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My Colleague Taught Me a Lesson in Selflessness

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

His gift to me was a lesson for his son

Photo Courtesy of Canva, Photo By ikostudio_



Jon drove up in a borrowed pick-up truck, battleship grey and muddy. Equipment rattled around the bed of the vehicle as it wheezed to a stop. His son Jeffrey, old-school navy-blue Angel’s hat slightly askew his thatch of light brown hair, sat next to him.

He pulled up to my house in Lake Forest dressed for work, manual work. Faded jeans, dark rumpled T-shirt, muddied white converse tennis shoes, baseball cap. He sported Saturday “work around the house” gardening gear.

Untethered to the bed of the truck, the equipment pitched precariously from side to side. The contents included an old school manual lawn mower, complete with an attached canvas material grass catcher, a gas-powered edger and green handled shears, courtesy of Home Depot. I did not know he was coming.

Jon and his son hopped out of the truck and immediately unloaded the equipment and got to work. My wife Esther called from the front of the house as she peered out the first-floor windows fronting the yard.

“Joseph, come here. Jon Dunn is here. I think he’s with his son, too. Do you remember his name?”

“Jeffrey,” I replied.

“Get Up! You need to say hi….” she implored me, knowing it would take a moment to unfreeze my joints and straighten my uncooperative back.

“Give me a minute…” I intoned from the living room, not far away.

I was woozy, laying on the couch half asleep, somewhat paying attention to my alma mater’s football game. I thought, why in the world would he be here, right now, on a Saturday no less? He must know I cannot move!


Five years before this moment, Jon and I had met at Charm school in our company’s home office, a facetious name given to a leadership program for emerging individuals across the company. At the time, I had liked him immediately. We first met at the group picture arranged at our hotel, the Edgewater, in Seattle.

I remember we talked about music and laughed about the photo of the Beatles extending fishing poles out of their room window, each of them silhouetted against the deep blue waters of Puget Sound. The photo adorned a section of the wood paneled lobby along with photographs of other musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Robert Plant.



We talked about music and the first albums we had ever owned as kids. I mentioned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band. He remembered the band Boston and their self-titled debut album. We talked about John Lennon’s single Imagine. Lennon had come along way since his days playing in a skiffle band, The Quarrymen, and getting into fights in Liverpool in the late ‘50s.

Jon was easy to talk to and self-deprecating, genuinely interested in your background. We talked about our experiences growing up in Southern California, both of us at the time away from our native land. He lived in Colorado, I lived in Indiana. There was no pretense in Jon.

Two years after that encounter, we met again when I returned to Southern California to head up Sales for the Southwest Region — a new position in a brand new discipline for me. He had moved back to California before me and would now report to me. But he knew far more about the job than did I. In fact, he saved my work life over the next two years more than a few times.  

We were charged with overhauling team skills, he helped with that. My boss planned to outline a brand-new segmentation strategy for the organization, he tackled that objective with aplomb. We planned to limit our partner’s compensation and he stopped us from enacting an ambitiously shortsighted plan.

Every step of the way, Jon displayed wisdom, grace and good humor no matter the request, challenge or miss step. As we started to round out as a leadership team and tackle some hefty challenges with skill and determination, he decided to move into a different position.

I did not see it coming, but he planned to post for a position to develop a different set of skills in underwriting. The move required some courage. I encouraged him to do it, knowing I would miss his expertise, leadership and character.

I truly believe Jon thought that he had taught me all he needed about the business. After he moved out of the position, I would see Jon from time to time, we worked in the same office building. In fact, we lived within a few miles of each other. I missed his leadership, good humor and character.


In September 2004 I traveled from Orange County to Atlanta for a team meeting. After the nearly five-hour flight, I raced to a golf course to meet my peers who were waiting for me. By the time I arrived, the group had reached the 17th hole of a course in Stone Mountain, GA. I did not know I was about to recreate a Homer Simpson moment. I wish I had kept my clubs in the bag!

I grabbed my driver, walked to the tip of the tee box, teed up my golf ball, took three practice swings, and completed the pre-shot routine by moving behind the ball for a moment and imaging the shot I wanted to hit. When I swung the club through the ball, my back seized up, my knees buckled, I swore, “Doh,” like Homer Simpson (at least in my mind I did) and started writhing in pain.


 

For the next six months, I could not straighten my spine. My life became a parade of doctors, specialists, MRI’s, epidural injections, chiropractors, physical therapists. I researched how to recover — studied yoga, stretching, breathing techniques, meditation, natural remedies and anti inflammatory diets. I wore a back brace. For months, when not working, I would lay flat on my back-praying for a quick way to get out of this purgatory.

One trip to the doctor found me getting three injections of morphine before it did the trick. Toradol, did nothing to numb the pain. I walked everywhere like a hunchback. A good friend of mine said I appeared as though I had aged forty years overnight. I walked haltingly, creaking, wheezing in pain everywhere I went.

It was during this time that Jon showed up in my front yard with his son Jeffrey ready to do my yard work. He knew I enjoyed mowing my lawn, mulching, planting flowers, trimming the hedges. We had a full round majestic Ficus tree in the middle of our front yard that I took great pains to fertilize and nurture.

We had planted iceberg white roses along the North slope of our home bordering the driveway. In the back, we planted hydrangeas in the shaded areas. Jon and I spoke about our passion for keeping our yards in good shape, like our fathers before us. My father exhibited a legendary green thumb.

My own yard benefited from all the usual attention, healthy, green and trim with assorted white, yellow and red roses blooming around the environs of the house. Now, the roses hung overgrown on the old wood, petals blown off, lingering along the walkway and drive. The grass, once a deep lush green, now existed as an unkempt and overgrown mass in need of fertilizer.

Jon found out about my predicament and arrived to help. Interestingly, he did not come to the front door of the house upon arrival. He and Jeffrey just started doing the work, silently, with focus. I ambled out of the front door at an epically slow pace, bent over at the waist, right arm akimbo, my hand slapped against the painful zone near L5S6 on my spine.

Jon immediately told me to sit down. I did.

“I’ll come to you. How are you?” He offered.

Ignoring the question, “What are you doing?” I said. “I really appreciate this, but…” I trailed off.

“I know I have to find a gardener. You don’t have to do this. Really.” I was looking for ways to deflect my self-consciousness. I felt a little ashamed, although that was inappropriate.

“Joe, you can’t do this. Go back inside. We got this. Seriously,” Jon said. “Go back inside. We are happy to do this. Really. We are happy to do this.” He repeated happy with an understated and determined emphasis.

Jon walked up to where I was seated on the step of the short porch, pulled the hat off his head, wiped his brow with the back of his wrist and looked at me with his light blue eyes, squinting just a little in the early afternoon sun. 

The sky seemed to rise and fall as clouds momentarily blocked the light and then passed on. The sun re-emerged even more brilliantly than before, suffusing the front yard in bright golden light. “When you need help, people are here for you.”

“I have to pay you.” I replied. “Really, you have to let me pay you. I know you don’t want me to.” “No, no,” he shook his head gently from side to side, waving me off, undeterred by my protest. “You are not going to pay us.”

“Let me do something for you. For your son.”

Esther from behind me, casting a shadow on the front door, holding two glasses of water, “Would you two like something to drink? Jeffrey?”

Jon called his son over and they both took the glasses and finished them quickly. Each of them handed the glasses back to Esther, saying thank you profusely. Jeffrey returned to the mower.

“You are doing a great job, son,” Jon said as Jeffrey returned to his task, pushing the mower up the incline of the yard. Our house stood at the top of a short hill and our lawn rose from the sidewalk up a modest slope towards the house. The overgrown lawn posed thick resistance against the legs of a willing, but young boy.

Still holding the cap in his right hand, gesturing with it momentarily for emphasis, Jon fixed his gaze and said to me, “Look, I want you to understand. I’m really doing this for my son.” He said it quietly and with a smile. “I mean this, you are giving me a gift right now. I get to teach my son how to help others.”

I had borne weeks of vulnerability, pain, doctors, hospitals, physical therapy and enough medication to supply a trauma ward. I felt raw emotion catch in my chest and overwhelm me. I beat back the sudden groundswell, telling Jon in a halting voice that I appreciated it. We appreciated it. I would find a way to pay him back.

He looked me dead in the eyes. “You don’t understand. This is payment enough. Really.”

He turned away from me, grabbed a pair of shears, newly purchased from Home Depot, an orange price tag still attached to the handle and headed to the hedge a few yards away. I returned to the house.

Inside, I made my way to the sofa in the family room and gingerly let my weight drop onto the cushions for support. I placed my head in my hands and wept, pure emotion spilling out of me, an admixture of gratitude and suffering. 

I have rarely in my life experienced a moment of altruism quite like the gesture Jon and his son extended to us that afternoon. My sons, four and two years old at the time, arrived at my side unsure of Daddy’s emotion. They leaned against my body, patting me soothingly from either side. “It’s going to be ok, Daddy.”

Jon and Jeffrey returned to my house for the next three months every Saturday at different times as they worked around soccer tournaments. On a few occasions he allowed us to give Jeffrey some cookies or candy. Once we sneaked a gift card for $25 into his hands and told Jon it was a holiday gift. I think he allowed Jeffrey to keep it.


After nearly a decade, I had the great pleasure to speak with Jon this week. During the intervening years, we had moved to different positions and different locales and different companies.

It was great to catch up with him and hear about his family. We reminisced and laughed. We talked about our former company, former colleagues and bosses. We talked about our children, a lot. Jon had grandchildren. Wow, the time has flown by. 

And, you might be unsurprised to hear that his son Jeffrey has just enrolled in medical school, focused once again on helping others, a lesson his father taught him by the purest of examples.  

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