“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.” Dylan Thomas
When I first told a friend six years ago I was thinking of going to work for a family owned company in Southeast Massachusetts, he paused. Deeply experienced and well placed in the lumberyard network, his knowledge and wisdom is highly regarded. He told me it was a great company with strong ownership, well established and financially sound. Then he asked with a slight hesitation, “But have you met John yet?” John, as it turns out, headed purchasing for his brother’s company and was a well-known terror of the vendor community: cynical, tough, quick to criticize in colorful language. At any perceived slight or error that cost John’s company time or money or service to its customers, a supplier could quickly be locked out of new business and roundly bad mouthed to anyone who would listen. A supplier was either in or out; the line could be easily crossed and difficult to traverse back in the other direction. John could be vindictive and harsh.
John emigrated from the Azores in 1968 with his younger brother Joe when they were teenagers. Both quickly established themselves through intelligence, incredible work ethic and proving themselves to be men of their word. However, their personalities were very different. Joe was quieter, a serial entrepreneur, who started several companies and assembled a business conglomerate in Dartmouth: first a gypsum commercial installation outfit with a hundred employees, later a building material supply company to supply the first, then branching out into residential and commercial real estate development companies, and others. John went to work for Berkshire Hathaway at their textile mill in New Bedford, and with his skills quickly moved up the ladder into supervisory and management positions.
When his kid brother called and asked for his help in his start-up building material company, John, who loved his brother, came there in the nineteen eighties, when Dartmouth Building Supply was a couple of trailers full of sheetrock. Together they built it, inventing it as they went. John was the shipper, truck driver, forklift operator and soon the yard foreman, shipper, receiver and warehouse manager all rolled into one. Tireless, John opened and closed the place. Through the years they built a fifty-million-dollar company with millwork, all manner of building materials and a kitchen cabinet showroom. Over a hundred and ten employees and their families have come to trust Dartmouth Building Supply for their livelihood and a thousand builders and customers trust it to keep their jobs supplied.
“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” Robert F. Kennedy
John died in May at the young age of sixty-six after months of a courageous and dignified battle against cancer. My experience with John was not what I expected when I learned of his hard ass reputation. John would stop by my office to talk, sometimes about the lumber market or an issue in the yard, sometimes about fishing on his boat or a trip or his kids and grandkids. Never once in the six years we worked together did he fail to come through when I needed help: current commodity pricing for a large job, an update on what to expect in the market, buying out a large job to cover the company’s exposure. And while I saw his rough treatment of suppliers and sometimes employees, I never experienced the wrath or the scorn. I was always treated with respect and kindness. John would share his lunch in a minute if it was something he thought I would enjoy.
The company has the benefit of being family owned, and kids, grandkids and pets are frequent visitors to the offices. When John was with his grandkids, the vendors would not recognize the big teddy bear clearly loved unreservedly by his grandchildren as they ran to greet him for a hug and to be carried around.
Joe told a story to a friend and co-worker about when he and John were kids near on St. Michael’s and Joe took pity on his grandfather’s dog, which was always chained to a tree. He released the dog, which bit someone, and John took the blame, catching a beating in the process. I’ve come to believe that much of John’s irascible ways and impatience at work was rooted in the same protectiveness he felt towards his brother. An underperforming employee or supplier was a personal affront, someone taking advantage of his brother’s generous nature. And that is something John could not and did not abide.
At his funeral, a beautiful and well planned Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s in South Dartmouth, there were two large new Dartmouth Building Supply trucks heading up and following the hundred or more cars making the journey with John from the funeral home. The outpouring of genuine, impossible to falsify love from his family moved me to tears. His wife of nearly forty-three years, Fatima, was inconsolable, his son Shawn and daughter Laura stunned and unashamedly weeping. John fought with extraordinary valor against an implacable foe to make sure he could be there for Laura’s wedding in January.
The reputation and the man, complex like all of us, will be remembered differently by many, and surprising to some. With all due respect to my friend who gave to me his best advice out of kindness, the rest of the business world saw a truly tough and sometimes abusive guy. Those of us, who came to know him, saw glimpses of another John, a guy who liked nothing better in this world than to take the boat out with his son and catch a striper or tuna, and a son who felt the same way. Therein lays a legacy, an obituary worth writing and a life worth living.
“In that other room, I shall be able to see.” Helen Keller, speaking of her imminent death.