BWW Blog: Lessons from My Father
Today is my dad's birthday.
As a father myself now, I think of him daily and nightly as I have my hands full with twin three-year-old boys and running a theatre company. I mostly consider how often he went without being thanked by me when I was a child. He did an awful lot I am thankful for now.
You might be interested in a few things he did and said - still says - and how his lifetime ethic and late conversion to theatre for me helped build Tennessee Shakespeare Company.
In business, he ran the distribution side at the Memphis Crosstown Sears & Roebuck before it closed. During his tenure, he was one of two men who stood as sentry in the building following the assassination of Martin Luther King. He led distribution at Book-of-the-Month Club, afterwards, where he made the decision at the time for the company to distribute Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in the face of warehouse bomb threats - not because he agreed or disagreed with the content, but because he felt his backing down to threats would set a wrongful precedent in the United States. He would later lead mail order innovations at BMG in South Carolina.
He was up at 4:20 am every day and never took a sick day ("You can get sick, but you can't be sick."). He made sure to see everyone (hundreds of employees) on all three shifts every day. He had an office and a phone, but you would rarely find him in the one or on the other. He was in the warehouse, walking, picking up a chewing gum wrapper, asking about a sorter's mother. I used to ask him what he did for a living. "Walk around and talk to people," was always the response. To this day, I've only once heard him say a formal title of a job he had, but I could tell it cost him to speak it, so I promptly forgot it and never raised it again out of respect. To call himself a leader or innovator or head of something would have been to take too much credit, for him. That was genuine.
He knew all of his people. Through knowing his people, many of whom were laboring at repetitive jobs, he cared for the company. "What is the company but the people," to only slightly change the quote from Coriolanus. Through knowing his people, he, not at all a mechanic, came to know the machinery. He led through questions. I have never seen anyone work through a problem, though he never called them that, like my dad. One must be patient to stay with him in the process, but there is always a resolution. (Sometimes, if he catches me bordering on complaining about job issues, his response can be, "Well, it's a good thing you're there then, isn't it.")
My dad worked diligently to get the daily output of his companies down to one piece of paper. That piece of paper would be waiting for him on his desk in the morning, though he would not sit down to review it. The number he wanted was at the bottom, and it told him who to speak with at length that day.
Our age in business likes to talk about a company's mission statement, which many employees, I find, have a difficult time speaking. My dad's was simple: "I want to make this facility the best place possible for our people to work in." Nothing about numbers or product.
To this day, I am led by something he continues to remind me of: "Do the right thing for the right reason." That last bit, as he would say here, is very important. He has been a loving, disciplining, present, supporting dad and friend. I know the fact that I took a long turn into theatre was inconceivable for him. Though he would never say such a thing, by the time I was 13 I had let him down. I was no longer, and would never be, the athlete he took so much time to mold me into, and I was a slow learner in school. The day before my first day in high school, he brought me into the dining room where he was working. It was noon. He said that I was fortunate. He said that I was going to be given an option, that I had until 6:00 that night to tell him my decision and that he would wholly support my decision. The option given me: I could, he said, either play football or make straight As for the next four years.
I hadn't played football in three years, and I really wasn't skilled enough or angry enough to play. But I had never made straight A's either. I chose the latter - not because I actually thought I could do it, but because he, my dad, thought I could. And I did.
He prepared me for a life as an artist-manager. No one has been more thoughtful, inquisitive, supportive, and attending to me and my life in the theatre than my dad. When I questioned whether to start TSC in Memphis, his questions and insights helped embolden me. I have always deeply admired his ability and willingness to shift his thinking for me. It gives me hope for all humanity, and for me.
Though I fear I often fall short, in attempting to be of service through theatre and the plays of William Shakespeare to my staff, my community, and my family, I am led by the hope that I am pleasing my dad and honoring the gift of life he gave me and the gift of nurturing he continues to take the time to provide.
S. Dan McCleary has always been my hero. He embodies naturally what I hope theatre can continue to do: create care and compassion for humanity. If I could give him an honorary theatre man of the year award, I would. He would accept only out of graciousness. That you have read this meager post about him to the end is honor enough. Thank you.
Happy Birthday, Dad.