“It takes eighteen years and thousands of dollars to civilize the barbarian.”
----from "The Quotations of Chairman Joe"
In my case it took a bit longer. About this time forty-nine years ago I went to work for a pharmacist in downtown Grand Haven. His name was Bob Steiner and he owned and operated a pharmacy located directly across the street from Hoffsteder’s news stand at the corner of Washington and Third Street. Washington is Main Street in downtown Grand Haven at the foot of which lies the old Grand Theater and the bleachers for the musical fountain, proudly proclaimed at the time to be the world’s largest.
Bob was, none of us could imagine at the time, one of a dying breed of businessman. He owned and operated a once thriving establishment, one of two downtown druggists, and was a well-connected member of the community establishment, prominent in the local Chamber of Commerce. Already feeling the pressure from the newly established shopping centers cropping up along the newly re-built U.S. Highway 31, Bob was one of the principle movers who worked to renovate the threatened downtown business district by getting other business owners behind the projects to build the new fountain as well as a project to heat the sidewalks downtown in the winter so as to make walking main street a more safe and pleasant experience. Bob was a man about town, a man of property and standing, and a man who had connections and knew how to use them. He was also a staunch conservative and a Republican.
This, for some reason, did not jaundice his view of a young lad from “the other side of the tracks” who, at the age of 17, he brought into his employ. I took the job, at 65 cents an hour, having worked most of the summer at a Drive-In Theatre then managed by my uncle but, with it being seasonal employment and the summer being short, I knew I needed a job for the winter. So it was that I found myself working at Steiner’s Pharmacy in the late summer of 1966 until April of 1967, during my senior year in High School.
Through the course of the ensuing months Bob, who worked nearly all the hours the store was open rarely filling his position with an assistant pharmacist would, while reacting to a newscast on a television he would occasionally watch, offer an opinion. His views would reflect ones that would most closely fall near those expressed by Barry Goldwater or Bill Buckley, both of whom he held in high esteem. This, after a time, would elicit a response because Bob, I soon found, was looking for a response—indeed a spirited response. We soon found ourselves in a protracted discussion, if not debate, for my views were nearly diametrically opposed to his. This, I was to discover, was not to be a liability for conservative though he was, he was also a man of reflection, discernment, tolerance and civility. I discovered, all too late and to my own personal loss, that I didn’t appreciate his wisdom and his guidance nearly enough.
For you see that despite our divergent standing the community, despite our differences in political philosophy and economic standing, Bob nevertheless reached out and took this young lad in hand, however his reluctance and his immaturity.
One Saturday morning in March of 1967, as the war in Viet Nam was nearing its crescendo in terms of the numbers of troops that were to be at any one time committed and, subsequently, the draft of young men into the service, I just reaching my 18th birthday reported for work.
“Joe”, Bob called out from the Dias overlooking the store from which he could survey the operation while he was filling prescriptions, “what are you going to do after you graduate?”
For a moment I thought he was asking if I were going to stay at his pharmacy. I hated the place, the pay was a pittance, about half the federal minimum wage at the time, and I was eager to leave. “I’m not sure” I replied.
“Are you going to college?” he asked.
“I’ve applied to Grand Valley”, I answered, “but I haven’t heard back from them”
“Have you applied anywhere else?”
“No” I confessed. I had not. The truth was that I had graduated dead center at place number 199 of the 400 who graduated in my class. This was, in part a consequence of graduating from a parochial grade school and being put into industrial arts classes during my freshman year in High School. I hated it and was bored by it and my grades reflected it. Not until later, during my last two years when the school administration, after administering the Iowa Tests put me into more advanced classes that my grades began to improve. I had made the ‘honor roll’ a few times in the last two years but it didn’t raise my overall grade point average above the absolute mean. Nevertheless I had filled out an application because my friend Johnny Hierholzer, with whom I had been a classmate dating back to second grade at St. John’s Lutheran and who, being a neighbor living just around the corner had, along with his parents, pressured me into obtaining an application and sending it in. Johnny was hoping I would be accepted and we could commute together to school as we had previously walked together from the old neighborhood to school. He had better grades, I had my doubts. Visions of the rice fields of Indochina beckoned.
The next Monday afternoon, after finishing a day at school, I reported for work at the drug store. I was counting the cash in the till when I heard Bob’s voice from his perch overlooking the floor. “When you finish with the register, I want to see you in my office” he commanded.
Oh shit, what have I done now? I thought. After having counted the cash in the register I proceeded back to his office, located behind a door to the right of the pharmaceutical counter and leading both to his office and the stairwell down to the basement. I finished with my clerical task, made sure there were no customers to wait on and then proceeded to the doorway leading to his office making sure not to go in too far so that I could hear if anyone entered the store. Stopping short, Bob began to speak.
“I’ve got a friend at the College”, he began. “He’s a good friend of mine. His name is Mr. Putnam and he’s the head of the admissions department at Grand Valley. You have an appointment to meet with him on Wednesday morning at 9AM. I want you to go to the principal’s office at school tomorrow and tell him that you won’t be in school on Wednesday, that you are going up to the college to meet Mr. Putnam. Do you understand?”
“Good. Now if you don’t make that appointment on Wednesday morning I will not be a happy man, do you understand me?
Again I nodded.
“Now go back on the floor.”
I did as I was told. I went up to the college on Wednesday morning full of hope but also full of trepidation. Surely, I thought, my grades wouldn’t be good enough. This school was a tough place I had heard. It hadn’t received its accreditations, so it was flunking kids out left and right, tough standards, hard place. What if my grades aren’t good enough, what if god knows, I get accepted here, how would I afford it? I had no money and the job certainly wouldn’t support funding college. What if I simply failed? To say that things were precarious is an understatement.
I arrived at the college, found the admissions office, and was instructed to take a seat and wait for a few moments. I expected some underling to emerge but, to my surprise, out came the director himself. He introduced himself saying that he had heard some good things about me. What followed was a personal tour of the campus as the director took me from building to building describing the facilities, the hopes for the newly established college (now university), and what they were looking for in student recruitment. Finally, after a couple of hours, he brought me back to his office.
“How about it? Do you want to come here?” he asked.
“I don’t think I can afford it, my family doesn’t have much money and won’t be able to contribute anything. I’m the oldest of six children and there isn’t much to go around”. I replied.
“I can fix that” he said.
“How?” I asked incredulously.
“A combination of student loans and grants. We can make this happen. How about it?”
“O.K.” I replied. I couldn’t believe it.
When I reported for work that afternoon Bob asked me how it went. I told him that I had been accepted, still not truly believing it. A smile crossed his otherwise humorless countenance.
A few weeks later I moved on. Johnny’s mother, then a secretary in the office of the W.T. Grant department store, had arranged an interview with the manager of the store. In due course I landed a new job. I never got around to appropriately expressing my appreciation or properly thanking Bob for his efforts. Full of stiff-necked pride and not properly socialized, I simply moved on. He was a mentor to me before I knew or understood what mentoring was; indeed sometimes it takes longer than 18 years to get the barbarian out of the child. It does, I have come to understand, indeed take a village.
Bob is gone now, as are so many who have influenced my life. I am ashamed to admit that I treated him shabbily, for here was a friend in the truest sense of the word; one that saw some promise in the boy and did everything he could to secure a place for him. These columns are his testament as well as mine, and although I know he would find little agreement with the opinions expressed herein he would readily befriend the soul that animates these pages.
Thank you Bob Steiner, I know it is too late, but Thank You nonetheless. It is the very least I can do.