Being decent to people isn’t difficult
I’ve been blessed with some truly amazing teachers. I’ve had my share of bummers, but I remember them with bewilderment more than dislike.
But the good ones yield memories that give me only joy and fill me with gratitude.
One of those teachers died recently.
Henry Lippold was one of the first journalism profs I had at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He taught broadcast, and I studied print, so I only had him for one class, which was mostly about mass media theory. But Henry—he was always Henry to everybody—still leaves indelible memories.
A lot of it was just how Henry was. He was a short, wiry guy who had so much energy he always seemed like he was about to burst out of his skin. And he had some absolutely endearing mannerisms.
I had forgotten about this until I read some Facebook comments about his death, but whenever you asked Henry how things were going or how he was, his answer was always a peppy “Tip top!” I mean, how can you not love a guy who says things like that?
And his enthusiasm and energy carried over into his teaching. It was pretty much impossible to be bored in his class, even when the subject matter was less than fascinating. He’d fairly bounce around the room. He’d fiddle with his necktie, sometimes putting the end of it in his mouth. His broadcast students all have stories about him climbing up onto a desk to demonstrate how you get a good camera angle which, strange as it may sound, is a very valuable lesson, especially for a videographer.
He also knew everybody in broadcasting in the upper Midwest and would do everything in his power to get his students a job. And it wasn’t just the broadcast students.
My senior year, he held a sort of job-hunting workshop. I had to miss it. I ran into him a day or two later and asked if I could stop by his office to talk to him about it. He pulled out his wallet and produced a classified ad from a newspaper in Halstad, Minnesota. That turned out to be my first newspaper job. (It’s also where I met my first wife, so Henry’s sort of indirectly responsible for the existence of my children.)
All these things add up to one thing: If you knew Henry, you simply cannot think of him without smiling. Even when I heard he had died, my second reaction was a smile.
Everybody has stories about jerks they’ve met. Those tend to stick with you, especially if the jerk was a boss.
But if you’re lucky, you also have memories of people like Henry. They’re the kind of people that just have something, some quality, that makes you have a little more faith in humanity. It’s kind of hard to define.
And the best way to honor them when they’re gone is to find some way to reproduce that.
My Dad had some serious anger issues — I’m as certain as I am of anything that he was an undiagnosed depressive and that’s how it came out in him—but one thing I learned from him is to always be pleasant to strangers.
Whenever I go through a fast-food drive-in or shop at a store, I always make an effort to try and brighten somebody’s day with a dumb joke, or at least a pleasant demeanor.
In the first place, I’ve worked jobs like that and I know how much grief they catch. Dealing with the public, often as not, sucks.
And if I can do something that takes virtually no effort but makes a few seconds a little brighter for them, why not?
Forty years ago, I worked at a self-service gas station and we had a regular customer who was one of the nicest, most pleasant people I’ve ever met. Just seeing him approach to pay his bill brightened my day. I think of him often to this day and even remember his name.
Obviously, I have no idea if he’s alive or dead, but even if he’s gone, I like to think remembering him is my little way of memorializing a guy who, even in brief, superficial encounters was thoroughly decent.
So even if for no other reason, be nice to people out of selfishness.
After all, there are worse ways to be remembered than as a person who always made folks smile.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org