Transition from a small country school to Louisiana State University exposed me to the first major cultural shock of my life. I often joked, “I was so country when I went to LSU I put rocks in my shoes to make my feet comfortable.” In fact, some of my adjustments at LSU proved almost that drastic and unpleasant.
The lifestyle and environment there was much faster than my country life. Before this, I had been away from home only a couple nights to attend 4-H camps and livestock shows. At home my mom gave guidance for my life and made decisions of potential life-long importance. Now I had to make those decisions. Certainly, the ways of the world at LSU felt like a foreign culture.
Huge oak trees dominated acres of pristine landscaping on the campus. However, students swamped the academic portion of the vast campus. The G.I. Bill gave World War II veterans an opportunity to attend college. This federal program generated a flood of enrollments that required new temporary dormitories and classrooms and extended class schedules, including night and Saturday sessions.
My enrollment at LSU gave my family pride because few from my area attended college. Only three of my 28 classmates entered college and I pioneered college attendance for my family.
An academic scholarship to LSU paid my tuition of $30 per semester for four years. I planned to study Chemical Engineering, aspiring to work at the huge Esso refinery in Baton Rouge. After my freshman year I learned there were few Chemist jobs at Esso, and changed my major to Dairy Products Manufacturing.
Being away from home required many adjustments. I missed my family and Bea. It took a long time to deal with my serious home-sickness. I thought of dropping out of school to help Mom with the farm. Slowly, I adjusted to this new culture.
Mom could not help me financially, but during my freshman year she laundered my clothes, which we mailed back and forth. She insisted I stay at LSU and often reminded me, “That is what your Dad wanted.”
It was essential that I find a part-time job to pay for basic needs. I didn’t know how to search for a job. I inquired at several places in College Town and on campus, without luck. It seemed no one needed a well-qualified farm hand. While wrestling with rejection a new restaurant, the Goal Post, opened just off campus and displayed a large sign that screamed – WAITERS NEEDED.
WOW! A waiter in a restaurant? Could I do that? I had never seen such a large and nice restaurant. Although the fear of rejection struck again, my application led to an interview with the owner, Mr. Jack Sabin, a successful restaurateur from Chicago. The interview lasted only a few minutes before Jack offered me an opportunity. My mixed emotions worked overtime; happy to get a chance, but doubtful it would work out. I cleaned tables and washed dishes for a few days before Mr. Sabin allowed me to serve as a waiter.
This job saved my life. For the next two years, I learned how to carry trays, clear tables and take orders. I earned 50 cents an hour, plus a meal for a two-hour shift. Working two hours at lunch and several hours in the evening, I quickly learned about dealing with customers, a demanding boss, and fellow workers.
Mr. Sabin closely monitored and mentored me until he saw satisfactory performance in customer dealings. After a few weeks, Mr. Sabin told me, “You’re getting the hang of it. I have received compliments about your service.” That boosted my morale, but it didn’t last long.
A week later, a customer complained about my service. At the customer’s table, Mr. Sabin apologized and tore up the bill in my presence and told me, “You’re fired!”
I went to the kitchen, removed my apron, and started out the door. Mr. Sabin came in and demanded, “Where are you going?”
“You fired me in front of customers, so I’m leaving.”
“Aw, you’re not fired. Put your apron on and get back to your customers.”
My dire need of this job overcame my urge to leave. Later I again observed Mr. Sabin react to complaints in a similar manner. I concluded, “He does this to let customers know how much he values their satisfaction.”
Another incident gave me a big clue about Mr. Sabin’s marketing skills. He fed the LSU football team after most home games, which attracted overflow crowds to the restaurant. After the team members finished their meals, Mr. Sabin had a bill delivered to the coach. Then he sauntered out to congratulate the team on their game and thanked them for eating at the Goal Post. As others in the restaurant joined in the celebration, Jack shredded the bill.
Everybody marveled at his generous support of the team. This surprised many customers, and helped make the Goal Post the most popular place in Tiger Town.
Later Mr. Sabin said, “I’m pleased with your work and your continued improvement. You were so ‘country ‘when I first met you, I felt sorry for you. I wasn’t sure you could do the job, but my gamble paid off for both of us.”
Years later Bea and I visited Mr. Sabin at his new, upscale restaurant several miles from the campus. He seemed happy to see us and we had a good visit. I again thanked him for giving me a chance when I desperately needed help. In retrospect, the work ethic learned from my parents and reinforced by Jack has stuck with me throughout my life.