Kerrying On

Eternally Grateful

Hollywood, 1983

For almost ten hours, I had been waiting to shoot a video clip that, one day, would become one of my favorites. Our production team had started early that morning by taping an example of how to get a meeting back on course. Next, we shot a vignette demonstrating misapplied motivational techniques—and so forth—until we had captured twenty-five training segments. Now, it was time to shoot a modestly comedic clip that was intended to raise the question: “How would you handle this awkward situation?” That is, we’d shoot the segment if we had time.

The script we had written showcased a boss who tries to encourage two of his rather nervous direct reports to share their thoughts on how to solve a pressing problem. Tom, the actor playing the boss, starts the segment by asking, “Should we ship the package express so it’s guaranteed to make the deadline? What do you think?”

“You’re absolutely right,” responds one of his minions while the other shakes his head in violent agreement until he adds, “We should send it express.”

“But we don’t want to incur more shipping costs than are necessary,” Tom continues.

“What were we thinking?” Minion Two exclaims. “We can’t increase costs. That would be wrong.”

“I get the feeling,” Tom responds, “that the two of you are agreeing with whatever I say, simply because I’m the boss.”

“Of course, we are!” Minion One replies, “You are the boss.”

“Well,” Tom continues, “I’d prefer you to share your own opinions.”

“We will!” responds Minion Two.

“Starting right now!” chimes in his colleague. Then the two bring the scene to a close with: “How am I doing?” “And, how about me?”

Much to my delight, we completed the video clip on time. And while it’s true that it took an entire team to produce the segment, it was Tom who made it possible. As the clock sped toward our scheduled closing time and the other two actors occasionally fumbled their lines, or a mic shadow appeared, or a loud noise came from off set (all requiring us to start over), Tom never missed a line. On this particular day, thanks to Tom’s impressive showing, we completed a video segment that otherwise would have never seen the light of day.

Over the next three decades, Tom took part in almost all of our video productions. His acting skills were so remarkable and his memory so prodigious that he became a bit of a legend in our community. For instance, one day when we were about to crash and burn because I had cast an actor in a role that simply didn’t match his image, I called Tom (who wasn’t due on set for a couple of days), and asked him to take the part of the miscast actor. He cheerfully agreed, memorized 17 pages of script in one afternoon, showed up the next morning, and shot the scenes—with scarcely a stumble.

As the years passed, Tom increased in stature, moving from bit player to leading man. Those of us who worked with him took pleasure in seeing him appear in an occasional TV sitcom or take the lead in a national ad. He also taught acting at the local college. To top it all off, when our company held a worldwide conference comprised of people who had seen Tom in several of our training videos, they treated him like a celebrity—stopping him in the hallway, gushing praise, and asking him for photos and autographs.

But then, disaster struck. First, came a stroke and then, a debilitating ailment. Tom’s fifty-something mind remained as clear as ever, but his voice diminished to a whisper and his hands shook uncontrollably. We tried our best to continue to cast Tom, and help him out in any way we could, but it soon became apparent that Tom’s life would never be the same. He’d never act again.

But, Tom never lost hope. “I have an interview at the community theater,” Tom managed to whisper one day when I ran into him at a the mall.

“What part are you reading for?” I asked.

“Wait and see,” Tom smiled widely. “Wait and see.”

Several weeks passed, during which I had no contact with Tom. Then, one day, as I exited a movie, I was surprised by what followed. I was walking down the dark aisle, staring intently at the floor, desperately trying to unravel the convoluted plot I had just seen. Then, I spotted a pair of tennis shoes next to a long-handled dust pan and broom. As I raised my gaze upward, I glimpsed a gold vest, embroidered with a corporate logo. Finally, a familiar face came into view as I heard, “Kerry, it’s me, Tom.”

“Tom?” I asked incredulously. “Yes,” Tom answered as he stepped into the light, smiled brightly, and said, “I got the job I was telling you about! I got the job!”

“The one at the community theater?” I asked.

“Actually, this theater,” Tom responded with a twinkle in his eye. “I work right here at the multiplex. The manager said my voice is strong enough to wait on customers. Plus, he gives me plenty of shifts. I’ve been truly blessed.”

Although stepping out of the national spotlight and into the hallways of the local movie complex wasn’t Tom’s idea of a promising career move, he told me it was honest work and it helped him keep his family afloat. For that he was deeply grateful.

“I also wanted to thank you, for helping me through some tough times,” Tom said as the conversation continued. “I’ll always remember what you did for me.”

With these words of appreciation fresh off his lips, Tom slowly turned and walked toward a theater that was now disgorging dozens of patrons. In a final gesture of good will—holding his broom high in the air—Tom turned toward me and in his loudest whisper stated: “A lot of prestige comes with my new job. At this very minute, just down the hallway, I’ve got several colonels waiting for me.” Then Tom walked down the hall a few steps, turned, shot me a grin, and swept up a patch of spilled popcorn—kernels and all.

Present Day

Every Thanksgiving, our family gathers to celebrate the holiday and share three blessings for which we’re thankful. My wife Louise artfully places three pieces of candy corn on each of our dinner plates (Grandma’s best china). And then, as the turkey cools and all twenty-four of us impatiently wait to dig into the feast, each of us offers gratitude for our bounty—one piece of candy corn, one blessing at a time.

I always express thanks for my family and country—that’s a given. This Thanksgiving, I’ll be adding Tom to my candy corn cavalcade. When it comes to showing gratitude—that is, not merely expressing appreciation for one’s bounty, but expressing appreciation in the face of unrelenting adversity—Tom is my mentor, role model, and hero. I shall always be grateful for his example.

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

8 thoughts on “Eternally Grateful”

  1. After reading this story, I stood up from my chair and gave a standing O … to Tom, of course (whom I don’t know), and to Kerry (whom I feel like I know a little through his stories). Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Thank you, Kerry, for such a touching tribute to a beloved actor and praiseworthy man. I’ve enjoyed Tom’s roles over the years, both in VS videos and other venues, but I did not know this back story. His is a powerful example of gratitude and fortitude, of humility and honor. Thanks to your sharing this I, too, will benefit from Tom’s example this Thanksgiving–and beyond.

    Happy holidays.

  3. Can’t say enough how much I enjoy your writings, your perspective, and your wisdom, Kerry. Keep up the great work – you have such a great gift.

  4. This was extraordinary Kerry. Thank you for sharing and your ability to make eternal values shine in ways that highlight their tremendous practicality.

    Very thankful for you and the entire Vital Smarts team.

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