meet the girlfriend’s kids – she has two boys and a girl – until nearly two months into the relationship. If you asked her, that was a lot earlier than she expected. I figured it’d be several months.

But she’s smart … and honest. The kids asked her about the guy she was dating, so she shared. And she built me up. By the time I met her kids, she had them convinced I was Superman (only on weekends).

Yes, I have an obnoxious tat.

Despite displaying my cooking skills with a feast of pancakes, bacon and eggs at our first meeting, the four of us didn’t hit it off right away. Understandable. Seven months later, it really can’t be going much better. A few of the reasons why …

KINDNESS …

It pays to be nice. I’ve taken the oldest son to work with me for a day, the younger son to an art exhibit and the daughter to Dave & Busters. None of that stuff is very expensive, but it’s been obvious the kids appreciate going out and having fun with their new live-in.

The boys and I before tailgating.

HONESTY …

But not necessarily direct. I’m not their dad. I know that. But I also know that they know that. They respect that approach. I’m not taking over, simply adding to their lives.

RESPECT …

This took a little time, at least for one of the three. Of course, this child could test the patience of Job. Being firm when you need to is important. It probably helped that I had to unleash the “look” at one point. It’s been gravy since!

CONTRIBUTE …

I think this is a mistake a lot of guys make. It’s OK to try. Kids appreciate genuine effort to be a part of their lives. I’ll help one clean up their room, show another what I do at work, then take the other to work out.

Just finished a 5K. Maybe I'll train one of the kids to run one next.

BE A GOOD MAN …

I’ve said this many times … kids are not stupid. They see things most people do not. What they see better than most is bullshit. If you’re a turd, they know it. Being a decent person goes a long way.

LAST, BUT NOT LEAST …

Treat their mother like gold. “The best way a man can make his children feel secure is to show them how much he loves their mother.” It’s true. Click here, here, here and here for more on how to treat their mother like gold.