Chapter 2: As Heroes Go

Rise Above Chapter 2

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.- Ralph Waldo Emerson

When someone asked me recently who my heroes were as a child, the question stopped me in my tracks. No, that’s understating it. I believe I turned my head, groaned, and excused myself to leave the room so I could attend a “meeting” I had suddenly “remembered.”

Why did I respond like this to such an innocent question? Do I have no heroes? Like anyone growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, I certainly had plenty of heroic figures to choose from: Generals Dwight David Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Douglas MacArthur; Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman; and scientists Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, and Albert Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in theoretical physics, were just a few.

Do I not think military veterans are heroes? During my childhood, soldiers fought wars in Europe, Japan, and Korea. When I was a young adult, they fought in Vietnam. They gave their lives and limbs so others could be free, so citizens in this country and abroad could retain their way of life, and so children and grandchildren everywhere could one day have a chance at leaving this world a better place than when they entered it.

Yes, I do believe in heroes, and those I’ve mentioned are some of the greatest. The world has seen and will see many more heroes, from all walks of life. So why was I uncomfortable being asked for examples of my childhood heroes?

I wince when saying this, but perhaps it’s because of all the times I’ve been called a hero myself.

This will come as no surprise to everyone who knows me and, most of all, to my family, friends, and colleagues, but I am by no means a hero. In fact, I know that by even denying that I am one, I risk the admonishment of my 98-year-old mother, who to this day still has no problem keeping things in perspective for me. Better yet, to use one of her phrases, she has no problem letting me know when I’m getting “too big for my britches.”

You see, I don’t mind being admired or looked up to because of who I am as a person or because I have built a successful business. What I do mind is being called a hero for doing virtually the same things as everyone else. I’m not the only one; I know plenty of other people with disabilities who feel the same way.

Fortunately, my parents helped me understand and prepare for this complicated dynamic, both in their words and by the example of their actions. As I said earlier, they demanded that I be in the mainstream of society and did everything possible to make it so. They said I was the same as everyone else and just as people without disabilities didn’t walk around marveling at how they weren't disabled, I shouldn’t go through life bemoaning the fact that I was. Instead, I should work hard, keep my word, be faithful, and practice all the other values their own parents taught them.

As for hard times and heroes, I like the words of Alabama governor Bob Riley, who also comes from a long line of farmers: “Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed.”

That describes my parents in a nutshell. Though neither one of them would want me to “brag on them,” the story of their character and circumstances gives a far clearer understanding of me, as well as of my company.

In 1930, while my dad was in his early twenties and still wooing my mom from his home in Winamac, he had stopped dirt farming and gotten work as a custodian on the night shift at Holy Name Hospital in LaPorte, Indiana. My mother was attending the Indiana Business College in South Bend, working as a housecleaner, and mending clothes, just like her grandfather did. They were both hardworking, enterprising people, to say the least.

One August evening, as my father was driving his girlfriend and future bride, Olive Freeman, through Knox, Indiana, on her way back to school in South Bend, a driver crossed the centerline and struck them head-on. An ambulance took my father to LaPorte, to the very hospital he worked for. Though I have no knowledge of this, it would not surprise me in the least if he had the ambulance take him to LaPorte just so he could be there for work the next day.

When he got to the hospital, the doctors examined him and found he had suffered a compound fracture to his right leg and extensive internal injuries; to make matters worse, he had broken his back so badly they had little hope for him. My mother miraculously escaped any serious injury, apparently because she was thrown from the vehicle. They thought my father would not make it to the next day, so they put him on a gurney and left him in a hallway. It is almost unimaginable to me that they would be so callous and uncaring with another person’s life, but that's what they did.

As my dad lay in agony in the dimly lit hallway for hours, forgotten about and left to die, a miracle of true heroism occurred. Winamac doctor Thomas Carneal, who had sent a patient to the LaPorte Holy Name Hospital to receive some specialized care, happened to walk down that hallway at that very moment to visit his patient. As he passed my dad, the doctor looked up briefly from the chart he was reading and glanced at him. In a doubletake right out of the movies, he went back to the gurney, leaned over, and took a closer look. “Why, I’ll be. Joe Braun, what are you doing lying in this hallway?”

As my dad tried to mumble out an answer, the doctor took charge and barked orders to those around him. In almost no time, an operating room was reserved, a team was assembled, and the doctor went to work surgically saving my dad’s life.

Now that’s what I call a heroic act.

It’s funny how life’s circumstances bring people together. Dr. Carneal had first opened a private hospital in Winamac in 1920. Staffed with four nurses and eight beds, the hospital met the needs of Winamac residents until 1948, when Dr. Carneal began sending patients to out-of-county hospitals to receive more advanced care than he could provide at his local hospital. Although he closed his private hospital—the last of its kind in Indiana—he was not done yet. He had a bigger vision: the construction of a larger, more modern hospital that could serve all of Pulaski County. Upon completion of Pulaski Memorial Hospital, Dr. Carneal became chief of staff. Eventually, all five of my children would be born in that hospital and my employees would receive their health care there as well.

As for my father, after the operation, he obviously couldn’t continue his job as a custodian, so he moved in with his older sister on a small farm back in Winamac. As he went through rehabilitation and his back grew stronger, he continued to court my mom. This was a man who would not be kept down—and neither would my mom, who was self-financing her education by working several jobs.

Finally, though my dad had recovered enough strength to return to work, instead of going back to his custodial job at the hospital, he went to something he knew—farming—only this time he would farm on land he didn’t own. He became a tenant farmer, which some might say was a step below dirt farmer because he was digging in someone else’s dirt and not his own. What’s more, he did this even after breaking his back. Although he had healed, his back was not what it was before the accident and would bother him for the rest of his life. Years later, when he and I would work together on something, I’d sometimes see the pain etched on his face, so I knew it bothered him. I never said anything about it, and neither did he; he just went on with life.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression I think people should hide their feelings or deny their pain. After all, terrible things sometimes happen in life, and people hurt very deeply. How they choose to deal with the pain is entirely up to them. In my father’s case, if asked about it, he’d answer, but he wouldn’t dwell on it, and he wouldn’t proactively start talking about it. Rather, he looked at his bad back as an obstacle that needed to be overcome, not as an excuse that could be used to justify a diminished life.

That lesson has meant everything in my life and has stuck with me in more ways than I can count. The thing is my father never had to undertake a fancy “communications campaign” to get this point across to me. He never wrote a book to “codify” his “theories.” He did not hang posters on the walls of our house or create laminated wallet cards to be used as constant reminders of how he felt about things. He did not gather our family in the living room twice a year and give us a speech about his goals for the year or how he expected us to live our lives. He taught us by example, and we knew what to do.

That’s kind of how I do things at my company. For instance, almost every day when I arrive at work, I go straight to the shop floor to talk with our engineers and production workers. I don’t do it because some management textbook or high-priced consulting guru told me “management by walking around” improves “employee morale” and “has a direct correlation with productivity gains.” I don’t do it so I can “take the temperature of my employee base” so I can “engage them in a meaningful way” and thereby “ensure their loyalty and dedication.”

Give me a break.

Over the years, many well-meaning consultants have actually tried to convince me to give them a lot of money so they could tell me these things. Now, we’re not a billion-dollar company—though I can see that in our future—and maybe when we get bigger, we’ll have to worry about such nonsense, but today our employees know exactly what to expect from me, and I like that.

So why do I go down to the shop first thing every morning? The truth is I love it. I absolutely love it. I love seeing guys with grease on their hands, cutting metal, and piecing it together to create something that wasn’t there before. I love looking inside a van with a group of engineers so we can figure out our way around a problem, such as giving passengers more room for their chairs, installing a little cubbyhole to store their things in, or making the sliding door fit more snugly. I love the smell of metal being cut and the noise of banging hammers, revving engines, and high-tech lasers. Most of all, I love the ideas that flow out of the place. Every single day, the people of my company are coming up with ideas that will improve the lives of an awful lot of people. This gives me great satisfaction, but to be honest, I do it mostly because I love it.

That brings me back to my parents, who told me to find something to do that I loved and then do it with all my heart. Actually, that’s probably a little too touchy-feely for what they really said. It was probably more like, “Boy, you better do what you love ’cause once you start working, you’re going to be at it for a long time.”

After my father recovered from his injury, farming was something he was familiar with, so that’s what he turned to. He also married my mom, a beautiful, talented, and intelligent woman. Together, they moved twice in rapid succession, as my dad took on work as a tenant farmer. They also had their first child, my sister, Joan.

Three years later, a few months after I was born on December 18, 1940, my parents came upon a unique opportunity. They moved our family to a 60-acre farm and evergreen nursery in Winamac, where my dad took on a job as a horticulturist and tenant farmer. The nursery was owned by I. J. Matthews, who sold the evergreens in his retail store in Gary, Indiana.

He would call my dad from the store in Gary and say he was sending a truck down to Winamac to pick up 15 trees the next day. My dad would dig up all of those trees and prepare them for the truck, bad back and all, no questions asked. At the end of the day, as my mom tried to nurse him through the night and ease all the discomfort, he was in so much pain it was almost as if he’d been in the accident all over again. Yet he never complained. He did this job for 10 years, and though I can’t say he loved his work, he didn't dislike it.

My dad worked hard for everything he got, which wasn’t much. More than anything, he loved his family and was content to take care of us. That’s why, about six years into his experience at the tree nursery, he and my mom took me to that hospital in Indianapolis that fateful day to see whether they could improve my life. That’s why when the doctor told my parents it would be a good idea for them to leave me at the hospital so they could study me, they said no. That’s why my dad carried me on his damaged back, my mom tried everything conceivable to find solutions to my problems, and, together, they showed me the way to a life well-lived.

As heroes go, I’d have to put my mom and dad at the top of the list.


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