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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

When pumping gas became a life-changing experience

David Colburn
Posted 9/14/22

When it comes to the world of work, for the most part I’ve been a very fortunate soul. From Dodge City to Chicago, from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and from hometown Marion to my newest home in …

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When pumping gas became a life-changing experience


When it comes to the world of work, for the most part I’ve been a very fortunate soul. From Dodge City to Chicago, from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and from hometown Marion to my newest home in the North Country, I’ve had terrific opportunities and outstanding colleagues to work with. Sure, some stops were better than others, but I wouldn’t trade a one of them for something else.
I’ve always been one who tries to look at the job I have in the here and now as the best one I’ve ever had, and my colleagues here at the Timberjay have made that exceptionally easy to do. I’ve hit the journalistic jackpot.
But when I look back on my life, which I seem to be doing more and more frequently as I draw ever closer to joining the ranks of Medicare recipients, there’s one job that always stands out above the rest, for without it, my life would have been very, very different indeed.
That job came during my early college days in the late 1970s. After spending the first two summers in college returning home to work at the local paper, I’d decided I wanted to stay in Lawrence, Kan. that summer, and to do so I needed gainful employment. An old family friend and mentor thought he might have a possibility, and the next day he took me to the place where he filled his car with gas, the Standard Oil full-service station next to the Ramada Inn.
The owner, Art Rockhold, was a stocky fellow in his early 40s with a ruddy complexion, a haircut reminiscent of The Three Stooges’ Moe. His gregarious demeanor and dedication to his customers made Ramada Standard a place folks would drive an extra mile and more for. He was a bit skeptical, given my lack of experience in such work, but he trusted my friend and he hired me.
My base pay was $2.90 an hour, the minimum wage at the time, but I earned commission on the total number of gallons I pumped and the air filters, oil changes, etc. that I sold. I wasn’t a salesman, but from Art I learned how to develop good relationships with customers that led to sales without trying to sell them something they didn’t really need. Those are skills I’ve used throughout my career.
Art’s promise to teach me some auto mechanics didn’t materialize quite the way I thought it would. For a long while, my mechanical skills began and ended with oil changes. But I watched and learned, and the second summer I was there, a customer came in with a carburetor float that needed to be replaced. Art wasn’t there, but I hesitated only slightly before tackling the job myself. I never felt more nervous than when that carburetor was disassembled, and never more accomplished when it was back together and running perfectly. Art was startled to find out I’d done it, but from then on, he started teaching me more. From that I gained the confidence to take on unfamiliar things, mechanical and otherwise, by preparing well, proceeding thoughtfully, and not being afraid to ask for help if I found myself in over my head.
Treating customers with genuine value and respect as we checked their oil and washed their windows wasn’t just good for sales, it was just the right thing to do when you were working for Art. Like anyone, Art had his quirks, but he genuinely had the best interests of his customers, particularly his regulars, at heart. He was trusted and respected for that, and I’ve always tried to emulate him in that regard.
And I didn’t know there on the gas station drive, but the relationship I established with one of our customers would literally be life changing.
I knew Elizabeth Goetz only as my favorite customer, the one who always had a smile and a kind word when she pulled up to the pump, the one who always treated me as a real person and not just some gas jockey. The other guys at the station learned not to even try to race me when “Mo” pulled up to the pump. We got along terrifically.
I’d taken a semester off college, having no real direction after running through majors in journalism, political science, and music education, but decided I should get back into classes. I reluctantly quit the gas station job and enrolled full time for that fall semester, with a schedule that included a class called Children in Modern Society. I took it simply because it had a reputation as an “easy A” class, and I was in sore need of some easy A’s.
Halfway through the semester, who should walk in to do a guest lecture but my favorite customer, Elizabeth Goetz, who turned out to be the director of the child development lab school and professor at the university! I was fascinated by her lecture, and before I could get up out of my chair when she was finished, she rushed over to say hello. And after we talked for a few moments, she invited me to be a teacher aide in the preschool lab classroom she supervised. Surprised, I said yes.
What started out as an hour a day two days a week turned into three hours a day four days a week by the end of the semester – I was hooked on early childhood ed! I finished my undergraduate degree that next year, taking 22 credits one semester and 23 the next to be on track to enroll in graduate school. My early college years were so bad that I didn’t have the minimum GPA to be admitted, but that didn’t matter. Elizabeth Goetz personally sponsored my application, got me admitted, and took me on as her master’s student. I supervised that same classroom I’d started in for two years and did my thesis research working closely with her. And when I graduated in 1985, I was off on a grand professional adventure that lasted over 25 years.
And that was the most important lesson I learned from working at the gas station. Treat people you meet with respect and value them for who they are, not what they do. Mo Goetz and I had no clue there at the pumps that our paths would cross in such a significant way. We were just two people who learned to like and respect each other from our regular brief encounters, enough so for her to later trust me with her classroom and me to trust her that she wasn’t making a grand mistake.