When I was much younger and had just become a magazine writer, a gentleman named Fremont Lobbestael called me on the phone. He was from Ann Arbor, Mich., and he worked as a salesman for the Hutzel Plumbing and Heating Co.
That company has been around since 1857. I can still hear his voice. It was part Sunday-school teacher, part delighted child. I sat up and listened. He called to give me some tips about steam heating and it came at a good time because I was working on a book I called “The Lost Art of Steam Heating.” I had been poring over old heating texts for years and thought I had most of it figured out, but that was a young man’s arrogance. I know now as an old man that the learning never stops and that was a lesson Fremont was about to teach me.
“Never ask a customer what he or she does for a living,” he said to me once. “Always ask what their chosen profession is. There’s a difference. Please think about that.”
And so I did. I thought about it a lot and even though he’s been gone for years, the difference stays with me. Fremont, in his special way, was asking the other person, “What did you choose to do in life?” He wasn’t asking, “What did circumstances choose for you to do?” He was empowering the other person by asking the question his way and not in the more-common way of, “What do you do?” There’s a power to that, a belief in human dignity, an affirmation of the pursuit of happiness. This was a very wise man.
I was on a seminar trip to Chicago when he was dying and I detoured to Ann Arbor to visit with him in the hospital. I stopped along the way at a mall where there was one of those Things Remembered stores. I bought a pocket watch and had them engrave it “To Professor Lobbestael.” I added some other words of appreciation and I gave him this symbol of time, even though we both knew he had little left. The watch was about the time he had given to me and that was both precious and appreciated. I sat on the edge of his bed and we talked for a while. He was a great man. I never saw him again.
Blowing off steam
The first time he called me, he asked me if I knew how to tell whether a steam boiler was dirty or clean.
I told him I usually look at the gauge glass to see if the steam part of the glass is wet or dry. It should always be dry. I had read that in an old textbook.
He told me what I had just said was fine, but then in his Sunday-school voice he told me there was more that I didn’t know and he would now teach me.
“Here’s what you do,” he said. “You build up some steam pressure; just a couple pounds are fine. Then close the bottom valve on the gauge glass. That will isolate the bottom of the glass from the boiler.
“Next, open the petcock at the bottom of the glass, but be very careful. I don’t want you to get burned. When you open that petcock, and if the water in the boiler is good and clean, you’ll flash down steam through the top of the gauge glass and out the petcock. That happens because you’re suddenly dropping the pressure on the water inside the boiler. The steaming rate of the boiler will, all of a sudden, pick up quite a bit and the steam will blow right out the gauge glass.
“But if the water is dirty, it will prime right over the top of the gauge glass when you open that petcock. You won’t get much steam, just a lot of dirty water. That’s how you’ll know for sure whether the boiler water is clean or dirty. If it’s dirty, you’ll have to clean the system. It works every time. Try it.”
I did and it works every time.
“Oh,” he added, “when you open the bottom valve of the gauge glass again, watch how the water returns to the glass. It should pop right up. If it doesn’t, that means the lower connection to the gauge glass is clogged. Remember that.”
Honoring a treasure
I did and I included his thoughts in “The Lost Art of Steam Heating.” I named it the Lobbestael Method of Steam-Boiler Water-Quality Inspection after that seasoned old-timer, Fremont Lobbestael of Ann Arbor, Mich.
This made him quite happy. Later, I dedicated another of my books to him. This made him even happier. He’d call and ask if he could buy some copies of that book and would I please write something nice about his qualifications on the cover page and then sign it. He would give those books to prospective customers. He would never let me give him the books. “A man must be paid for his work,” he’d say. So we’d extend him a very deep discount and I would sign each book with something like, “To Professor Lobbestael, who is the very best at what he does and who has taught me so much.”
That would bring out the delighted child side of the man.
For years after he died, his customers would write to me to tell me how much he meant to them, how he solved their heating problems, how he respected them.
Whenever I saw him, it was winter. He wore a big top coat and a fedora and a suit, of course. Visiting him was like visiting the 1940s. What a great old-timer he was and I was so lucky to have had him in my life for a while.
One thing I do regret, though, is this: As I wrote “The Lost Art of Steam Heating” in 1991, I took a bit of poetic license when I was quoting Fremont. When I described how he explained his method to me, I had him refer to me as kid. As in, “Kid, how do you know whether the water in a steam boiler is clean or dirty?”
I wrote it that way because that’s how I felt back then, especially when I was listening to him. Compared to that great man, I was a kid.
“I would never call you that,” he admonished me. “Never!”
And in saying that, he taught me another lesson, this one about respect. Even though I was a kid, he saw me as a colleague who needed to learn something. That’s all.
He also told me when he was just starting out, the plumbers used to fix leaks in old radiators by tamping lead wool into the holes. He explained how lead wool was better than steel wool because it’s not brittle. “It packs and it stays put.” And he said they used to use horse manure to fix leaks in steam boilers. “The roiling of the water pushes the manure into the hole. It’s not a permanent fix,” he explained, “but it’s a good way to get the customer through the winter.”
Lead wool and horse manure. That’s not in the old textbooks.
Fremont went to heaven in 2002. He was a joy to know. He taught me a lot about heating, sure, but he also taught me about life and about how to be a better man. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. Some people just stay with you like that. Had you known him, I think you would have liked him, too.
So go teach a kid something he or she doesn’t know. You do that and you will live on in their hearts long after you’re gone.