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Sometimes, the best advice can come from a Walmart greeter…

A few years ago, a relatively modest looking package arrived at the front desk of the Fire Department’s administrative office. As promised, a friend left a copy of a book entitled, The Richest Man in Town, written by V. J. Smith. Sandwiched within its glossy hard cover was an inscription that read, “Thanks for the great round of golf—Lloyd Torgerson – St. Monica.”

Every once in a while, I run across a story that re-calibrates my sense of purpose; not so much in the traditional sense of right or wrong, but in the subtleties of what is necessary to survive the barrage of caustic blogs and headlines that have become fixtures within our local landscape. A source of encouragement may be as familiar as a friend or coworker, or as benign as a roadside billboard, a few characters in a tweet, or a smile from a stranger standing in line at Starbucks. Today, I dusted off the Monsignor’s gift and fumbled through the dog-eared pages, looking for some of that inspiration. 

Like many agencies, our organizational mood has been a bit somber lately.  The state’s 2017 wildfire responses and department vacancies have resulted in a string of forced overtime hours that has left even our most engaged firefighters mentally and physically fatigued. Not surprisingly, the subsequent hangover has followed many of our people home. Under these conditions – regardless of any tangible progress made towards improvement – it can be hard to focus on what otherwise may be seen as hope. 

Mary Martinson

Written in simple prose, the author told a story about a guy he met while shopping at Wal-Mart in Brookings, South Dakota.  By most accounts, Aaron (Marty) Martinson presented himself as a rather unremarkable man from the Midwest. As evidenced by the black and white photos in the final pages, one might imagine by his kindly smile, flannel shirt, and trousers cinched above his center-line that Marty lived a simple but gratifying life with his wife Mickey and their four children. Equally unassuming is the town of Brookings, home to no more than eighteen thousand people; twenty nine if you include the students who attend the local State University.

Thinking about it, I guess that is one of the things that make Marty’s story most compelling. He grew up during the thirties and forties, and like so many others of his era, struggled to make things meet through the Great Depression. Marty left school after the ninth grade to work in a traveling carnival before joining the army and fighting in the Philippines during World War II. Once discharged, Marty met Mickey. They courted for two years and were married in a furniture store by a justice of the peace on June 1, 1950. It cost them two dollars.

Marty’s memories of his father moving from town to town looking for work, eating fried corn mush, and losing close friends in the war seemed torn right out of the pages of Tom Brokaw’s rendering of the Greatest Generation. The narrative was a testament to Smith’s ability to set the stage in the following chapters for what made Marty stand apart.

Marty’s name badge said checker, but what made him special was his ability to distil things down into their simplest form:

Relationships matter most in life.

Try to do a little more.

Only you can make you happy.

It did not matter if the customer was a grouch or generally distracted by life, Marty apparently had a knack for stopping time. With little more than an earnest handshake and an occasional hug, he had an ability to wedge a smile on the face of a person that otherwise would have continued laboring routinely through their day. This is where I found encouragement.

Marty has long since passed, but his memory, captured in just a few pages of that little blue book, has reminded me that when things get complicated, we need to keep it simple.  As firefighters, we must remain hardened by our resolve, not in our spirit; have the strength to stand on principle and guard against cynicism; never underestimate the power of a smile, a handshake, or a hug; and, allow the memories of those that sacrificed everything to resonate as powerfully in every tomorrow…as they do today.

I did not get to know the Monsignor that well; one can only share so much on the golf course. But, I have shaken his hand, given him a hug, and after a few feet turned around, smiled and had a better day having met him.

Sometimes, the small gifts we offer to others are the best gifts we give to ourselves.



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