Betting on Yourself (Remembering My Father)

“Betting on Yourself”

By Garner Simmons

“But man must know that in this theater of man’s life, it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on.”  — Sir Francis Bacon

Born in Greenwich Village more than a century ago, my father left school at the age of twelve and never looked back. Always uncomfortable in an academic setting, the day I graduated from Colgate, he asked me to meet him in the bar (now the dining room) of the Colgate Inn for a drink.  And there in the cool darkness of the taproom, he presented me with a gift that began with the story of his life.

An inveterate gambler, he had always lived on the edge.  He had begun as a stock boy at Liggett Drug Store in Grand Central Station and matriculated to store manager before he was twenty.  Restless, he moved to Patterson, New Jersey, where he opened his own store until the onset of the Great Depression closed it.

Yet where others saw adversity, he saw opportunity.  In 1933, when Congress finally repealed the 18th Amendment, he hired two finish carpenters and traveled across America building bars in small towns for entrepreneurs eager to cash in.  Eventually, he landed a job as a salesman with Aircraft & Diesel Equipment Corporation — ADECO for short — of Chicago, Illinois.  By 1940 he was General Sales Manger.  During the Second World War, he helped turn the company into one of the country’s most successful manufacturers.  It was there he also had met and married my mother.

However, following the war, a series of financial reversals forced the company into bankruptcy.  Finding himself once more without a job, nearly fifty with a wife and two small children to support, he was in competition with men half his age who had just completed college on the G.I. bill and were willing to work for less.

As a distraction to his dilemma, he would daily go into his former office at ADECO as the company, now in receivership, prepared to auction off all of its assets.  Habitually going through the mail, he looked for anything that might lead to a job.  A week before the auction, he was doing just that when he came upon a letter from the Bacharach Tool Corporation of Pittsburgh inquiring about the possibility of purchasing a unique piece of equipment — a pump-tester that ADECO had developed but, due to its legal troubles, had not been able to market.  Given glowing reviews in the trades of the time, it was seen as a major breakthrough, and Bacharach was interested in acquiring it.

Armed with the letter, my father flew to Pittsburgh and walked into Bacharach’s offices where he asked to see the head of purchasing.  Producing the letter, my father proceeded to inform the man that he, not ADECO, owned the pump-tester but, for the right price, would be willing to sell it.

Now strictly speaking, this was not entirely true.  My father did not own the pump-tester.  But since ADECO no longer employed anyone, there was no one to dispute his claim. And since he had been General Sales Manager there was no reason necessarily to doubt him.  So the head of purchasing asked how much he wanted for the tester, and my father told him $10,000 (a sizable amount at the time), $1,000 down and the balance on delivery.  Bacharach cut him a cheque.

Armed with the down payment, my father flew back to Chicago and went into where they were preparing to auction off all the tools, plans, inventory and patents that ADECO owned.  Introducing himself to the auctioneer, he sympathized with his dilemma: how difficult it must be to sell things without knowing their worth.  He then volunteered, as the former head of sales, to walk the floor with the auctioneer and tell him the base price of everything.  Pleased, the man agreed, and together they went through the entire inventory with my father pricing each item until they got to the pump-tester.  Regretfully, my father informed him that since the tester had never been marketed, it had no established value.  However, he’d give him $300 for the plans, prototype and patent just to get it off his hands. The auctioneer promptly agreed.

Flying back to Pittsburgh, my father delivered the goods and collected the remaining $9,000.  Then returning to Chicago, on the following Wednesday when ADECO was auctioned off, he bought up all the tools, plans and patents and put the company back on its feet and ran it for the next 25 years.  In truth, it was what had allowed him eventually to send me to college.

“But what if things hadn’t worked out?” I asked.
“Then I would have had to do something else.”
“But what?”
“Whatever it took,” he replied.
Then looking across the table at me he added: “Sometimes it takes more than an education to make the difference.  Every sale begins when the customer says ‘no.’  Persistence and talent and luck — each one plays a part.  You just can’t be afraid to fail.  Every success demands risk. And if you fall down, know you are strong enough to get up and do it again.  Because in the end, you have to be willing to bet on yourself.”

Although I did not I fully grasp the truth of what he was telling me at the time, it was a gift that has sustained me.  And now I give it to you.