My dad — who was actually my adoptive dad — has been gone now for nearly 30 years, but I can still hear him on the phone saying, “Hi, Sis — how are things going?” (Sis stood for sister; I do have a brother.)
He was a remarkable man, especially for his time, and I was the luckiest person in the world to have had him as my dad (he and my mom adopted me when I was three days old).
He was the last of eight children, and he was the adored last child. That could have turned out badly; he could have become full of himself and been spoiled rotten. But he didn’t. He became full of love for just about everyone in the world. He had the most contagious warmth of anyone I’ve ever known.
He went into the family business after graduating from college, and stayed with it for years. His family was in furrier business for about 75 years until the 1940s — back when such kinds of garments were totally acceptable — and then the family branched out into women’s clothing stores, all in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
My earliest memories are of being in the Lynn, Mass., store and running to his office for a hug. I had no idea what “owning” a place meant; I just knew I could find my dad there or out on the floors talking to the sales people. And he always had a moment for me.
As a young child and then a teenager, I certainly didn’t realize the lessons I was learning from him, but as I’ve aged, I continue to be amazed at how and what he taught me, back when so many men didn’t act this way (certainly not most of my friends’ dads, anyway).
1. Humility. True humility. He was the owner and boss, but he never “lorded” it over anyone that I could see. He always seemed accessible to anyone who needed a question answered, and he acted as if he were talking peer to peer.
2. Generosity. Starting when I was 15, I worked summers in the basement of our main store in Lynn in the shipping room. My mother wasn’t sure it was fitting for the owner’s daughter to work in such a menial job, but I loved it. My dad wanted me to know right from the start how our money was earned and what it meant to work for a living. No sitting around munching bonbons for me or my brother, that’s for sure!
And I learned from Leo, the old guy (he was maybe 50!) who managed the shipping room, about my dad’s generosity to him. Leo told me he’d lost his own stores a few years earlier, and my dad was the only one who offered him a job. Dad told Leo he knew it wasn’t as grand as Leo had been used to, but it was all he had to give him. Leo was grateful, and I learned several very powerful things from those summers:
* You don’t need to shout to the world when you do a good deed.
* There’s no shame in taking a “lesser” job.
* Always look for ways to help others.
3. Humor. My dad loved to laugh and socialize with friends. He and my mom hosted many small dinner parties during my childhood, and I remember coming downstairs during a party (I was about six) with golf balls stuck in my shirt saying something like “You probably think these are real bosoms, but they’re not!”
My mother hustled me back upstairs, reprimanding me for coming downstairs “that way.” But dad? He roared with laughter and so did their friends. And that this man could see and enjoy the silliness in children even when he was with his friends stayed with me for a long time. He was not embarrassed at all; he loved it. And I heard about it for years, much to the chagrin of my mom.
4. Curiosity. The family had five Rooks Clothing Stores in Massachusetts and two they purchased with the name of Pariseau’s in Manchester and Nashua, NH, by the time I was about 18. The stores were doing well, but he was getting a little bored; he was an eternally curious and ambitious man. Much to my mom’s astonishment, he turned the day-to-day management of the stores over to his brothers, and began figuring out ways to use computers, long before computers were common. He started a computer-based billing system that was probably ahead of its time, and sold it to someone else; then he went to work on one or two other businesses, all ending up successful.
5. Anger Management. I am sure my dad lost his temper occasionally, but I don’t think he did it often. One memory of mine that my mom validates, though, is a night when he came home upset about something and took the silverware drawer out of the cabinet, dumped the contents into the kitchen sink, ran hot water, dumped in some liquid cleaner, and cleaned each piece as if his life depended on it. I could see him sort of vibrating, but he never said a word. He washed each piece carefully and slowly, and looked out the window often. And once each knife, fork, and spoon was cleaned and dried, and put back in its place in the drawer, he turned around and smiled. Whatever had gotten him upset seemed to have vanished along with the suds, down the drain.
I look back, and I’m grateful for those and other lessons that are such a huge part of who I am today, both in my business and personal life. He was the epitome of “Don’t tell someone how to do something; show how it’s done.”
And while another man (and woman) gave me the gift of life, this man — Alexander Rooks — gave me the lessons I needed to live that life properly. I know absolutely that any success I have had in business and in life comes in large part due to his love, support, and endless examples of how things and people should be.