Have you ever been around a young child in the “why” stage? Every answer is met with yet another question. I recently heard the story of a youngster who asked his Aunty “why” she had to leave breakfast.

Her response: “Because I have to go to work.”

His follow up question: “Why?”

Her Response: “If you don’t show up … you don’t get paid.”

To everyone’s amazement, this answer fully satisfied the youngster’s curiosity. It’s a pretty simple principle that even a 2-year old understands. This story got me thinking about what it means to really “show up”. Many folks simply arrive at work and that is about as far as they show up. Not Charlie.

Charlie had a profound influence in my life, although he never knew it. Charlie held a labor position, constructing sidewalks, and really “showed up” for work in the following ways:

Attitude

No matter the circumstance Charlie always had a positive attitude. I recall one such circumstance where I instructed Charlie and his crew to re-do a large section of curb and gutter work. The engineering tech assisting with the layout had provided incorrect elevations. An entire day of hard labor would need to be completely re-done. Even though the work would have sufficed it did not meet our standards. I explained to the crew that if we were going to hold our contractors accountable we needed to demonstrate accountability. Charlie could have become bitter but he didn’t, he just got back to work.

Workmanship

Several concrete projects around the City were suffering from pre-mature surface failures. An external consultant was engaged to review the troubled area’s and provide an opinion on the cause of failure. In order to ensure that we were not singling out one specific contractor, I attempted to find some internal work of Charlie’s that was prematurely failing. I poured over past construction logs and completed site investigations until finally, I found a wheelchair ramp at the end of a sidewalk that Charlie had constructed.

I suspected that the “expert” we brought in would determine the cause of failure as workmanship. The contractor took a lot of pride in his work and I figured it would soften the blow if I could find some of our own work that demonstrated similar failure characteristics. Emotions were running high by the end of the day. I had saved Charlie’s work for last. When we arrived at the site I was quick to point out to the contractor “See even we suffer poor workmanship from time to time”. The contractor’s face went red and Charlie turned away. The as-built information was incorrect. The section of concrete Charlie had poured was on the other side of the street and this failure was on a section completed by the contractor. Try as I might, I could not find any poor quality work with Charlies stamp on it.

Tenacity

Local contractors were not interested in a job that required the incorporation of a complicated brick inlay into the sidewalk adjacent to a park. It was a big job right along a major arterial roadway. It was a top priority for upper management. Charlie was approached, in desperation,  to see if he would take the project on. Charlie went where no other contractor was willing to go and pulled it off.

Gratitude

At the end of the day, I was exhausted. I had been working hard on the design of a new building to house the City’s operations crews. I felt somewhat sorry for myself having spent the last several months in an ATCO trailer, without a washroom, while the new facility was being constructed. Charlie pulled up beside me at the sink in the old shop and washed the concrete off his weathered hands.

“Ahh the warm water feels so good.”

He was an old man that had spent the day in the hot sun on his hands and knees and was deeply grateful for the feel of warm water. His smile radiated through my ridiculous air conditioned self-pity. To this day I can not wash my hands without thinking about Charlie and that moment.

Eventually, I worked collaboratively with the Manager to financially recognize Charlie’s contributions. A new position was incorporated into the collective agreement upgrading him from laborer to head concrete finisher. Charlie never complained about his wage and while I am sure he was grateful for the extra pay I can only imagine it paled in comparison to warm water.

For me, Charlie embodies what it means to really show up. It is unlikely that the park adjacent to his brick inlay work, that no one else would tackle, will ever be named after him. This type of honor is reserved for the “important” people in society.

I attended Charlie’s funeral. I was touched to hear his family fondly refer to the property adjacent to his work as “Charlie’s Park”.  The truly important people recognized Charlie’s character. They are all that matter to someone who really “shows up” in work and in life.