The Great Skelley End-Around
Last week’s column, about the chopping down of Paul Smith’s College’s major landmark and school logo, the Leaning Pine, had some inaccuracies in it.
I said that because the college prez, Dr. Buxton, hated everything about the state, he wouldn’t have had the miscreant arrested, but would’ve punished him with instant expulsion. On that count, I was two-thirds wrong and one-third right.
First, there wasn’t one miscreant, but two. And second, one of them was arrested, and both of them settled the issue by paying the college $2,500. (And just for perspective: In 1972 dollars, $2,500 was the cost of a new Ford Fairlane.)
The thing I got dead right was Dr. Buxton hated the state. Then again, that was no great feat, since anyone who talked to him for 30 seconds learned that.
I was overseas when it happened, and so I missed hearing the specifics. Then when I went to work at Paul Smith’s, I never asked what happened … and no one offered to tell me. So most of what I heard was scuttlebutt, and we all know how accurate that is.
Ultimately, I’d just assumed too much. But back in PSC’s glory days, that was a given, since almost nothing official was put in writing — including our contracts. You want a perfect example? Well, here ’tis …
In the mid-1960s Tom Agan was both the history teacher and the ski coach. He was an incomparable teacher, and the reason I became a history major. And from what I heard, he was as good a ski coach as he was a teacher.
At one point in ski season, the team was running out of wax, so Tom went to Cheeseman’s Sports Shop (which later became Blue Line) and bought some. He then had the bill — a lordly three dollars and change — sent to Paul Smith’s, and thought no more of it. Or at least he thought no more of it till a few days later, when he got a call from Eileen Crary, Dr. B’s secretary. She told him Dr. B. wanted to see him in his office that day.
Getting to see Dr. B. was always a simple matter. You just went to his office, asked Eileen if he was in (which he almost always was) and if he was free. If he was free, Eileen let him know, and you just walked in. If he was busy, you generally only had a short wait since he made time for drop-ins. Anyhow, Tom arrived at the office and in short order got ushered into the sanctum sactorum.
After initial greetings, Dr. B. got down to the business, handing Tom Cheeseman’s bill.
“What’s this?” said Dr. B.
“It’s for wax for the ski team,” said Tom.
“I know that,” said Dr. B. “But why didn’t you first tell me you were going to buy it?”
Tom was flummoxed, but managed to reply.
“Well,” he said, “I just assumed for a bill that small I didn’t have to.”
“Young man,” said Dr. B., “don’t you ever assume ANYTHING.”
And that sort of thing was neither unique nor even unusual. Dr. B. was the Macro of Micromanagement, and if he didn’t control every facet of the college, he came mighty close. Because of that, the rest of us did our level best to fly under the Buxtonian radar. This led to what I fondly think of as the Unchained Chain of Command. And whenever I do, I’m reminded of The Great Skelley End-Around.
I had Jack in two of my classes and liked him immensely. He was also a fine student — bright, hard-working, personable, and always polite and upbeat. Beyond that, his then-girlfriend, now-wife Sharon was a legal secretary and typed all his work on her office Selectric. Considering that almost all student papers were handwritten (and all too often looked like they’d been scribbled by a little kid on a roller coaster), Jack’s papers were a joy just to look at. I’m sure he got extra points for that alone.
Anyhow, after Jack graduated, he finished his education at the University of North Carolina and then joined PSC as a Forest Recreation teacher. The hardcore stumpies condescendingly called Forest Rec “Sandbox 101,” but the Reccies had a wealth of skills all their own. They could design parks and rec centers, and they could build all sorts of outdoor structures. And Jack’s first semester project was to have his class build a footbridge over one of the college’s streams. Getting the materials would seem a simple enough chore, and probably would’ve been — anywhere but Paul Smith’s.
According to Normal Procedure in the Real World, Jack wrote up a list of materials and took it to the fiscal office for approval. And there he found that Normal Procedure in the the Real World was anything but normal in Paul Smith’s: The financial major domo refused to approve Jack’s request.
And why did he refuse it? Who knows? Marital problems? Hangover? Power trip? All the above … or none of the above? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was it was refused.
So then Jack, still following NPitRW, went to his division head Dean Bill Rutherford for help. And once again, NpitRW had nothing to do with anything.
After Jack explained the situation, Dean Rut replied in his usual diplomatic manner.
“Skelley,” he said, “I hired you to solve problems, not create them,” and sent Jack on his not-so-merry way.
So NOW what?
Well, Jack may have been the faculty’s newest hire, but he was no newbie to PSC’s mishegas, having spent two years watching the Paul Smith’s Circus and Sideshow. Plus, Jack learned fast. So if no official help was coming his way, he’d go to Plan B — B as in boys. Specifically, as in The Boys.
“The Boys” was how, in an old-timey way, the forestry teachers referred to their charges. If you needed some strong backs, good hearts and skills aplenty, you called on The Boys. You needed a cleanup crew for a dance? Ask The Boys. Your city slicker cousin was coming up for the weekend and wanted to go fishing, but couldn’t tell a pike from a piranha? Ask The Boys, and they’d find someone to guide him. Wanted to learn how to sharpen a knife, use a compass, tune a snowmobile? Ask The Boys. Some old couple in town needed a tree dropped but couldn’t really pay for it? Ask The Boys.
And if you needed to get material for a footbridge, but didn’t have a sou to your name?
Yup, you got it: Ask The Boys.
Which was just what Jack did.
In this case, he needed Boys with pickups, pinch bars and some spare time on Saturday. He got them in a matter of minutes and told them his plan. On Saturday, they got together and headed off to the Brighton dump, where they proceeded to scrounge all the lumber they needed for the project. Then, after returning to campus, they shlepped the wood to the job site so everything was good to go for Monday’s class.
Jack got the hardware he needed from the guys in maintenance (without a requisition, of course), and his only out-of-pocket expense was for baksheesh for The Boys — a couple cases of that most elegant brew, Genny Creme Ale.
And therein lies the difference between doing things the official way and the Old Paul Smith’s Way.
When your bosses are on board with your plans and give you their approval and help, getting things done is a cinch.
But if they not only DON’T help you, but do their best to thwart your efforts?
For sure, that’ll make your chores a lot more difficult, but it’ll also make them a helluva lot more fun.