My First Boss, 1950-2013
December 18, 2013 6 Comments
At age 16 the thought of a part-time after-school job never occurred to me until I received a letter one day from a man named David Sleppy, owner/operator of the McDonald’s down the street from my high school. His store had launched a new recruitment program that offered a higher starting wage to applicants who were on the school’s honor roll — $3.85/hour at a time when minimum wage was $3.35/hour. As an introverted, insular kid with no self-awareness and minimal exposure to social worlds beyond my own limited boundaries, it wasn’t tempting until I did the math and realized that $3.85/hour was greater than my $5/week allowance. I figured why not. And hey, the letter guaranteed the job. Back in those days, silver platters were my favorite way of receiving things.
Mom drove me down there the next day and I filled out an application, but left most of the blanks empty because I had no experience and no idea how to sell myself on qualities alone. I saw no blank that allowed me to describe myself as “smart” and “nice”. But it didn’t matter to me anyway. I had the letter.
When I handed it to the manager on duty, he said they’d keep it on file. He brusquely sent me on my way, despite the letter. I was crestfallen.
Later that same day, David called me personally and told me I was hired.
For me, that’s when life began.
By 1988 David and his wife had only owned the store for two years. They’d previously lived and worked for the company down in Kentucky until they scrimped and saved enough to buy their own franchise. As I recall, the store didn’t have the best reputation in years prior. Even as a figurative boy-in-a-bubble, I wasn’t surprised that it had been up for grabs.
When I was a teenager, David was amiable and encouraging to me, even if he was annoyed that the managers on duty were overlooking some deficiencies on their shifts. Sometimes he would have to correct me, but I always knew why I needed to do something differently. I wasn’t faced with “Because I said so, ” but rather, “You need to do it this way, and this is why.” His admonitions were laconic but firm, never delivered with wrathful vengeance or petty nitpicking like the cartoonish restaurant bosses you see in movies or on TV. The better managers watched and learned from him, too.
As I stuck with the job beyond graduation and into my college years, the raises and promotions kept coming. When I became a swing manager two years after starting, I’m pretty sure I was a nervous wreck for about a year. He still offered pointers and encouragement as needed, but he made sure I knew that his expectations of me raised as well. I heard more lectures if I was seriously screwing up — or worse, if other employees were screwing up and I, the ostensible man in charge, wasn’t catching it.
You could always tell whenever he came in, because everyone around you would stiffen and yell, “DAVID’S HERE!” with the implied warning being, “Everyone act busy and do everything right for a change!” I would panic a little involuntarily, too, but not because I was afraid he would yell at me or fire me or kick me down the basement stairs or whatever they were imagining. I respected him enough that I hoped whatever I was doing at that particular moment wasn’t besmirching his store or ruining a customer’s meal.
I only remember seeing his temper really flare twice in front of me: once when a major project required him to be present into the wee hours of the night, and he wasn’t in the mood to brook multiple errors from anyone (I can’t blame him in hindsight, really); and once in a meeting where we were reviewing the corporation’s iron-fisted crackdown on, of all things, our handwashing procedures. This was the result of a nationally publicized incident in which an elderly lady had died from foodborne illness allegedly transmitted from the contaminated hands of an employee at some competitor fast-food joint in some other state. For someone to die from something as senseless as a burger-flipper’s lazy soap aversion is unconscionable. We all struggled to wrap our heads around it when we heard the news. Such a pointless tragedy had him holding the meeting in a mood approaching righteous fury.
Thankfully most of my mistakes were small and quickly forgiven. He was a great example that way. That held true even when I discovered Girls and began letting my work performance plummet. When things got really bad — as in actionable offenses if they had been committed against another, unkinder operator — he called me outside for the kind of Serious Chat usually reserved for father/son talks. (What I’ve seen of those on TV, anyway.) He told me in his usual calm, measured manner about what he called the “young, stupid male” phase that every guy goes through. He went through it, he’d seen plenty of others do it, and now it was my turn.
That didn’t mean he was cool with what I was doing. That meant it was time for me to knock it off.
His pulse never got above 85, even when I really, really wanted to swallow my own tongue.
It’s the only real intervention I’ve ever had in my life. Thankfully it worked.
In all I stayed with the company twelve years. As David opened and/or bought other stores in the area, his attentions became more and more divided. I saw him a little less as the job wore on, but I eventually reached the point where he didn’t have to worry about standing over me anymore.
He wasn’t the kind of employer who considered our paychecks all the thanks we needed. He adopted a rudimentary health-insurance program before many competitors did. I recall the joy when he introduced a system for hourly employees to accrue paid time-off. Until I dropped out, he paid for all my college textbooks, even though my major had nothing to do with business or food. He gave Christmas presents to all his employees every year. I still have the ornament in the shape of a tiny McDonald’s store with a “Jingle Bells” sound chip, the stuffed Sebastian the Crab ornament, and the awesome Deluxe Scrabble set whose board is mounted on a turntable and has segmented letter slots so your words can’t slide around. One year, he gave us all frozen turkeys, and he didn’t even need visits from three ghosts to inspire him to it.
When I switched career tracks in 2000, my reasons had nothing to do with him at all. I saw him in person only one more time after that, a couple years later when I stopped at one of his stores for breakfast. Mostly we each confirmed the other was doing well, and he seemed at least a little impressed that I had parlayed my decade of management experience (made entirely possible by him) into a full-time office job that normally would’ve required a college degree (which I lack to this day).
He kept busy outside his restaurants, too. In 2009 he published a book called No One Sees Me, a collection of photographs he took of the homeless. The book’s official site is still active as of today, and explains his charitable premise in detail. Our local NBC affiliate even interviewed him for a news segment, still viewable online. Apparently I wasn’t the only human to whom he showed tremendous kindness.
I may not have been cut out for his line of work in the long run, but if not for him taking a chance on me — with all my promotions and with my initial hiring as a pimply-faced teen — I wouldn’t have qualified for my current job, either. I wouldn’t have learned the necessary life skills to survive in an office environment, cope with other people of radically differing mindsets, or generally function as a competent adult. If not for him, I also might not have met my amazingly wondrous wife, nor would my son even exist. For all I know, somewhere out there is an alternate-Earth me who never took him up on that employment offer and to this day is living in someone’s basement like a better-fed Gollum.
Last Friday evening, my wife and I received the terrible news that David had passed away at age 63. He’d only learned a few days earlier that he had developed advanced-stage cancer. As far as we know, he had no idea that he had less than a week to live. It wasn’t nearly enough time to reach out and contact everyone he knows, and I’m sure he had better things to do, but word has been passing along the social networks among those of use who got our start with his company and owe him gratitude — and then some — for where we are today.
Thanks, David, for giving me the chance to become something better than a young, stupid male.