An Ode to the Little Big Things
During my nearly 20 years as in-house counsel with Adams 12 Five Star School District, I worked with five different superintendents, with vastly different leadership styles and personalities. I learned from each, but loved and befriended only one. It was “the little big things” about Jack Knight that endeared me to him and made an impact on me. I supposed it’s not surprising that he’s especially important to me – he’s the man who hired me, with the purpose, he told me, of “doing things better.” A simple idea, but profoundly different than the “highfalutin” (I had no idea until I just checked the Web that highfalutin is a “real” word) cost-saving, education-improving, morale-boosting ideas other superintendents managed to over-complicate, explain to death, and devastate forests with their requirements of report after report.
I learned a couple of weeks ago that Jack is struggling with his health. Actually that’s an understatement – the reports I’m getting are dire indeed. I’m very sad, but thinking about happier times I spent with Jack is buoying me up.
Each Friday, we’d debrief “LA Law” as though we were reviewing a complex calculation involving the district budget, or a critical personnel matter. We took the TV show very seriously indeed, and the week wasn’t complete until we had relived the best parts of the hour we had each spent, glued to the TV, in our own homes.
Jack didn’t have the power to hand out bonuses for excellent work, or to grant time off when I’d attended a board meeting until late at night. But he could give me a district laptop to take home for my use. Only Jack could have disguised so well what I should have noticed – it was just a means for me to do more work outside of the office.
Once we went to Phoenix to a conference on handling employee grievances. Our pal, Gary, then the Director of HR for the school district, went too. And Jack and Gary were colleagues in cahoots, out for a “gotcha” for the new Legal and Policy Director (me). They exclaimed the second morning we were there about the excellent service of the hotel. It was so nice, they each told me separately, to find a bowl of freshly popped popcorn in the rooms, and a fruit basket delivered later on, compliments of hotel management to the Adams 12 administrators who had booked rooms (just the 3 of us). Well, I was kind of perturbed that I didn’t receive either popcorn or fruit, so I called up the front desk and explained quite distinctly (with all the sense of self-importance that I could summon from my dignified 5 foot frame) that they had overlooked my room when they were delivering the goodies. Before I finished my explanation, Jack and Gary were cracking up – there had been no deliveries, of course, but I always was one who would buy anything Jack said. That was the same conference when I tripped over a speed bump, which they found hysterical, and which Jack referred to again and again all the years I was in the district.
Jack and Gary would have lunch with me and my son Steve – 8 or 9 years old at the time – and teach him horrible table habits just for fun. Jack would always bring Steve muffins, and if I ask now-29 year old Steve who Jack Knight is, he’ll say “the Muffin Man” and giggle even today.
Jack has been my friend, my mentor, my guide through school district operations and the voice of wisdom when I struggled to understand the role of legal counsel in that environment (“Don’t say no; tell me how to do what I want to do.”) It’s been many years since we worked together – he retired quite a few years ago – and it was never quite the same without him. And it never will be – even though we’ve seen each other seldom in the last several years. But, as I reflect on how important he has been in my professional development, his newest lesson for me is the importance of the little big things we each are and do in one another’s life. That’s quite a legacy, because along with the little big things, the really big learnings stick with us too. We may not know while they’re occurring that those little big things will be so important in someone else’s life, but isn’t it wonderful that they are?