This nice guy doesn’t finish last
Everybody has to decide for themselves what’s important in life. For some, like legendary major league baseball manager Leo Durocher, it was winning – by any means. He once said, “If I were playing third base and my mother were rounding third with the run that was going to beat us, I’d trip her. Oh, I’d pick her up and brush her off and say, ‘Sorry, Mom,’ but nobody beats me.”
Being nice was not a part of Durocher’s value system. In fact, it was Durocher who coined the famous phrase, “Nice guys finish last.” The clear implication is that if you’re a nice guy, you’re a loser.
That only matters if you agree with Durocher about what’s important in life. But there are people like Bob and Martha Carlson of New Castle who have a completely different set of values, established in their youth and lived consistently throughout their lives.
They have always been considerate of others, willing to serve their community, and committed to raising a family; and that attitude has never interfered with their success. In fact, those characteristics were the keys to it.
Through the years, they have quietly, unassumingly accomplishing greater things than men like Leo Durocher ever dream of – including a personal athletic record that perhaps no one else has ever achieved.
Bob and Martha (Harris) were born in the same month of the same year (February, 1927), about a mile away from each other, but they didn’t know each other until they were in high school.
As early as elementary school, Bob showed some characteristics that would serve him well in the future.
“In grade school they gave awards for perfect attendance,” he said, “so I didn’t miss any school.”
Bob went through high school with straight A’s, and became very good at basketball. He graduated in 1944 at the age of 17. The war was going on. Bob knew he would have to go into the service, but not until he was 18. That gave him enough time to start college.
“I was most valuable player of the local YMCA tournament when I was a senior,” Bob said. “The coach from University of Pennsylvania was a guest speaker. I didn’t even know where the University of Pennsylvania was. I didn’t think I would be able to go to college because money was very tight. I was awarded a scholarship with an extra stipend so it didn’t cost me anything to go. It was an accelerated program then because of the war. I graduated from high school on the 15th, got my letter of acceptance, went down on the second of July and started college.”
Bob finished his first semester before he turned 18 in February, 1945. Fortunately, the war was approaching its end.
“During April, while I was in boot camp in Illinois, Roosevelt, Mussolini, and Hitler all died,” he said.
He attended several navy schools before being released from the service.
“It so happened that when I got out in August, I got home on Friday, got engaged to Martha on Saturday, and on Sunday went back to Penn and started my classes.”
While Bob attended Penn, Martha went to business school in Wilkes-Barre. They got married in June, 1947. During the following summer, they had to earn some money, so they both worked at a summer camp for the kids of wealthy urban families.
“The kids were very spoiled,” Martha said. “I didn’t last long. That was a bad summer for me.”
The next academic year, Martha moved to Philadelphia with Bob. She got a job in an orthopedic clinic.
“It was tough work,” she said, “but I liked it.”
For most engineering students, the academic challenge is enough of a struggle in itself. Playing basketball makes it even tougher. But Bob was more than equal to the task.
“I had never even seen a college basketball game,” he said. “but I played in the first game of the season. And I never missed a single game through my four years at Penn.”
In his senior year, Bob was president of his class, captain of the basketball team, and president of the Varsity Club. His classmates voted him the most outstanding scholar/athlete. He was included in a Life magazine article that featured ideal athletes from a number of major universities.
Before he even graduated, Bob was actively recruited by a Penn graduate engineer, Keith McAfee, who was chairman of Universal Rundle, a company with a plant in New Castle.
“He kept after us,” Bob said. “He had Martha and me to dinner. After one of the games he said to get on the sleeper train and come out to New Castle to see the plant. They dump me off out in Mahoningtown. There was snow on the ground. A taxi came and got me and took me downtown where I was going to stay. Smoke was billowing out of the factories, and the buildings were all dirty. Then I went to the plant. I went back to Martha and said I don’t think I’ll ever go back there.”
But then Mr. McAfee made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Or at least, didn’t want to refuse. He invited Bob to work with him in California. Bob figured it would be there only chance to go there.
There was only one tiny problem.
“When I graduated,” Bob said, “I didn’t have a driver’s license, and neither did Martha. We were 22 years old, living in the city, and never had a car. Martha’s dad gave us the money for a down payment on a Studebaker. It ended up that we got the licenses together.”
So the two brand-new drivers drove to California in those days before interstate highways, along routes including the legendary Route 66. They enjoyed California, but they only lived there about six months. Then McAfee, their sponsor who had brought them into Universal Rundle, was killed while flying his own plane. Bob and Martha were transferred back east – to New Castle.
Bob continued to work for Universal Rundle while they lived there about a year and a half. During that time their first son, Robert, was born. Then Bob was transferred to a Universal Rundle china plant in Camden, New Jersey. During the five years they lived there, their other two children were born: Stuart in 1953, and Carol (Kay) in 1955.
In 1956 they were transferred back to New Castle, where they have lived and worked ever since. Bob’s career at Universal Rundle moved him through virtually every management position in the company, all the way up to its presidency. He was put on the payroll the week he graduated from Penn, and remained with that one company until he retired 41 years later.
Bob was very active in the community. He has served on Chamber of Commerce; on the Neshannock Township School Board; and on the boards of the YMCA, United Way, First Federal Savings and Loan, Penn power, Ohio Edison, FirstMerit Bank, and St. Francis Hospital. He coached Little League baseball and worked with the Boy Scouts.
Meanwhile, Martha was achieving her own success in the most overlooked and underrated realm of all: raising a family.
“I happened to feel that nobody loves these children more than I do. You want to be there when they take their first steps. You have to teach them how to be good people.”
In 1976, she was instrumental in motivating her husband to start running – and to continue running longer and more consistently than even they could ever have imagined. From March 25, 1981, Bob has run every single day. He is approaching 10,000 consecutive days of running.
He runs whether he is at home or away. He used to aim for four miles a day, but has cut back to two as he has gotten older.
“I ran in Rome, London, Paris, Ireland, Germany, the jungles of Venezuela, Chile, , Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, around the monuments in Washington, and around the Superdome in New Orleans. I ran in Copenhagen one day, Stockholm the next day, Oslo the next, back to Copenhagen, and then back in the United States the next day.”
He runs on a treadmill indoors when the weather is bad to avoid injury. He long ago decided not to run in races for the same reason. He is content to run alone most of the time, enjoying the solitude and the freedom to set his own pace.
And that means, of course, that he can’t be beaten.
Compare that with Leo Durocher, who was so fiercely committed to winning that he would trip his own mother to avoid it. But winning was a goal he failed to meet many times in his baseball career. He had a mediocre lifetime batting average of .247 and an on-base percentage of just .299 – which means opposing pitchers beat him more than 70% of the time. As a manager, he lost 1709 games.
So Durocher was beaten many times (though a conservative disciplinarian might speculate not often enough by his mother).
Now, who was the greater winner – not-nice-guy Leo Durocher, or Bob and Martha Carlson?
More importantly, whom would you rather have for a next-door neighbor?
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009