1922: How Charlie Taught Me To Laugh at Failure

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From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:

How Charlie Taught Me To Laugh at Failure

So-called misfortunes test a man’s wits and sharpen his courage — as I have found out a few times for myself

by W. S. Rogers

It was a steel-cold morning, and we were standing on the sidewalk beside what had once been our factory. The roof of the crazy old building, which the underwriters would not insure, had fallen in during the night. The red-hot stove had finished the job. Not a stick was left.

“Don’t you know that everything I have on earth is in there?” I went on, indignantly: “My drafting instruments, my tools, my other suit — they’re all gone, and there isn’t a penny of insurance.”

“That’s just what I was laughing about, the beautiful completeness of it all! We don’t have to bother trying to save anything. There’s nothing to save.”

“Yes — but what am I going to do?”

“Is that what ails you? answered Charlie, who was sixty-five, while I was only thirty. “At your age!” he went on. “Wondering what you are going to do! I’m ashamed of you! What did you do before you ever saw this place?”

When the bank opened we drew our account, paid off our hands and the few bills we owed, and split the balance. This gave us five dollars apiece. Charlie explained to me how lucky we were to have five dollars and a clean slate. He had often failed with less ready cash than that left over. He went off gayly, got two tons of coal on credit, peddled them by the bucket, bought two more tons, and before the winter was over was really in the coal business. Ten years later, when I saw him again, he was rated as a rich man. A hustling youngster of seventy-five!

Perhaps there may be men in the world with more fighting spirit than Charlie had. But I have never met them. I wonder how many men of sixty-five could laugh while the biggest thing they ever had went up? To-day, at sixty-eight, I can appraise the value of Charlie’s wonderful buoyant philosophy far better than I could then! Each tumble and turn-over in my business career has shown me more clearly that it doesn’t make half as much difference where you fight as how you fight!

Since starting out as an apprentice boy in the Hocking Valley repair shops in Columbus, Ohio, when I was fifteen years old, I have been a mechanic, a locomotive fireman, a locomotive engineer, a freight conductor, a draftsman, a salesman, a newspaper reporter, a mechanical engineer, and finally founder and president and eventually chairman of the board of my present company. There are a few things I have not tried. I am afraid I shall not have the time to get around to them; for our company, which we started seventeen years ago with a cash capital of $14.95, is now heading toward the million-dollar class.

Out of it all I think that I have proved three truths. I have tried out every one of them from every angle. I learned them before I knew that anyone else had ever heard of them. They are:

First, that it does not hurt a man to be down. It may do him good. And if he is down he is never out, unless he chooses to be.

Second, that no one will give you a living, but that there is always someone willing and even anxious to let you earn a living. The trouble is that most people insist on choosing what they want to do — which isn’t always what they ought to be doing. One of the best men in our plant now was a flat failure as a clergyman and an attorney.

Third, that what are called misfortunes exist mainly for two purposes: The first is to knock a man out of a job that he ought not to be in — to use sense for him that he will not use for himself. The second is to sharpen a man’s wits and test his courage.

It is one thing to believe these maxims, sitting in a comfortable chair and with some money in the bank. It is something else to know them as facts at the only time when it helps to know them; that is, when you are up against it. I learned them rather early. I forgot them for a moment when that factory burned down. I forgot them until Charlie called me back again. I suppose that having had for so long a job I liked — two years is a long time when you’re young — I had grown soft and thought that I was settled for life, or something of the kind. I have noticed that whenever anyone “gets settled for life,” and thinks that a period has arrived when he may stop trying, something comes along and upsets him.

I am one of the few remaining citizens with a perfectly valid claim to having been born in a log cabin. It was in 1853 that the event happened, in Green County, Pennsylvania, on a little clearing that my father and mother had hopes of making into a farm. The cabin had been built by my father, and I am afraid that I cannot say much for him as a cabin builder. Anyway, it was the best ventilated cabin I ever saw. You could sling a cat through the spaces between the logs. We must have been a hardy lot, for it never struck us that it was worth while fixing up the cracks.

My parents were the simple God-fearing sort of people that one does not find so often to-day. They believed in keeping history green by constant reminders in their children’s names. They selected me as a monument to the Mexican War. Hence I became Winfield Scott Rogers. But since I would rather be myself than a suggestion of history, I sign myself “W. S.”

There was no real hardship in that log cabin. We had a good time. We had enough to eat and there was plenty of wood to burn. Our clothes never seemed to wear out, and if they got too small for the wearer there was always another youngster in the family just of a size to fit them. Of course, with darning and patching it was a little hard to tell what the clothes had been when they started, but that did not bother us.

Just after the Civil War we moved over to Columbus, Ohio. The big opportunity of the country in those days was with the railroads. Everyone wanted to be a railroad man. I got in as an apprentice in the old Hocking Valley shops at Columbus, and I was generally considered to be a lucky boy. Apprentices had to spend three years learning their trade. They got nothing the first year, a dollar or so a week the second year, and sometimes as much as three dollars a week the third year.

Part of the training of an apprentice was to put him over the bumps. He was expected to do whatever and as much as he was told to do. We had a regular ten-hour day, which usually turned out to be a twelve-hour day, and I do not remember that anyone ever let me be idle. If there was no regular work for me to do the foreman put me to cleaning.

One day the boss asked me if I wanted to know anything about mechanical drawing. I never heard of anything that I did not want to know about. Also, I had sense enough to know that the old man was giving me an opportunity, that I would never do any bossing unless I knew more than just handling tools. During the rest of the apprenticeship — for nearly three years — I studied mechanical drawing at night in his house after work. I was such a bull of a boy that really I did not know what it was to get tired.

That boss was one of the biggest-souled men I have ever met but he had no mercy on an apprentice. There was never anything petty or personal in what he did, however. He considered it his duty to turn out good mechanics, and he succeeded. A boy either dropped out, or he became a good mechanic. There is not a technical school in the country that could have given me as much as the old man did in those three years.

Another boy’s time was up when mine was. The old man took us aside for a little talk, which was his equivalent for a graduation exercise. He told us he thought that if we lived long enough we might become first-class machinists. That was as far as ever he went in praise. Then he offered us our choice of staying in the shop at two dollars and a half a day as journeyman mechanics, or going out as locomotive firemen at sixty dollars a month. The other boy took the shop. He is there yet. I said:

“I never want to see a shop again. I’d rather shovel coal.”

“You’re the biggest fool I ever turned out,” snapped the old man. “Get out and shovel coal!”

Perhaps I was a fool; perhaps I wasn’t. But I have never liked to work; I have always wanted to boss things. Someone had told me:

“You’ll never have to work hard if you get a job where you can keep your coat on.”

I thought there was more chance of finding that kind of a job out in the open than there was in the shop. I found shoveling coal very easy, and inside of a year I was a regular freight engineer and getting one hundred dollars a month — which was big wages in those days for a man under thirty. Yet, because of my ambition to boss, it bothered me to sit up in the cab at one hundred dollars a month and have to take orders from the conductor back in the caboose, who was getting only sixty dollars a month. There was nothing to it. I simply had to swap jobs. I would rather any day boss at sixty dollars than be bossed at a hundred.

I shifted from the Hocking Valley to the Baltimore and Ohio. There I made a fool of myself: I lost my temper and with it my job. A man who loses his temper is a fool. He can fight all he pleases. A man always needs his wits, but especially when he is fighting. Losing one’s temper also means losing one’s wits; and there is absolutely nothing to that.

I gave up railroading and found a place as foreman with a little company in Columbus, and it was while working there that I met Charlie. He came up to me one day when I was leaving the shop, said that he had heard a good deal about me and had been given to understand that I knew how to manage men. He went on with many other equally suspicious compliments, and ended by saying:

“I want somebody who can come in and manage my plant. We are not making any money. If you will take charge, I will give you a half interest on the day you show a profit.”

I did not know what was up. Half-interests in going concerns are not often offered on street corners. I said that I would have to look around a bit before I made up my mind. When I investigated, I found that I had run into one of the standing offers of the town — Charlie always hunted up the newcomers and hung up a half-interest. Probably he was perfectly sincere; but of the half dozen or so people who had accepted his offer, not one had ever stayed long enough to show a profit.

But all of this unfavorable information convinced me that here, at last, was the kind of job that I was after. I went back to Charlie and told him that if he would let me work two weeks without pay, I would know enough then to decide whether we could do any business together. Well, I started work; and I found the hands the rarest bunch of grafters I have ever met. When they were not fighting among themselves they were messing up the machinery or telling stories. The machine repairs alone absorbed what might have been the legitimate profits of the place.

With all these facts in hand, I informed Charlie that I would take his offer. He said I could start the next day as foreman. I went down extra early that day, cleared a twenty-foot square in the cellar and had it all nicely roped off by seven o’clock, when the men arrived. I announced that I was the new foreman, and I would like everybody to come down into the cellar and observe an improvement that I had made. They all trotted down — that crowd would do anything rather than work — and then I explained:

“During the couple of weeks I have been working here with you I have noticed a good deal of fighting in the shop. A shop hasn’t the proper conveniences for fighting. One of you might tumble into a machine. So I have fixed up this ring down Here. Any time you want to fight, the ring is at your disposal. You can’t have any spectators in company hours; and if anybody does any fighting, except in this ring, I’m going to fire him myself just as fast as I know how.”

That settled the fighting question. The men were not bad fellows at heart. They only needed someone around who understood them.

Our chief product was a veneered wooden butter dish of a kind that is not made in these days, but it was then better than anything else on the market, and we had no trouble selling all we could make. At the end of the second year we showed a substantial profit, and Charlie gave me the half-interest that he had promised. All seemed to be well, until one day Charlie came in with a package under his arm and the general look of a man making arrangements for his own funeral.

“I have something here,” he said solemnly, unwrapping a fine solid wood butter dish, “that looks to me as though we were going to be put out of business. There is a store full of these things downtown, and the people are falling over one another to buy them. They sell for about one third of what it costs us to make ours; and theirs is a better dish. I understand they are turned out on an automatic machine that a girl can operate.”

This didn’t discourage me as much as it did Charlie, for I was convinced that we could turn out a dish equally good and along the same lines. We did this — and saved the day.

Our new dish made a wonderful success, and then we burned down and went flat. Both of us were married. Charlie, as I have said, went off and became a coal dealer. I did not know what in the world to do. I knew the editor of one of the newspapers in town, and I let him know that I thought I would make a very good police court reporter. He said he thought differently, but he would give me a chance to find out for myself how wrong I was. He did not say anything about salary, and neither did I. At the end of the first week I found that he really had not forgotten about my salary. He had merely decided that it was going to be so small as not to be worth mentioning.

I think that I was a good reporter. They thought my activity exceeded my discretion. The circulation of the paper, due entirely to certain stories that I wrote, increased wonderfully. But in the first month we had three libel suits and in the second month five. Then I was fired. And let me say I was unjustly fired. I did not write a single word that was not amply backed up by fact. We could have won every one of those suits. I doubt if any of them would have gone to trial. They were all bluffs, but that made no difference at all to the editor. He was not looking for trouble, and he thought I was.

The surplus from journalism was enough to take my wife and me to Cincinnati with two dollars and a half over. I went to a four-dollar-a-day hotel! What was the use of hunting for a place where our money would keep us the longest? I had not made the trip for that purpose. As we were settled in our room — it was Sunday night — my wife asked:

“Why did you come here? How are we going to stay here? We haven’t any money.”

“That trunk of yours looks good to me for a week at least; and who knows but that we may be millionaires before the week is out?’ I answered blithely. “I am going to get a job to-morrow.”

“Where?”

“Where? How should I know? There may be a lot of competition, and I will have to go to the highest bidder.”

My wife just smiled. She had taken me for better or for worse — and I never knew her to forget it.

The next morning I dropped in on a machinery dealer and said that I thought I would like to try selling machinery. He did not want a salesman. Did he want a repair man? No, he had plenty of repair men. How about a porter and janitor — the place and the machinery might be cleaner than they were. He had never had a janitor, he said; but that was not a bad idea if I really did want to work.

“How much do you ask a week? I won’t take you if you ask much.”

“Right now,” I answered, “twelve dollars a week seems all right. I couldn’t say how much it will be to-morrow.”

I did not tell him that I had been a foreman or try to impress him with my knowledge. I wanted a job, and I got it. I had to have at least a toe-hold. That day, while I was cleaning the stock, a machine-shop owner came in. The boss was engaged, so I chatted with the visitor, got to talking about his work, and then sold him a lathe. He had not intended to buy anything when he entered; he was just visiting. On Tuesday night the boss said that he would raise me to fifteen dollars a week.

“Suppose you pay it to me now,” I suggested.

“Why pay you now; you are supposed to work a week.”

“Yes, but, you see, my wife and I are paying four dollars a day up at the hotel, and I think it is time to change our quarters,” I answered.

He laughed and gave me the money. On Friday afternoon, while I was chasing about the place with a handful of cotton waste trying to make the machines look the way I had been taught machines ought to look, an old foreman friend of mine called to place a big order — to fit up a whole shop, in fact. He was glad to see me.

“What are you doing here?” was his first question.

“Me? I’m the janitor.”

Then the boss came out.

“Glad to see you’ve got a man here who knows tools,” bantered my friend.

“Who? That man? He’s the janitor.”

“That may be, but he oughtn’t to be. He knows more about tools than I do, and he is the man that is going to help me pick out this equipment.”

That was the end of the janitor job. Saturday night found me as a salesman on a good salary and with several hundred dollars’ commission credited to my account for the purchases of my old shopmate.

Luck? Surely. But a surprising amount of luck is around, if you look for it.

I traveled for some time for that house, and then the boss, who was getting on in years, took me into partnership. In due season the partnership broke up and I went from one thing to another. Always I. made enough money to live as well as I wanted to, but never enough to have the capital to go into anything alone, nor, as I began to reflect as I neared fifty, enough to keep my wife and children if I should die.

I knew a little wooden factory up at Bantam, Connecticut, which had failed. It had in it the kind of machinery that I wanted, and I knew it could be bought very cheaply. Going about the country I had discovered a demand for well-made, honest bearings. The automobile industry needed a lot; so did many other industries. I knew a good deal about designing anti-friction bearings, and I had plenty of friends who wanted to buy. The first step was to get an option on the factory. I did this by the payment of a small sum. Then I went out and got orders for bearings. That is the best way to start a company. Go and get some orders, so that you will have something to show. Three orders are worth three tons of prospectuses.

We incorporated. I put all my money into stock and got subscriptions for the balance — which sounds like a bigger undertaking than it actually was. We needed only a comparatively few thousands in all. We bought the factory, did some repairing, and when we were ready to begin business I discovered that our cash in bank — our working capital — was exactly $14.95. There was no place to turn for money until we had filled and been paid for our first orders.

A meeting of the executive committee was called. There were present the president, general manager, engineer, superintendent, and the whole operating staff — that is to say, myself; also the treasurer, accountant, head bookkeeper, office staff, and janitor — all in the person of Miss Nellie M. Scott. She came with me at twelve dollars a week, which did not always get paid. To-day she is the president of the company.

It was Thursday; the shop was working and soon we should be delivering. That was all right. But, also, we had our first pay roll to meet on Saturday. One thing that a man in business cannot do is to pass a pay roll — especially the first one. We could not borrow money at the bank on the strength of a balance of $14.95. So I called up a friend in Bridgeport and asked him if I might draw on him at ten days for two hundred dollars. He told me to go as far as I liked, so long as it didn’t cost him anything. The bank cashed the draft and we met the first pay roll.

Then the second pay roll loomed; and there was also the draft to meet. I tried the telephone again and asked the man who had given us our first order whether it would be worth ten per cent to him to pay in advance. He said that it would, and sent us a check for $450. From day to day, week to week, we crawled along, until at the end of six months we were on our feet, making money and discounting our bills. It sounds easier than it was. The thing that saved us was that always we knew what we were doing. The gamble in business is going ahead without knowing what you are doing.

Progress became increasingly easier. We made money, but we did more than that. I think we have helped make some men. We have never had a man leave us to get higher wages elsewhere — and often they have been offered higher wages. Every man who works with us knows our finances. He knows how his wages are fixed. And all the men seem to think that the wages are fair. Every saving in the cost of manufacturing is divided equally between the company and the men. They seem to think that is fair, too.

We haven’t a man or a woman in an important position who has not grown up with us. Miss Scott, the president, came in as the stenographer and office force; she was also the secretary of the company, because, under the law, I could not hold all the offices in the company. Somebody on the premises had to be secretary. She has learned factory management as well as office management, and is a practical, all-around president, fully able to do somewhat better than hold her own anywhere.

The factory manager had been a life insurance agent. I have always admired the tenacity of life insurance agents. A young man tried to sell me a policy. I liked the way he kept after me, and thought we might use some of his energy. So, instead of taking a policy, I offered him a wage. He took it. Then he asked what I expected him to do.

“How should I know?” I answered. “I’m only paying you. It is up to you to find a job.’

He spent his time going about the factory. Soon people began to ask him where things were, and to treat him generally as a bureau of information. At the end of the year, by common consent, he was the factory manager.

Our vice president came to us, straight from the farm, as an apprentice at three dollars a week. When he had finished his term I asked him if he wanted a technical education. He said that he did. We loaned him a little money, just enough to start. In summer he worked with us. In winter he went to an engineering school. He paid his own way and paid back the loan. He graduated just in time to super-intend the erection of our new factory. Then he took charge of the engineering work.

Another man had tried being a preacher, a lawyer, a book agent. He had been in and out of more jobs than I can remember, and had failed in all of them. One day he asked me for work, and by way of a recommendation mentioned listlessly that I ought to know all about him — that he had tried and failed everywhere.

“Have you ever tried hard work?” I asked. “I’ll hire you for a year at the lowest paid, hardest work in the place.”

He took the place in the furnace room — hot, dirty work. At the end of a year he came in to see me.

“I’ve worked a year now, and I know I am no good. I think I’d better quit,” he opened.

“Do as you like,” I answered. “You have never made more than seven hundred dollars in a year. I will give you fifteen hundred dollars for one year, and if you are not worth more than that at the end you are going to be fired. You can take charge of those furnaces, and be responsible for them twenty-four hours a day.”

“Twenty-four hours a day? When do I sleep?”

“That’s your affair. Do you want the place?”

That man to-day is an expert metallurgist and all but invaluable to us.

* * *

Original page images (two are composites):

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