When I was little, maybe in junior high, I read an interview with Eric Clapton in which the interviewer asked what he thought about people calling him the greatest guitar player in the world. He answered that the greatest guitar player in the world is probably sitting on some rickety wooden porch in the woods somewhere in Tennessee.
It’s the same in every walk of life. There are people whose works are known by and visible to many, and others who seem to operate in obscurity.
It’s understandable that we would only apply terms like “greatest” and “best” to ones we know about, because we don’t know about the others. But as was the case with Clapton’s comments about the greatest guitar player, clearly there must be masters who remain under the radar and don’t get credit for their talents, achievements and contributions.
For instance, about 25 years ago, I got to know many of the men who worked and traveled with my father 30 years earlier, when he first married my mom. In the late 1940s, these guys worked on some of the tallest buildings in the country, coating and repairing roofs. Several of the men told me my dad invented the dual-pulley scaffold, to raise and lower men and materials up and down the buildings.
I don’t know if he did or not. Maybe he saw the technique used somewhere along the way during his days in the Civilian Conservation Corps, later in the Coast Guard, or in the Ford factory, but the crews working for that big waterproofing company based out of Long Island had never seen it used before.
I don’t know if anyone ever made any money off the dual-pulley scaffold. Someone must have, but it sure as heck wasn’t my dad.
The fact that he didn’t get paid doesn’t undermine the innovation, it just illustrates his attitude toward money. He didn’t look at the situation and ask himself, how can I make money off of this. Instead, he asked, how can I make it better, how can I improve or serve the situation?
Twenty years beyond his days of working on scaffolds and tall buildings, my dad did get paid for some of his innovations. Every year, from the mid-1960s through the mid-’70s, he was awarded gifts such as cars, TV sets and various household electronics items for his suggestions, through the employee suggestion program, which, when implemented, ended up saving the Ford Motor Co. tens of millions of dollars.
Though he never graduated high school, he was a great engineer and designer. Does it say so anywhere? Nowhere else but here, but it is the truth.
There are people who contribute to world peace by the example of their lives and the way they respond to everyday situations, who will never be awarded a peace prize; teachers and coaches who help build character and fuel the curiosity of young people, who will never be honored by a public proclamation or receive a bonus check for their contributions to our communities and corporations; activists who’ve never marched in a demonstration or carried a protest sign, but who are strong enforcers of fairness, upholders of integrity and creators of opportunity; great warriors who go undecorated and unadorned by ribbons and medals; and artists who stretch our bounds and affect and inspire and influence others, who never receive critical acclaim or financial reward.
And so, because there is such an inordinate amount of attention placed on popularity and sales, I want to stand up and say, here’s to the underground legends and the unsung heroes, and to those who blaze a trail, but for whom the trail will never be named.
Ron Colone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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