Lessons from a Shoeshine Boy

Teal M. Gaylord

© Copyright 2022 by Teal M. Gaylord

Fred Gaylords shoeshine box.  Photo courtesy of the author.
Fred Gaylords shoeshine box.  Photo courtesy of the author.

This is an essay that I was compelled to write after loosing my father on May 18, 2022. I promised him I would tell his story – I hope I did him justice.

In the spring and summer of 1944 World War II had engulfed the world in some of the most intense fighting of the war; including the Normandy invasion and the Battle of The Bulge where over 19,000 young Americans would lose their lives. At the same time on the streets of Binghamton, New York in war-time 1944, Fred Gaylord, a young boy of 6 was working his day job as a shoeshine boy. His earnings were probably less than a $1 a day. However, it was often enough for him to run home and take his three-year-old brother to the local diner for coffee which probably cost the two young brothers a dime. 

It’s hard to imagine two children on the streets of any city today. But in 1944 the world was a different place. The father of these boys was a Naval fireman on a ship somewhere in the South Pacific and their mother was working herself. The young shoeshine boy was earning an income and caring for his sibling the best way he knew how by taking him to a local diner to find adult company, security, and probably an occasional free treat from a friendly waitress. 

That six-year-old was my father.  Who I recently lost at 83 years of age. He was still working and still drinking coffee with those he cared about at the local country store where he found the security of being with others and probably an occasional free treat from the friendly lady who owns the store. 

The day my father died I became suddenly wiser in ways I never expected. Although he has left me, he continues to teach me through his actions and now through the words of others. These are some of the lessons I learned from the shoeshine boy:

Real mentors mentor others by giving of themselves: Many people reached out to share that my dad had spent meaningful time with them. One person told me he shot his first deer with my father and he recalls my dad was happier than he was. My son relayed a story that my dad taught him responsibility by always reminding him to close the gate when entering the livestock pastures on his ranch. These are two of the many meaningful stories I heard about his influence on others. In the month since I said goodbye to my father he taught me that the best mentors don’t necessarily sit in an office or charge high hourly rates or hold Georgetown degrees.

Hard work keeps you young: My father worked almost every day of his life, including the day before he died. He spent that day chopping firewood with my nephew and he loved it.  When he was a teenager my father would get up before school, milk cows, deliver the milk to a local creamery, drive home and get ready for school. I imagine there were many fun things at school he wanted to do and couldn’t because of his responsibilities and the availability of funds. My father - the shoeshine boy left this world a self-made man, financially secure but he never stopped working. I’m sure he already has a list of chores in the hereafter. Because work was fun for him everyone who knew my dad, including me, thought he would go on forever.

Kind people behave kindly - they don’t talk about being kind: My father had friends I had never met. He knew people in multiple counties around his home and he built personal relationships with many. The common thread woven into my father’s life was spending time talking with others. The friends he made and kept were from childhood and there are new friends he continued to make. Apparently, he would strike up a conversation with almost anyone and found something interesting about each person that made them feel special. What a gift! It is apparent I am just one of many who will feel the pain of missing his kindness and friendship.

Parents are the real Hero’s: The term “American Success Story,” applies to my father. He leaves a legacy of children and grandchildren who hold 3 Master’s degrees, a MBA, 6 Bachelor degrees and 5 Associates degrees. My father’s children and grandchildren have careers as executives, managers, and business owners. We work in the business, medical, retail, restaurant, technology and manufacturing arenas. His descendants live in 5 States and include 3 first generation Americans. I know my dad was proud of us - I hope he was proud of himself as our accomplishments are a result his work ethic; it’s in our DNA.  My dad was a man who started life with zero advantages- a lesser man may not have excelled. However, despite of the challenges he faced he became an everyday hero  - the best kind.

Learning and achievement never has to stop: My father was a life-long learner. Technology was his latest interest. He wanted to know how to take pictures with an iPhone – he kept in touch with us through messaging, posted on Facebook and asked me about TikTok. I believe he got great joy from these activities. 

My dad was a “girl dad” before anyone ever heard of a “girl dad.” He supported equal opportunity for women as he raised four daughters who achieved at an equal level to their male peers through hunting, sports, carpentry and adventure. He never spoke of limits and we became the accomplished women we are today because he held no stereotypes and set no limitations for his daughters. Interest and ambition were the great equalizers in his life and ours. I am so grateful that he was curious and always open to possibility. 

These are some of the lessons I learned from my father. As I look at this picture of his shoeshine box from 1944, I know my sisters and I, my sons and my siblings’ children and grandchildren are the fortunate ones as we are the family of a Shoeshine Boy.

I'm a human resource professional living in Scranton PA. I write to have a voice and share my thoughts. When I can make others feel the way I did when I was capturing my thoughts on paper it makes me feel like I may have some talent. I have no professional writing experience. 

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