Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lessons from My Father's Wallet

A month before completing first grade I watched my father leave for work. He was dressed differently this morning. Usually he donned his starched khakis and went to his job grinding feed at the Southern States Farmers Cooperative. This morning he wore a business suit and was beginning a new career as an insurance agent for the American Life and Accident Company. This new job would require that we re-locate. When my first grade school year was over we distanced ourselves 100 miles from family and friends and all that was familiar and began an adventure in a new place.
My father began his career in the insurance business as “debit” insurance agent. This meant that he went to the homes and businesses of his policyholders and collected the premiums on a monthly and even weekly basis. His clients were ordinary people whose resources were precious to them. His travels would take him back a dirt lane to the home of a sharecropper or down the manicured lane of a horse farm to visit the home of a day laborer. His route would take him to simple homes and apartments and to shacks in the poorer sections of town. He might call on some folks at a garage or a restaurant where they worked. His hours were often long and late. Many times my mother would warm his supper up after my siblings and I had already gone to bed. Sometimes I would get out of bed and was allowed to sit down at the table with him for a few minutes.
My father always carried two wallets; his own, and a larger one in which he secured company funds. A debit insurance agent will handle a few checks and a lot of cash in small denomination bills. Not long after he began this occupation my father contracted Billy Lamb to custom make a wallet for this purpose.  Billy had a large family of six children. To support them he worked as a maintenance man. He also owned and operated a shoe repair shop on South Broadway. In the after hours until 9:00 every night you could find him in the shoe shop. My Dad told Billy what he needed and Billy cut out the leather and sewed it together to my Dad’s specifications. It was a simple long double fold wallet with a compartment for checks and a compartment for bills and a little pocket to put business cards in. My Dad carried that wallet in his business until the wallet became so worn it could no longer be used.
A few years ago my Dad and mother were downsizing and preparing to move to Virginia. My wife was helping them sort and pack.  Dad pulled the old wallet out of a drawer and told her the story behind it and then proceeded to throw it away. With vehemence my wife stopped him, retrieved the wallet, and it is in our possession today as a precious piece of memorabilia. I treasure this worn out wallet because it tells my father’s story. It is a voice that speaks of his character and highlights his values.
The wallet is made of genuine cowhide. Even the stitching is leather. It occurs to me that my father is a genuine man. He never put on any airs. He never tries to be someone that he isn’t. He is comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He is just Larry Cloyd. He was blessed with a lot of raw intelligence, a massive amount of common sense, and was street smart to the world around him. He used those skills in a simple and genuine way to ply his trade and to care for those entrusted to him.
This wallet also reminds me that my father is a man of integrity. If you are a debit insurance agent handling other people’s money it is important that you can be trusted. First, your policyholders have to trust you. They need to believe that you are honest and not twisting the truth concerning the coverage of their insurance policy. The amount of security contracted in the policy might be limited and the premiums might be small but it is significant to them. When you collect their premiums they trust you as their agent to make sure they are properly recorded. Moreover the insurance company trust you to account for the money in an honest fashion. My father began as an insurance agent in 1964. He would come home sometimes with $1,000 maybe $1,100 in that wallet. That may seem miniscule today but in the 1960’s that was a chunk of change. At night my father would lay the wallet on the dresser in his and mother’s bedroom. Otherwise it was in his hip pocket. Either way it was guarded with integrity.
My father’s wallet symbolizes the seriousness with which he approached his responsibilities. I am quite certain that in his wildest dreams my father never envisioned himself being an insurance agent, much less spending thirty-seven years in the business. Perhaps he would have found his current job or a similar one more enjoyable. I am sure it took courage to make such a radical change in employment. His new profession was not one of choice but one of necessity. He had a wife and four young children whose needs were growing and whom he had great hopes for. To provide for these needs and enable these hopes required that he accept the challenge and pursue a new opportunity. He had his doubters and surely there were doubts that arose in his own soul. But commitment to his responsibilities drove him to succeed.  
My father’s old worn out wallet is a testimony of stewardship. As an insurance agent my father worked on commissions. Thus in a very real sense our livelihood flowed through this wallet. My father and mother made a decent living. Our needs were met. We never went without. We had all that was necessary and a few extras besides. They made sure we experienced the things that would broaden our lives. They assisted each of us in acquiring an education. When it came time to retire they had enough and were able to enjoy a comfortable retirement. They never were rich, but then that never was their goal. I am sure my father could reflect upon several times in his life that he could have made better financial decisions. I am also quite certain that there is one financial decision that he has never regretted. My father was a churchman. As a young man, when he was still donning his starched khakis and going to his job grinding and hauling feed, he made a decision to tithe his income to his church. No matter how tough times were or how tight matters were my mother and father always gave 10% of their income to the Lord’s work through their church. That practice is not just of benefit to the church but it is of benefit to the giver. In doing this the giver comes to understand that the real owner of everything is God and that we are simply caretakers of what God has given us. My father knew the importance of money. He knew what money could do for you. He knew how the lack of it could harm you. But my father was not a servant to his money. Rather he had learned how to make money his servant.
I do not think I ever really understood my father until I got to see him up close in his business. After graduating from high school I got my insurance license and worked with him for a period of time. I took note of the jovial interaction he had with people. People liked my Dad. I watched as he exhibited genuine respect for people and treated them with dignity regardless of their status in life. I listened as he carefully asked questions and how with precise annunciation he explained the benefits and details of their insurance contract. I observed a man of integrity. I am so glad my wife retrieved that old worn out wallet because every time I see it I am reminded of a life well lived.

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