Letters From The Past

One of the central themes of our WeMcLaughlins YouTube videos is that kids are capable of great learning and accomplishment though they are often written off as insignificant due to age. As parents, Shannon and I are so in awe of the talents and abilities that our own kids have displayed at their young ages and we feel like one of the responsibilities but also privileges that we have is to resource them to expand their reach even further.

Weeks ago I had an experience that further solidified this. While digging through a collection of old school papers and clippings in my parents’ attic, I came across a photocopy of a very interesting letter. As a bit of background, my dad was an airline pilot. After serving in the Air Force, he flew for Eastern Airlines and eventually FedEx, retiring just a few years ago when he turned 65. While there was a modern incarnation of Eastern, the original Eastern was founded in 1926 under the leadership of World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. A tumultuous 80s eventually led to a labor dispute where the company locked out it’s mechanics and ramp service employees which was met by a “sympathy strike” among pilots and flight attendants. During the 285 days of the strike, the pilots attempted on several occasions to have a new trustee appointed for the company to replace failing leadership, but the courts resisted. Nearly 10 months after the strike began, the pilots voted to return to work. The problem was, there was no work for them. The company had since replaced it’s pilots with two groups: 1) replacement pilots and 2) employed pilots who accepted the ultimatum that should they not return, their jobs would be replaced and they would be unemployed. After months of a strike related to a bitter labor dispute my dad didn’t ask for, he was one of the employed pilots who returned to work. Unfortunately, this earned this well qualified pilot with an impeccable flying record and experience serving in the U.S. Military the title of “scab”, having crossed the picket line at the behest of the company before the strike had officially ended. When Eastern closed it’s doors on January 19, 1991, my dad was without a job and, among the majority of the American airlines who were unionized under the same union as Eastern, blackballed from consideration for a pilot’s position with another carrier. To complicate matters, America was in the throws of the first Gulf War and in a lengthy economic recession. It was far from the ideal climate for employment in the airline industry.

As these were the days of typewriters, my father began a long campaign of sending out resumes and applications for employment in all different fields, from the airline industry to insurance sales to financial management to restaurant management. Airlines repeatedly rejected him based on the union blacklist while numerous companies returned his applications with the response “overqualified.” It was an extremely discouraging time and an extremely challenging time, financially, for our family.

Eventually, one of his ambitious young sons who apparently didn’t realize the smallness of his age began writing letters of his own, unbeknownst to him. Toward the end of 1991, by copying addresses from label sheets my father had printed for the purpose of sending his resume and application to various companies, I began writing letters specifically to airlines, likely with a simple plea of a 10 year old telling the airline of my father’s expertise and qualifications from the perspective of a young kid. While a few airlines returned a form letter response, an executive at Federal Express, now known simply as FedEx, actually called my dad to discuss my letter.  When my dad heard “we received your son’s letter,” he was in shock, to say the least!  Nevertheless, the man on the phone, Dick Schmidt, a flight services personnel manager for the company, shared with him that due to economic conditions, the company was not hiring pilots for the foreseeable future but expected to do so closer to 18-24 months later.  His advice to my dad: “get your foot in the door of the company.”  At 43 years old, my dad took as a job as a FedEx courier, delivering packages out of their Ft. Lauderdale, FL office.  Months after this phone exchange, a letter dated January 30, 1982 (though dated wrong as this was rather 1992) came to our house, addressed to me, then just shy of 11 years old.

In the letter, Mr. Schmidt took the time to encourage my dad’s young son.  He treated me like a person, not just a kid.  He encouraged me, and by extension, our family.  Little did we know then that by 1994, my dad would be flying for FedEx, and would do so for nearly 20 years until he retired.  We are grateful for the way FedEx allowed him to finish well.

I never thought to take credit for the letter as my dad’s credentials stood on their own.  At the time, FedEx was one of the few airlines whose pilots were not unionized, thereby allowing him an opportunity.  Additionally, they had a reputation of hiring former military pilots, as their founder, Frederick W. Smith, was a Vietnam Veteran in the Marine Corps.  Nevertheless, the impact this letter had on me as a child was significant, as was it’s encouragement to my family.  Mr. Schmidt was under no obligation to respond as no doubt he had many responsibilities that would have precluded him from doing so.  Nevertheless, he took the time both to call and encourage my dad and offer a piece of career advice for advancing with FedEx, and to write to his son affirming that his letter did in fact have an impact on an adult executive so widely separated in status at that time.

We believe that children can do big things, including making impressions on the minds of adults.  Even more so, in small acts of generosity they can see a viral response.  In expressing their perspective to audiences of all ages, their voice can be heard.  In learning new skills and exercising their talents, their impact can be felt.  In this way, the very esoteric challenge to “one day change the world” is replaced with the very relevant “do something to impact your world, today.”  We believe that when even little learners think outside the box and obey their ensuing vision, they may see payback from their efforts that never imagined possible.

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