Updated: Aug 4, 2021
When I hear the phrase, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” my mind doesn’t gravitate toward the cars, the air conditioners, the tools, the houses, or any other object whose quality and lifespan pales in comparison to the earlier models. Instead, I think of a person—my grandfather, to be exact. A product of the Great Depression, a World War II veteran, a college football player, a scratch golfer, an expert fisherman, a family man, and a gifted storyteller, Vernon Heichel passed away a few months ago at the age of 99. What he left behind, though, is the true measure of his legacy.
My grandfather did not teach lessons by lecture; he lived his truths. As I examine my own life, I see that many of his lessons have impacted the trajectory of my life in ways both subtle and profound. My grandfather, for instance, never knew a stranger. Although it could be highly embarrassing at times, he would come away from any errand, no matter how mundane, with the full name and extensive biography of at least three people.
“Stephen,” he would say, as we returned to the car, “I just met the most remarkable individual.”
Everyone was a “remarkable individual” to my grandfather. Everyone had a story, and it was those stories that he loved so deeply. His ability to make people feel heard and acknowledged rivaled anything in the works of Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie—he listened, and I mean he really listened. And then he recounted, in shockingly specific and accurate detail, the entire encounter after the fact. More than once I was regaled with the personal history of waitresses, bank tellers, grocery store cashiers, and, to the frustration of cars behind us, drive thru window operators.
These encounters turned, over time, into the stories that dotted my grandfather’s conversation like punctuation marks. How easily he would slip into recounting the time he met a friend who do this or said that. He was also the great equalizer. Cultural status or class standing played no part with him—he was at home with the gas station clerks and the country club patrons equally. At one point he was telling me a story about a trip to New York City which involved him sitting down at a bar, ordering a drink, and looking around for a conversation.
“I was sitting right next to someone who looked incredibly familiar,” he said. “Turns out, she was Lucille Ball.”
“Lucille Ball?” I asked incredulously. “As in I Love Lucy?”
“Yes,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Well? Did you talk with her? What was she like? What did she say?”
I was thoroughly intrigued—most of my grandfather’s stories were about people I didn’t know and here, at last, was a celebrity encounter.
“She was nice,” he said. “But while we were talking the most remarkable individual came up—an older gentleman who owned a factory. He told us all about some struggles he was having with the union workers.”
“Wait, but what about Lucille Ball?” I asked.
“This factory was on the east coast near Cape Cod and apparently was situated on the most beautiful piece of land,” he continued, nonplussed.
Such was my grandfather—the encounter with Lucille Ball was only a stepping stone to his story about the factory owner.
My grandfather loved people. And, what’s more, they loved him back. You’ve never seen someone with so many friends—it brings to mind the emotional ending of It’s a Wonderful Life where George’s brother, speaking of the riches that come from true friendship, says, “Here’s to my big brother George, the richest man in town.” My grandfather was George Bailey—if given the chance to walk through his life where he had not been present, it would truly be a world for the worse. Imagine leaving this world a better place than you found it—could anyone achieve more?
It would take more than a blog post to detail all of my grandfather’s admiral characteristics, but the area in which he most influenced my life involved his approach to saving. My grandfather represented the classic Great Depression stereotype of use it until it breaks, then fix it, and use it again. He resented waste in all forms.
“Stephen,” he would say, leaning back in his chair, “When I was in college, I worked on a muck farm. Now that was hard work. Before classes in the morning and then again after football practice. Do you know how much I got paid?”
“How much?” I would ask, knowing perfectly well the answer.
“A quarter a day. $.25. And, boy, was that good money! Even better, though, is I got to take home all the cabbages I wanted. I ate a lot of cabbage during that time.”
Once he gets started on this story, the rest follow in a steady, reliable stream.
“Stephen,” he would say, “A savings account is one of the most important things you can have. Save ten percent. Of everything. The first ten percent, not the last. Set it aside and don’t touch it. You never know when you’ll have an emergency and need it. You do have a savings account, right?”
After I assure him that I do, in fact, have a savings account, he continues by telling the story of being newly married, on his honeymoon, with all the money to his name in his pocket as he headed toward a new, beautiful life with his bride. The story goes on to describe his initial shock followed by an overwhelming sense of horror when he went to feel his pocket, after passing through a busy street, only to feel a stunning emptiness.
“I had been robbed!” he said with great exclamation. “Every penny, they took every penny. We had nothing left—completely broke.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well, I had to borrow money from my father-in-law. Talk about embarrassing—I had just married his daughter and here I was, asking him for money because I had been robbed. And, mind you, I didn’t ask for a handout—it was a loan. Boy, did I pay that back fast. I hate being in debt. If there’s one thing I hate, more than peach fuzz and pickled pig’s feet, it’s debt. Nothing worse than being in debt. Promise me you’ll never be in debt.”
“I promise, Grandpa,” I would say.
“Pay cash for your car,” he said. “Never finance it. A real man pays for things outright. If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. There’s something to be said about working hard and saving your money. Never owe anyone anything. The only exception is your house. Get a mortgage if you have to, but pay it off quickly. Do you have a mortgage now?”
“What’s your interest rate?” he asked.
“Four percent,” I said.
“Now listen,” he said, “every dollar you give them, every single dollar toward the mortgage, is four cents on the dollar. Four cents for every dollar. That’s a consistent return for the length of the mortgage.”
Like all other beliefs in his life, my grandfather lived what he preached. He grew up dirt poor with a mother who saved money in a coffee can in order to pay for his college textbooks (he was only able to attend college due to a football scholarship). He embraced those lessons, he understood sacrifice, and he worked as hard or harder than anyone. He saved his money, invested conservatively, worked even harder, and ended up building a life for his family bigger than anything he could have dreamed.
My grandfather retired early from the taxing life of a traveling salesman and bought a farm in Michigan where he would regularly entertain my brother and me for a week at a time. It’s no exaggeration to say that these farm memories with my grandparents were some of the happiest memories of my childhood and peppered throughout these weeks would be the influence of my grandfather’s life lessons.
His early retirement, due to his achievement of financial freedom early in life, was spent in the pursuit of the people he loved and the things he loved. He was generous with his family, and he knew how to have fun. He used his retirement to truly live life and to invest in the lives of those around him. Whether hitting balls on the golf course or going fishing off the shore, he filled his days with activities that reminded him that life is beautiful and worth the living.
My grandfather knew the value of hard work. Like others from his generation, he worked from sunup until sundown and then worked some more. My grandfather was the kind of guy who walked uphill to school and uphill home, regardless the weather. He excelled at work, saved his money, provided for his family, and put food on the table. He was a good ‘ol boy and a gentleman, a shrewd investor and a penny pincher, a man who worked with his hands and kept his mind sharp. My grandfather was as fine a person as they come, and you can be sure they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.