That Time A 10 Year Old Kid Impacted An Adult’s Career (A FedEx Story)

As parents, Shannon and I are so in awe of the talents and abilities that our 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.  Kids can make an impact.  They are capable of great learning and accomplishments regardless of whether or not they are written off due to age.

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.

Eastern Airlines circa 1984

Eastern Airlines circa 1984

After serving in the Air Force, he flew for Eastern Airlines and eventually Federal Express (FedEx), retiring in 2013 at age 65. While there have been modern (mostly failed) incarnations of Eastern, the original Eastern Airlines was founded in 1926 under the leadership of World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. It had a quite storied history, but germane to this post is that a tumultuous 80s eventually led to a labor dispute where the company locked out it’s mechanics and ramp service employees, 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, to the resistance of the courts. 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 already filled those jobs with replacement pilots to supplement the pilots who, having been threatened with an ultimatum of job loss, had crossed the picket line and returned to work.  After months of income-less striking in support of fellow employees at the direct of the pilot’s union, he made the hard choice to accept the ultimatum and return 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”. When Eastern closed it’s doors on January 19, 1991, my dad was without a job and, with the majority of the industry unionized, blackballed from consideration employment with almost every other 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.

My father dusted off the typewriter and began the work 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. Nearly all the airlines rejected him for the aforementioned reason, while numerous companies from other industries returned his applications with the response “overqualified.” It was an extremely discouraging and challenging time, financially and emotionally, for our family.

Eventually, one of his ambitious young sons who apparently didn’t realize the insignificance of his age began writing letters of his own, unbeknownst to dad. 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 starting specifically writing to airlines, pleading a 10 year old’s perspective of his father’s expertise and qualifications. While a few airlines returned a form letter response, an executive at Federal Express 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 was Dick Schmidt, a flight services personnel manager for the company, who shared with him that due to economic conditions, the company was not hiring pilots for the foreseeable future but expected to do so some 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 (a typo incorrectly indicating 1992) came to our house, addressed to me, 2 months from my 11th birthday.

Dick Schmidt's 1992 letter

Dick Schmidt’s 1992 letter

In the letter Mr. Schmidt took the time to treat 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, retiring as a captain on the Boeing 757 in 2013.  We are grateful for the way FedEx allowed him to finish well.  We all traveled to Memphis to see his final flight in, flown without the aid of a glide slope (the pilots out there will understand the fun in this), and met with a water cannon salute on the ground.  We were given permission to stand near the runway to view and take pictures of the landing and then tour the cockpit of the airplane once parked.  It was a bittersweet day celebrating an amazing career, but recognizing that this was the end of dad’s flying days.

Dad's final FedEx flight 2013

Dad’s final FedEx flight 2013

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 to be judged by qualifications and not on the merits of the consequences of the leadership of Eastern Airlines’ tumultuous final years.  Additionally, FedEx had a reputation of hiring former military pilots, as their founder, Fred Smith, was a Vietnam Veteran in the Marine Corps.  The impact this letter had on me as a child was significant, as Mr. Schmidt was under no obligation to respond, no doubt holding many responsibilities that could have easily precluded him from doing so.  Nevertheless, he took the time both to call and encourage my dad offering valuable career advice that directed his future toward FedEx, and to write to that boy, affirming that his letter did in fact have an impact on a corporate executive.

We believe that children can do big things, including making impressions on the minds of adults.  Their voice is not insignificant, nor is their potential impact for good.  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,” because truly kids can (and do) make an impact. .