Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. – Goethe
On March 1, 2007, Joe had his last day as a front desk security guard. For over 15 years, he was the first person that you’d see when you entered his company’s corporate headquarters. Joe possessed a special talent: You could meet Joe once and forever after, he would never, ever forget your name.
I interviewed with Joe’s company in February 2005 at their corporate offices in Trumbull. Nervous at my first interview in over twenty years, I met Joe – who stood up and warmly grasped my arm with his large catcher’s mitt hands. “Michael, welcome, welcome. Isn’t it a great day today?” I looked outside. It was cold and gray, threatening sleet and other meteorological mischief. “Nice to meet you, too; um…I’m sorry, I did not catch your name?” “Joe, Michael. My name is Joe. Come and see us again.”
I returned eight weeks later as a new employee. My first day was filled with trepidation. I had left behind a 23-year career with my former firm, and it felt strange and unnatural to be arriving at a new employer. I had regrets and doubts. I didn’t know where to park. Everything was wrong. I carried with me a box filled with pictures and mementos, depressed in the knowledge that a long career could fit so easily in a single cardboard container. As is often the case with large companies, no one actually remembered I was starting that day. There were no instructions for me on where to go. As I walked in the front doors with my box, Joe looked at me and immediately smiled, “Michael, it’s great to see you back. Michael? Are you moving in with us? Bless me, Michael; I believe you are joining our company.” He stood up and came around the desk and grabbed my box, putting an arm around my shoulder, shepherding me to the rear of the building to my office and my new professional life.
Each day as I walked across the front foyer to lunch, Joe would be saying hello on a first-name basis to every employee as they walked by – on their way to meetings, lunch, or appointments. “Carol…how is that gorgeous daughter of yours?” “Jeff, it’s great to see you. You have a good lunch.” “Tom, Tom, Tom…mmm, mmm, mmm, my friend, I believe you have lost some weight.” My predecessor, the former CEO, would purposely have visitors, regulators and key customers wait in the foyer because Joe would be there to meet them; as he said, “Joe always warmed them up.”
Joe never missed a day of work in 16 years. Joe lived with his two daughters in Bridgeport and, like so many who seek to serve others, he softened the sharp edges of his own neighborhood wherever he went. A colleague driving through Bridgeport one afternoon happened to spy Joe riding his bicycle along a city street. “I tried to get his attention but he was riding on the other side of the road. I stopped at a red light and watched Joe in my rear view mirror. There was a homeless man draped across the sidewalk; pedestrians were stepping over him, careful not to make eye contact. Joe stopped his bike and instead of walking around the man, disappeared into a bank. Joe walked outside, handed the man a $20 bill and rode away. That was Joe.”
Joe scraped together money to study at night to be a minister. He had passed his courses and begun a process of becoming an ordained minister. When Joe’s company was bought by a much larger corporate giant, he remained the front foyer fixture. Joe saw it as his mission to be an important source of reassuring continuity to employees new and old – reinforcing the point that no matter how large the firm became, one person would know their names and make sure they were all okay.
There’s a story…someone in the new parent company’s home office observed that the security guard in the Trumbull facility was possibly overpaid. That was until a home office management team visited, some six months after their first visit. Joe shined. “Dave, it’s good to see you again, welcome back. Mike, you look like you have grown two inches. Steve, how are those two boys you told me about?” Their jaws dropped and one of the executives whispered to another, “We’ve got to give this guy a raise.”
Joe was the heart and soul of his firm. He reminded us all that the most precious asset in any company is its people. He embodied all the values that any well run firm seeks to cultivate in its employees – personal responsibility, compassion, commitment and focus on the customer. Joe had figured out that the richest person is not the executive with the big salary or the private jet; it is the man or woman who has friends and who is guided by a purpose greater than themselves. His humility was a sweet perfume that permeated everything and everyone around him.
On Friday, March 1, we let the word out in headquarters that Joe would be celebrating his last day. The pace of the day and the time of year had us assuming perhaps 50-75 people joining us for an intimate farewell. I was an accomplice in getting Joe to come with me to check something in the main cafeteria. The doors opened up and I was shocked to see over 900 people – smiling, clapping and crying. “Joe, Joe, Joe” was a rhythmic chant that rolled throughout the building. Joe began to cry. “I am just so grateful to be called your friend.” We exchanged our favorite stories about how Joe calmed angry customers, consoled fellow employees and celebrated marriages, births and promotions. He was leaving to become the pastor at a rural Baptist church in South Carolina. In his first impromptu sermon to an adoring congregation, he paced the room trying to find the words. In the end, he handed me back the microphone to hold back the tears. “Thank you, thank you…” was all he could keep repeating.
Joe later walked out the front door, a slight figure wearing a faded blue vest and brown pants, carrying bags brimming with presents from his admirers – a new bible, gift certificates and a massive picture album signed by over 800 people including two retired CEOs. He left as he came every day, urging people not to worry about him. “Michael!” he yelled back to me. “Don’t let them change this place and don’t let the ‘community’ die. It’s all we got, man.” He got in his car, gave the right of way to another car and disappeared.
As he headed to a new community as an ordained pastor, most of us realized he was our lay minister, teaching us every day that the thing that matters most in life is each other. All that from a guy most of us only knew simply as “Joe.”