“Begin the day with a friendly voice
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that’s so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood.”
—Neil Peart (Rush, “Spirit of Radio”)
The Viennese composer from London had vanished. For the nearly two years he worked for me prior to that, he had raised thousands of dollars for the university. One day he asked me to read his manuscript, The Dramatic Music of Henry Purcell, and then shortly thereafter he was gone.
His eviction final, he had no choice but to find another place to live, which wasn’t easy caring for more than a dozen cats and living on such a fixed income, no matter how well he performed at work. The landlord of his studio apartment had received too many complaints about the smell and the howling late at night.
“Kevin, I’m going to go feed my cats before tonight’s shift,” he’d say to me nearly every single day after the afternoon shift, loaded plastic shopping bags of cat food and other staples in both hands.
We ran two three-hour fund-raising sessions Sunday through Thursday. I loved listening to his voice when he called alumni, parents or friends of San Jose State University. His proper English accent conveyed a honey-laced maturity and polite confidence. He was the only older non-student at the time making fund-raising calls for the annual fund I managed while I attended SJSU.
“Hello, this is Gerhart Reichlin calling from San Jose State University, and I’m reaching out to our esteemed alumni today to help us maintain our quality academic programs…”
He never talked much with the other student callers, just basic pleasantries, and usually the others distanced themselves from him unless the call room was completely full.
Over time his voice betrayed confusion and instability, like spider cracks in a windshield, but I could never discern what if anything was wrong. He was my dad’s age, born in 1932, but with much more hair than him: thick and gray and always unkempt underscored by briar patch eyebrows and wiry hairs that sprouted here and there on his face. He owned one pair of beat-up loafers, two sports coats, two pairs of slacks, and a few perpetually stained off-white dress shirts.
And he smelled. Really bad. All the time. A cross between cats, body odor and the musty air from rooms sealed for decades, which is why everyone in the room wanted their distance. No matter how many complaints I received, and the manager before me had received, he never changed his hygienic behavior for the better. I was such a naïve young manager, just wanting everyone to get along and like me, praying they’d all perform well regardless.
I ended up buying him soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste and a toothbrush (his teeth were stained and crooked, with a few missing, like a dilapidated fence). He always thanked us graciously and took the supplies home, but the next day, he always looked and smelled the same.
Gerhart actually had two college degrees in music, a bachelor’s and a master’s. Sometimes I’d see him take an ratty accordion file folder out from a paper bag he brought once in a while, and compose on coffee-stained music sheets. He was also a writer, and my own aspirational goal of being one was the impetus for him opening up to me somewhat. He shared some of his life with me – snapshots of his travels from the UK to New York to San Jose, to the odd jobs he kept in between, to his socialist sentimentality, to his taking care of his cats, but other details were sparse; he was a disheveled, smelly, cat-owning, highly intelligent but slightly off, fund-raising enigma.
However, he had written a manuscript decades earlier about a 17th-century English composer I had never heard of named Henry Purcell, which wasn’t a stretch considering Baroque composers weren’t on my top-10 list. Or top 100. Or any composers for that matter. Only rock and roll and R&B soul.
Regardless, he really wanted me to read through it and give him my honest feedback. I was honored, this request coming from a man whose life experience was akin to a fine red wine left too long unopened, while I was only 22 years old, my own writing as immature as freshly squeezed grapes. Plus, he had read a few of my short stories with valuable feedback.
I had his manuscript for weeks before I read beyond the cover page. Every day he asked me and every day I told him I was just too busy; at the time I had been reading The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson, about an anti-hero with leprosy being thrust into another world.
Finally, I got beyond page one, and I read his deadly dry prose as far as I could, but what was clear between the lines was the passion he had for this composer, his life and his body of work. I realized that he wrote this homage when he was my age at that time, and decades later he still praised this man’s work – just as I have done for decades with “composer,” writer and musician Neil Peart of the band Rush, now celebrating over 40 years of magic music making morning moods.
I still gave Gerhart a kid-gloves review, keeping his fragile ego in mind, and of course wanting only to be liked. He thanked me repeatedly, holding the manuscript close to his chest like a long-lost friend. A few weeks later, he was gone. Once I finished my college degree and moved on from SJSU, his memory slipped away from me.
Until the TalentCulture #TChat Show when Christoph Trappe talked about authentic storytelling in the workplace. That’s when I started thinking about Gerhart’s life and his impact on mine today, which is why I wrote this piece. I again did a little online research and found that he died in 2004, with no other insight into his life other than when I knew him.
The world shares so much today online about how our work and personal lives are intertwined and combined like continuously mutating DNA; how many of these stories are now transforming recruiting, hiring, continuous development and feedback, leadership development, employee retention, that little-known buzz word called employee engagement, and of course marketing and customer acquisition. Yes, these are the perennial feedback loops on work-life integration itself in the 21st century.
But remember, the workplace merry-go-round ain’t ever slowing down, and the economist reality of creative destruction is upon the world yet again. Whether the wealthy “one percent” and/or the robots completely take over may be a wishbone of contention, but what’s fairly clear is that abstract thinking, creativity, adaptable communication, empathy, storytelling and the unique musicality of being human are the sought-after skills of today and at least the immediate tomorrow.
People may pay more attention to economists, analysts, influencers, the marketplace, and marketing in general (and the robots yet to take over), but they should take a beat and pay even more attention to the storied lives that inspire and sustain individuality and community, that give us something to aspire to or rise above. They are made up of those who share their positive purpose freely, and those who can relate to it, flaws and all, and that which ultimately defines the future for each one of us, one little melodic career tale at a time.
This article was inspired by the TalentCulture #TChat Show. Don’t forget to check out the TalentCulture #TChat Show every Wednesday from 7-8 pm ET (4-5 pm PT). Starting on Wednesday, April 22, our new times will be 1-2 pm ET (10-11 am PT). Join us! And subscribe to the podcast!