My good friend Dennis (who values his privacy, hence no last name here) is retiring tomorrow after some forty-odd years of government service. We went out for drinks and dinner last night to say our goodbyes, but I also wanted to pay him tribute here on my humble blog.
Now, Dennis is one of those unique individuals some of us have the good fortune to encounter during this journey we call life. I consider him something of a renaissance man with a passion for learning and adventure. He’s an accomplished musician (guitar and mandolin), an avid bicyclist (he’s done the week-long Ride the Rockies tour several times), and an experienced world traveler. He’s brilliant, but also one of the most unassuming, down to earth individuals you could hope to meet. I can say without equivocation that he was the most hardworking, dedicated, and loyal employee I ever had the pleasure to employ. And more importantly, he has been a steadfast friend for more than twenty years now.
Dennis began his service to our nation as a foot soldier on the front lines in Vietnam. Like most combat veterans, he rarely spoke of his experiences there. He did tell me once that the battle scenes in the movie Forrest Gump brought back memories that left him shaken for awhile. He came back from the war, earned his degree as an English major, and briefly taught in the public schools. Then he went to work as a clerk for the Postal Service in Minneapolis, later transferring to Asheville, NC and eventually joining the management ranks as a Labor Relations Specialist.
Our paths first crossed in 1993 at a meeting in Greensboro, NC. I had taken a labor relations job with the newly created Mid-Atlantic Area office, although I was still domiciled in Columbia. The purpose of the meeting was to establish how the Area office would manage working relationships with the field offices. Prior to the start of the meeting (and introductions) I was sitting near Dennis and he was holding court about “the big shots coming down from the Area office to try and tell us how to do our jobs”. Did I mention he could be a bit of a smart-ass? Anyway, the look on his face when I introduced myself as one of the Area big shots was priceless. Over the course of the meeting though Dennis impressed me with his candor and intelligence. When I returned to Columbia I told the Human Resources Director that I had the perfect candidate for his vacant Manager, Labor Relations position. Dennis got the job and our long professional relationship began, as did our friendship.
Several years later I was promoted and moved to Arlington, VA and I was looking for someone to fill my old job. Dennis applied, and prior to the start of his interview I made him stand, raise his right hand, and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I could tell he was taken aback by this tactic, but of course he gave the oath. During the course of the interview I asked why he thought he was the best candidate for the job. He responded that his winning record as an arbitration advocate was second to none. I then asked “are you saying your record is better than mine? And remember, you are under oath”. It should come as no surprise that I can be a bit of a dick myself. Of course, I hired him and moved him up to Arlington to join me.
In those days, we traveled quite a bit and on occasion we’d be in the same city. Now, what happens on the road, stays on the road so I can’t reveal how Dennis earned the nickname “Deacon” in Philadelphia. Or the incident involving a bottle of champagne. And of course, he could retaliate with stories about me (like the time I played the part of “asshole boss” and made him carry my bags in the Columbus airport). Suffice to say, we worked hard and played hard and made us some nice memories.
Dennis eventually got promoted and became my peer at the Area office in Windsor, CT. And I had a nice time visiting him there. Later on he moved to a position at Postal Service Headquarters and we got to hang out more frequently. Then I left USPS for the Education Department and shortly thereafter Dennis signed on with the Department of Agriculture and moved to Fort Collins, CO. Another great place to visit!
Dennis continued to establish his reputation throughout the government as the go to expert in labor and employee relations. Which led him to be hired by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in DC, the folks in charge of the entire Federal workforce! Yep, my protege done good and I felt a sense of vicarious pride in his accomplishments.
Meanwhile, I had moved to Korea and when the time came to fill a labor relations vacancy on my staff, I immediately thought of Dennis. The problem was Dennis was big time now and I couldn’t match his DC salary. But I called him up anyway. I said “Dennis, how would you like the adventure of living and working in Korea?” He thought that sounded pretty exciting. I said “would you be wiling to work here for less pay?” That wasn’t as appealing to him. Then I asked him how long his daily commute was and he told me at least an hour a day. I asked what was he paying in rent and he responded over $2000. a month. So I told him what if I were to say if you come to Korea I can give you back one hour of your life everyday and give you a nicer place to live for free? And that’s how I scored the best labor relations guy in the USA to work for me in Seoul. Oh yeah, I also told Dennis I’d give him 10,000 for coming. True to my word, when I met him at the airport in Incheon I handed him a crisp W10,000 bank note. Well, he professes that he is still glad he came.
I retired and Dennis stayed on. I’m back and now he’s ready to move on to the next chapter of his life. And what a chapter it’s going to be! He closes out his career tomorrow and is on a plane bound for the Philippines Saturday morning. He sold or gave away everything he owns except one suitcase of clothes and his guitar. Dennis has chosen to spend his retirement years as a nomad.
After two weeks in the PI, he’ll fly to Cambodia, then Vietnam, then Thailand. After that, it’s off to Australia, then a two week cruise to various ports-of-call in New Zealand. That gets him through February. “Where then?” I asked and he said wherever I feel like going.
Damn, I envy that. Even though I know I wouldn’t have the balls to live that lifestyle. Dennis did promise to respond to my emails asking “where in the world are you?” and I promised to meet up with him for a few days now and again in whatever exotic location he finds himself.
Enjoy the rest of your life my friend. You’ve earned it.