Opportunity doesn’t always knock once. Sometimes, it just hangs out on your porch, or comes back from time to time like a persistent religious zealot. The question is: will you ignore it, or hear it out? Perhaps the following will change your perceptions, whatever they may be. I certainly hope that it will, and for the better:
Kitty-corner to our house on Pauline Avenue, on the Northeast side, was the dual-column fronted home of the Tudors. Of all the architectural variety found on our street, theirs was the only home to feature this sort of unique façade. Coupled with the Evergreen and Ivory paint scheme it sort of looked like a miniature temple to The Forest City.
The Tudors were only briefly known to me. They had been in the neighborhood for some time and most of the information that I received about them came second-hand from my Mother, and my some-times babysitter, Annette Zeigle (for those of you who have been following along, she was Zeigle child #8). The Tudors reputation was pristine – almost wistfully legendary – within the neighborhood hierarchy. The younger Zeigle children adored them, and it was rumored that Mr. Tudor often made amazing things from wood – including whistles for the neighborhood children. Unfortunately, about the time I began to get my neighborhood bearings they passed on, and the house went up for sale.
Then, my life changed forever.
A couple from Milton, Wisconsin moved in, along with their newborn son. It was my father who first became friends with the family, and introduced them as Dave & Diane Klingenmeyer and their son, Paul. I’m not sure of the specifics but, somehow, my Dad had some sort of hand in assisting Dave in finding employment at what was then Warner-Lambert, on Forest Hills, where he himself worked until he recently retired.
Dave was the first bona-fide workaholic that I had ever met. His wife, likewise, would come home from working all day at the bank, and spend hours beautifying their yard into a garden paradise (seriously – it was astounding) – all while raising a family. As Paul grew, I was asked to Babysit. This was my first real job, at the age of 12. By this time, his little brother (and only sibling) Ryan had been born. I can still recall changing his diapers, and it’s fun, now, to tease a Navy Diver (and former SEAL candidate), about that in front of his wife, and children of his own, in present time. He grew up, like his brother, to be a superb man.
To make ends meet, Dave set up a woodworking business in his basement. Never one to think too hard about names, he simply called it, “Dave’s Custom Woodworking”. Against my Mother’s better judgment, I was allowed to accept his invitation to do woodworking during the summer, after school, and on the weekends, for as many hours as I cared to offer so long as it didn’t interfere with my school work – at a whole $2.00 per hour. I was going to be rich at twelve!
I started out with the simple stuff: sanding, sanding, and more sanding. Yet, even sanding, one soon finds that there is a method to the madness of even this seemingly simple task. Dave was a perfectionist, and he took the time to show me how he wanted it done (i.e. – the right way). I was a fast learner. Of all of the gifts God has granted me in my later years, my strongest gift in those formative ones were my mind, and my wit. My health and other things… not so much. I was a very, very sickly child.
As Dave began to see my potential, due in no small part to his sound mentoring, he moved me on to new facets of the business. At thirteen, I was adept with a Router, Drill Press, and Barrel Sander. By fourteen, I could plane lumber with a micrometer, hundreds of feet at a time, knowing how to manipulate the machine’s custom-made, solid carbide blades to maximize efficiency and finish in differing woods. I also learned how to finish wood with an oil and Danish Wax process. I didn’t realize it, but I was learning something else as well: work ethic, time management, and motion management skills. Dave was a great teacher. I also learned more about classic rock than I probably needed to, and was a huge fan of Pink Floyd and R.E.O. Speedwagon by the age of thirteen – all compliments of Dave. It was Dave, in fact, who in 1988 surprised me with a ticket to go and see R.E.O. Speedwagon with he and his wife at what was then still the Metro Centre. It was my first concert ever, and it was something magical and new. It was one of the most thoughtful things that anyone had ever done for me.
As I grew older, and my parents finally divorced, Dave allowed me to carry more of the business burden. And, those $2.00 per hour days were long gone – I was making a respectable wage long before I was sixteen. In the summer of ’89, I was permitted to assist him with setting up local shows. Sometimes, he would staff one in the Rockton/Roscoe area, while I would do likewise at another in Rockford. I still remember one in Beattie Park that I did – my first alone. A number of people (including local television personality, Mimi Murphy) asked me where my parents were, as they had questions or wanted to buy things. I explained that I was it, and managed to win them over with my knowledge of the woods used, construction methods, finishes, and care of the pieces. I – well, Dave – made more money that day than I had ever seen – or touched – in my entire life.
At sixteen, I began seeking employment elsewhere, as I was now ‘legal’ to do so. Still, I kept all open hours free to continue to work for Dave. I worked a lot, back then, when I was young and had the energy for 80-90 hour weeks.
Eventually, Dave and Diane bought a place in Shirland, Illinois. That is to say, they bought a piece of property that was one big tree and bramble orgy after mentally envisioning its potential. I spent a good portion of the next few months helping to clear land (grueling work) and, eventually, assisted in the home’s construction. Here again I was offered mentoring and an opportunity to learn even more about something that I may otherwise know nothing about. I was a ready and willing sponge, who understood these opportunities for what they were.
The home was a panel-modular affair, the likes of which I had never seen before. One day, while placing the top lintel strap over a set of panels that formed the garage walls, Dave got tired of being on a ladder and decided that the most expedient way to get things done was to walk along the top of the wall, bent over, with a pneumatic nail gun. I looked on from below, my inherent fear of heights driving me to say something patently obvious about being careful, before going back about my business wiring an outlet. Above me, I continued to hear the cadenced pop of the nail gun, followed by the shuffling of boots as Dave moved on to the next spot to be nailed. Then I heard a thud. Dave had fallen, after all. We all got a chuckle out of it, once we knew he was all right. But that wasn’t the best of it.
A few days later, we were putting the finishing touches on the wiring of his garage/workshop area. The roof was now on, though not shingled, and I was in the attic portion near the access hatch, pulling Romex. Dave was below, fussing with the electrical panel, when he said, offhandedly, “I wonder if I turned this off or not.”
Knowing him as well as I had come to by then, I immediately stopped, and stuck my head down, “I hope you’re not serious. You need to make sure.”
“No,” he said, “I’m pretty sure it’s off.”
I stuck my head back up and, moments later, heard a loud ‘POP!’ I panicked: was Dave all right? I stuck my head down once more and there, on the electrical panel, was welded the screw driver he had been using. Now, for those of you who know Dave, you know that his hair is beyond wily. Suffice it to say, it was now wilier, and the dazed look confirmed that he’d taken a decent jolt. He recovered in moments, but was frustrated. My only response was, “The electrical inspector is coming tomorrow, and you’re going to have a hard time explaining the burn marks and screwdriver welded to it. There’s no way you can hide a screwdriver welded to it.” I love that story.
Shortly after his home’s completion, Dave bought an investment property on Cadet Lane in Loves Park. Once more, he offered to include me in the ground-up renovation prior to rental. I eagerly accepted and spent a summer learning even more new skills. Skills that would later come into play in my own homes, the homes of my family, and ultimately assist myself and Dave’s, by then, multi-talented son Paul, in later flipping a house on our own in 2006.
After that large project on Cadet, I would only see Dave now and again – usually when he had a big woodworking project for his former employer, Warner-Lambert. At one time, before they switched to plastic, we used to mass-produce hundreds of wooden trays used in transporting and storing gum billets, before it was molded into its final shape.
I went through a series of jobs (the variety on my resume is insane) and, by then, I was self-teaching to a great depth with regard to computer hardware, software, and operating systems. One afternoon, I received a call from Dave asking if I would care to come and help put his finances for his woodworking business in order on the computer, and I agreed. For all of Dave’s genius, computers are not his friends. Eagerly, I went and did so, setting up programs to track everything that he needed. At this point, he was working for Anderson Packaging, but had purchased a single Bridgeport Series I Knee Mill and a Romi/Bridgeport Engine lathe, which he housed in his garage. Given the fact that his home had been designed and built with an attached, full-service woodworking shop, the ‘garage’ was really more of a massive workshop attached to his home, with garage doors.
Over the ensuing months, I continued to perform computer tasks for him, as well as drafting custom projects for woodworking clients in isometric drawings, as well as two-dimensional print schematics. This was about the time he hired his first, full-time employee for the metalworking business. He had seen the writing on the wall and, being a Certified Journeyman Metalworker (and a workaholic, and a genius, and good at everything he touched) he saw a potential for money to be made.
I had paid enough attention during all those years working beside him to know that Dave was a genius at creating wealth. Shortly thereafter, I became employee number two. At the time, I took the entry-level position because I had left my job as a Senior Insurance Claims Adjudicator & Adjuster with Pioneer the prior spring, and had moved to Tucson, Arizona. I had moved back shortly thereafter (it wasn’t for me), and then spent the summer playing volleyball. My Mom was insanely upset, but it was the best summer of my life. So: I needed a job, and I was fortunate to have availed myself of every experience available to me with regard to wood and metalworking, drafting, and drawing in both middle school and, high school: Architectural Drawing, Isometric Drawing & Drafting, Electrical Drawing, Technical Drawing, Blueprinting, EasyCAD, AutoCAD, and on and on. I had – quite literally – taken all the courses available on or around these subjects. I was also fortunate that, as a Sophomore at Boylan Central Catholic High School, I was permitted to be the only non-Junior/Senior in the first year of the Ingersoll Manufacturing program. My unique experiences in junior high school, coupled with my experiences in Freshman year, had convinced the administrator of the program that I would be a suitable candidate. To my knowledge, I was the youngest person to learn – and use – AutoCAD in a paid capacity in the Rockford Area, when I secured an after-school job for a division of Stenstrom Construction, called E-Tech, plotting overhead maps of underground storage tank positions. Once more, I saw a fantastic opportunity, and dove in to learn as much as I could.
Back to Dave’s metalworking company: I started out deburring finished components, as well as doing the financial wrap ups. By the time Dave came on full-time (he was full-time employee number three, technically), I was learning more and more of the business. Over the next year, I learned about metals, their properties, blueprint reading and interpretation (i.e. – SAE, ANSI, & ISO specifications, and the beginnings of what would come to be, years later, notes in some thirty different languages, as well as archaic designations requiring modern equivalents), sawing, flat grinding, parts preparation, and a myriad other things. All of this occurring as I watched the business slowly grow and prosper.
By 1998, I was handling all of the purchasing, financials (including taxes), sawing, flat grinding, delivery and pick-ups, parts prep, and other things. I was juggling but that juggling allowed Dave more flexibility to grow the business. In late 1998, we built our current location at 667 Progressive Lane, in the then budding South Beloit Industrial Park.
Soon thereafter, I was given the title Operations Manager. Now, that short-term job, has become my career. Dave is out more than he’s in, and I am blessed to oversee and run a top-notch, $3M operation employing 33 stateline residents. I have learned more about my passion than, I believe, anyone in a college setting ever could. Which is probably for the best, because I made a concerted decision to drop out of college, once I saw where this business was headed, and that I would be permitted a large role within it. I saw in Dave the potential to make anything happen, and learned from him so many things that it would take me paragraphs to list them all.
And Dave? He’s now the successful owner of seven resort properties in the Phelps, Wisconsin area, as well as Sugar River Machine, Inc. (I told you he was lousy with creativity with regard to names), where I spend my working hours.
All of this because of three key factors:
1.) One man, and his new family, decided to move to the Rockford area, seeking opportunity and a better life for themselves and their budding family, ending up on on my street.
2.) I was provided the opportunity to receive a scholarship to be educated at one of the finest High Schools in the country – right in Rockford, Illinois, by individuals who donated their hard-earned money in an effort to make a difference in their community through education.
3. ) I was accepted to participate in a program sponsored by the Rockford manufacturing legacy known as Ingersoll. A company with the foresight to understand the importance of keeping manufacturing thriving in an area that was built on it, by providing specialized education to the next generation of the workforce in an effort to assist both parties in bettering themselves – and their station in life.
It’s amazing how these things happen, really: all of these seemingly disjointed events that, somehow, coalesce into a point-by-point journey known as a human life. The key is to recognize these seemingly random opportunities and, then, make the most of your strengths while doing so. Because of the kindness and generosity of all of these individuals and businesses who took the time to teach, mentor, and believe in not only my abilities, but the abilities of the youth of the Rockford area in general, I will now be able to retire comfortably at a reasonable age, and am blessed to have a job that I love – and am adept at – to greet me each morning.
Look around you – look hard. There’s an opportunity there, somewhere. Rockford is still full of them – anyone who says otherwise isn’t looking hard enough.
On the opposing side of the coin, you can always seek a way that fits your abilities and schedule to make a difference in your community by effecting the lives of those around yourself; providing those opportunities that you are able. No matter how inconsequential they may seem, trust me: they’re not. Especially so when it comes to the area’s young people. Mentoring, teaching, interning, and mentally nurturing the next generation of citizens will not only make you feel good, it will provide exponential opportunity for your community to be just that much better for generations to come. And who doesn’t want that?