Chapter 1: Dirt Farmer's Son

Rise Above Chapter 1

Ability is a poor man's wealth. - John Wooden

My story, and my company’s story, is like a patchwork quilt.

One piece of the quilt is how I overcame my muscular dystrophy “death sentence” to start and grow an enduring and successful business that gives people the world over the ability to lead full and active lives. Another piece is how I surrounded myself with good people, made good products, and got those products to customers who needed them. Yet another is how my colleagues and I worked our way through obstacles that kill lesser companies and in the process built something that will have lasting value long after we’re gone.

Given all the challenges I’ve overcome, some people say my life would make a good movie. That’s all well and good, but I don’t need a Hollywood cast or a big production company to prove my worth. I already have an incredible cast around me, beginning with my wife, Melody, who, in my eyes, is the most beautiful woman in the world. Behind her is a whole crew of people in supporting roles, some at our headquarters in Winamac and some in our dealerships worldwide, who have led this company to its position as the mobility industry leader.1

As anyone at Braun will tell you, the real stars of my story are the people who use our products to overcome their own challenges. This story is as much about them as it is about any of us. Just like my parents demanded for me and just as I demand for myself, our customers demand to live life on their terms, to being the mainstream of society. Where most people see walls, they see doors that have yet to be created. Where others see steps, they see ramps and lifts that have yet to be installed. Where others see chasms, they see bridges that have yet to be built. In our collective mind, we’re not just making wheelchair lifts and converting vans; we’re gaining the ability to get out and cast a vote, visit children and grandchildren, and go to the grocery store, just like everyone else. Our goals are not only for disabled people but also for everyone with whom we come in contact.

How is it that we think this way?

I believe Plato had it right when he said necessity is the mother of invention. As I see it, being born with a silver spoon in your mouth stifles your imagination, intuition, and initiative. It gives you a feeling of entitlement and of special privilege, as though the world owes you something just for being alive.

On the other hand, when you come from more modest beginnings, I think the opposite is true. If nothing is handed to you and you have to work for everything you get, oftentimes your imagination takes flight, you become finely attuned to your surroundings, and you have a drive that will not be denied. You feel privileged to be alive, but you also feel the world owes you nothing in return. In fact, you feel as though you have been given the ultimate gift—life—and as the good book says, “To whom much is given, much is required.”

I definitely fall into the second camp because the values that formed who I am, how I live my life, and how my company does business can be traced back to my parents and grandparents.

To use an old farm expression, I come from a long line of “dirt farmers.” My “official” definition of dirt farmer is someone who farms for subsistence, who does not have any hired hands, who does all of the work himself or herself. Depending on how the nickname is delivered, it can be either an insult or a compliment.

Oh the poor old dirt farmer, he’s lost all his corn, and now where’s the money to pay off his loan?

That appropriately describes the economics of being a dirt farmer, but it does not do justice to the values and work ethic that come from working the land.

In the farm country of western Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the path my German immigrant grandparents took before they finally set up farming in Indiana, you’re as much a part of the land as the dirt you dig in. In the Midwest, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust” has a very real meaning. Working hard, showing restraint, keeping your word, taking responsibility for your actions, being practical, and working as a team are sure as sunrise. Dirt farmers have the ability to delay gratification while looking to the future; they expect to reap the rewards when the timing is right and not a moment sooner. Adrenaline-fueled, temporary wins, and the hottest crazes and crowds are not for them. Their survival and success come through consistency and continuous improvement. Dirt farmers are also naturally humble, primarily because they have to be: they can’t control the weather and therefore can’t change many of their circumstances. However, while dirt farmers can’t say when there will be floods, freezes, or fires, they can tend to their machinery, livestock, and supplies. In other words, they can accept the things they cannot change and take charge of the things they can.

That description fits my grandfather, Frances (Frank) Braun. Grandpa Braun, on my father’s side, born in 1860, was the youngest of nine children from the small community of Lohnweiler, Germany. He came to America with the rest of his family in 1875. Most of the family settled in Wisconsin, but my grandfather made his home near Winamac, Indiana. That’s where my own father, Joseph, was born in 1908.

They lived a hardscrabble existence.

While a lot of Depression-era farmers headed west for what they thought would be the greener pastures of California, my grandfather stayed put. He lived in a little trailer house on land that I, incidentally, would buy and build a home on for my own family in 1974. Right or wrong, he simply would not give in. He was stubborn and too proud to be told what to do. Dedicated to his family and community, he wouldn’t dream of uprooting them or leaving their side to go find work. Although he was not alone in the way he thought and acted and he was not one to readily share his innermost thoughts, I do know how he felt, especially on the issue of community.

As was often the case, when Depression-era dirt farmers lost their homes and lands to creditors and were sent, heartbroken, into poverty, most people in the community pulled together to help one another out. However, some chose money over community and had no problem profiting off those less fortunate. These people cared more about their own lives than the lives of their neighbors.

This kind of behavior and attitude did not sit well with my grandfather. Helping your fellow man was something in which he strongly believed, and he passed it on to my father and my father on to me. I can’t say I’m perfect at being a servant to humanity, but I always try to do my best.

It was not uncommon in those hard times for “country folk” to eat rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, woodchucks, and pretty much anything else that could be shot or caught in a trap. My grandparents were getting by with a little more success and were able to take care of themselves somewhat better than other people in similar situations. As in most dirt-farming families, the roles were clear: my grandfather worked hard to put food on the table, and my grandmother cooked it. You might imagine from this division of labor that perhaps my grandfather was hard and my grandmother soft, but that’s not true. My grandfather may have butchered a hog and brought it into the house, but my grandmother had to prepare, salt, and cook it. Although my grandfather might have been physically tough, my grandmother was both physically and emotionally tough.

My grandfather wore a beat-up hat, a blue work shirt, a vest, jeans, and constantly mended shoes. He was a hardworking, down-to-earth farmer who spent his days working the land and getting his hands dirty. My grandmother wore a faded flower-print dress and old shoes that she also frequently mended. She had one other dress, a gray Mother Hubbard, with a rounded neckline and a flowing skirt that scared their horse when the fabric blew in the breeze. Together, they were very modest and were not so much concerned about their clothing as they were about feeding their family and doing their chores.

Other men might have worn their jeans rolled up at the ankles, with cowboy boots, a Stetson hat, a plaid shirt with pens in the shirt pocket, and a belt with a huge buckle, like James Dean or Steve McQueen—who, by the way, were born in Marion and Beech Grove, Indiana, respectively. Men like that were rugged and coarse and wanted the world to know it. Those people were not as connected to the land as my grandparents were. Others used any extra money they earned to grab the attention of the opposite sex. If my grandparents earned any extra money, my grandfather might buy new overalls and my grandmother a new dress, but they would have put most of the money back into the farm. They thought of clothing in practical terms; style was not part of their concern. The garments on their backs were just a means of modestly covering their bodies and protecting them from the harsh and unforgiving Indiana weather.

On my mother’s side of the family, my great-grandfather was a tailor by profession, and fabric and clothing obviously played a more substantial role in his life. His name was William Friske. He was born in Germany in 1868, and his family moved to Indiana in 1879.

Although my great-grandfather’s son, my Grandpa Asa Freeman, became an Indiana dirt farmer just like those on the Braun side of my family, my great-grandfather’s skills as a tailor would be passed down to my mother and then down to me. As a consequence, both my mother and I used our tailoring abilities as a means to get various things we wanted. For example, my mother, one of 12 children, was the only member of her family to go to college. She paid for her education by tailoring other families’ clothes and working as a nanny for a lawyer who had a large family. Later, when I made my first scooters, my mother sewed the fabric on the seat cushions.

My mother also taught me how to “peg” pants, which was something I did as a teenager to earn extra money. In the 1950s, pegged pants were the style of the day, and I used to my advantage the desire of young men to be cool with their peers and with the girls. I would take a pair of Levi’s, and, using my mother’s sewing machine, I would taper the pants so close that a guy could barely scrunch them on over his feet. It was a big deal because he could show his ankle and a little of his leg—and prove that he was somebody because he could afford to pay someone to peg his pants. I was that someone.

Besides benefiting from the hereditary traits of hard work, solid values, and care for fellow people that were passed on to me by my ancestors, I also learned, by osmosis, much more. At an early age, I learned how to be in the right place at the right time, to make the most of an opportunity, and to trust my instincts—all of which would be recurring themes throughout my life.

My dirt farmer forebears may not have had much money, but what they gave me was far more valuable than mere dollars and cents. They gave me the drive to make the most of my ability and the compassion to help others make the most of theirs.

Their timeless gifts helped me create my company, and for that, I am blessed beyond compare.

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