A Debt Of Gratitude

By Ron Ciancutti

My dad was handy. He did many favors for people because of his skills, and I rarely remember him refusing anyone. He wasn’t especially “trained” or anything, but he just had a logical mind when it came to appliances and mechanical things.  He always advised me to “at least take it apart” because the fix might be simple enough to immediately see. For many years I was continually looking over his shoulder: indeed, that was true more times than not. Sometimes we would take the back off a washer or dryer, and two frayed wire ends would be sticking up; we would simply spin them together and throw electrical tape over the whole fix, and the unit would run another 10 years. Sometimes it was a lot more complicated. I recall one time when we were working on an old washing machine and couldn’t get it to start no matter what we did. An hour later, I realized we had never plugged it back in. As soon as we did, it whooshed to life. We wordlessly smiled at each other and said nothing.

People often called our house for Dad’s advice. I would hear him on the phone, “No, no, you gotta open up that flue or the smoke will back up into the house,” or “No, no, if you don’t run a tank of Hi-Test once in a while, that stuff will build up and the motor will stall.”

It seemed as if he knew everything. One day I asked him, “Geez, Dad, how many favors do you do for people?  If you ever collect on all that people owe you, you’ll be rich.”

He smiled firmly and shook his head. “Nobody owes me anything. I expect nothing from these little things I do.  Remember this—the minute you think people owe you something, everything changes, and they begin to resent you; never present a bill and never ask for a favor back—you can ask for a favor but never one BACK. Never make people think they OWE and don’t live in a way that they think you owe them.”

Split The Difference
He must have really wanted me to remember that principle because he pointed out the value of that advice many times in the years that followed. One time, a good friend of his rolled into the driveway with an old log splitter hitched to the back of his truck. My dad came out of the house to greet him and said, “John, what have you got here?” He said, “Ronnie, I remember about 10 years back when you borrowed this unit after knocking down some trees in your back lot, and you let me keep all the wood. Well, I got me a new one and wanted to give you my old one. It needs a little work but once fixed, you’ll be all set.” Now the real story was that John couldn’t get rid of it. He had set it out for the garbage truck, but the men would not pick it up, so John packaged it up like a present and stuck my dad with it. Know what my dad said? “Thank you, John, that’s a very thoughtful gift.” And he winked at me as John turned and unhitched the trailer. Dad didn’t say another word, but it appeared the guilt got to my dad’s friend because he next said, “If you’re free next weekend, I’ll stop by and we’ll get ‘er fixed up and back up to working condition.” He kept his word, and that splitter sits in my garage today after all those years, fully functional.

A Dead Issue
Another time, on a Saturday morning, Dad and I were at my Grandpa’s barbershop, and I was looking over his appointment book, and every so often next to a name was “DH.” It was even next to my dad’s name, as well as mine. I didn’t know what that meant, but I said nothing. We finished our haircuts and Dad and Grandpa went back-and-forth about whether my dad should pay, and Grandpa flatly refused to take Dad’s money. “Ronnie, with all the things you do for me? Forget it.” Typically, my dad would relent and we would leave and buy a sandwich for my grandpa and bring lunch back for him.

Well, on this particular day, I told my dad that I had noticed “DH” next to some names. I wondered what it meant. He looked intensely at me with those crystal-blue eyes and asked, “Did you see those letters next to our names?” I said I had. Dad explained that those letters indicated someone who didn’t pay, like the barbershop landlord that Grandpa rented from, the guy who plowed the snow out in front of the shop, the cop from that beat, and he and me. We were all considered “dead heads.” Clearly, my dad assumed we would not be designated as “DH” because we were family, and given the number of jobs my dad did for Grandpa and his wife, he thought the exchange of favors was expected. But after hearing that we had been lumped in with everyone else, my dad and I never left the barbershop again without Dad leaving $20 on the counter, and that was when haircuts were $5. Grandpa was a great and generous guy, and I loved him my whole life, but he never gave those $20s back. Had my Grandma known about it, she would have been very angry, but it was simply understood between Dad and Grandpa. Dad explained that if he or I were sitting in the barber chair, Grandpa was not only giving the time away for free, but we were preventing a paying customer from using that time slot. We had no right to expect Grandpa to not make the money he deserved.

The subject never came up again, but it made me think twice when people were giving me their time. As I became an adult and asked a plumber, mechanic, electrician, or friend to stop by and advise me about a leaky pipe, noisy muffler, or blown fuse, I’d always stuff a couple of $20s in their pocket as they left. You know what? People would pretend to fight me for a minute, but they would keep it. “No one ever refuses money,” Dad said.

In retrospect, what Dad was telling me was to take the high road. Be above the petty things. If no one is reaching for the check, you reach for it. If no one steps forward to buy the next round after you just bought the last, you buy two in a row. It may even be a financial stretch at the time, but better that than appearing cheap.

Tripping Over Principles
While I was getting my master’s degree in 1992, I had a friend in law school who asked me for $250 to catch up on his gas bill so he and his wife and newborn could have their heat turned back on. I pulled the money together and gave it to him, and years went by without his ever repaying or even bringing it up, and eventually he avoided seeing me altogether, which made it clear he was well aware of his debt, but simply didn’t want to address it. Well, I was coming down the library stairs a few years later and he was coming up. When he saw me, he spun around so quickly that his feet got tangled and he fell down a half a dozen stairs face-first. I extended a hand and pulled him up. I smiled, as did he, but not a word was exchanged. All he ever had to do was acknowledge that it was taking so long to repay me, and I would have said to forget it. But, instead, this little amount of money must have been haunting him every day, and I honestly never heard from him again. Over $250? Ridiculous. In my mind, I remember the guy, not for being a penny-pincher, but for being so small that he would willingly lose a friend instead.

In a nutshell, Dad led by example and wanted me to understand that you need to think about how you present yourself to navigate life. You don’t just get to around thirty-something and presume you can hit “cruise control” with your reputation completely intact. You have to tend to it each day. A reputation needs to be treated like a delicate piece of glass, maybe like a beautiful vase. If you crack that once flawless object, no matter how well you glue it back together, it will never look or function as when it was untarnished and complete. And I bet it will leak.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.