I was in Santa Monica, Calif., on a short vacation when Bob called to tell me Ray died.

I hadn’t seen Ray in years, but I think about him every time I walk up to the front of a seminar room. I always look around to see if he’s there, and I always sweat a bit, thinking he might be. And here’s why.

In 1979, Bob and I were working for a manufacturer’s rep on Long Island. Bob came to the rep business from the fuel-oil business where he had worked as a service manager. I arrived at the same business because my father worked there and it seemed like a great idea at the time.

Bob had worked on a lot of residential and commercial steam boilers and I had read several books about steam systems. We both saw ourselves as experts, and this is what inspired me to talk our boss into letting us do a full-day steam seminar for local contractors. We had marketing in mind. We figured once the contractors got a close look at our combined brilliance, they would line up to buy the products we had to offer. Can’t miss, right?

So I reserved our conference room, which held about 30 large people and we made a mailing to the local contractors. We decided to charge $25 for this magnificent seminar because if you give training away for free most contractors will think it’s not worth anything. The mailing was so incredible that we sold out the class in a couple days. Our boss was delighted.

Now we had to go do it. Bob and I set up the room with the overhead projector and the blackboard. We even got fresh chalk. We ordered the donuts and the sandwiches for lunch and we discussed who would go first. I won that honor. Bob would follow me and we’d just wing it as we went along. That’s never a good idea, but I didn’t know that at the time.

We scheduled the seminar to start at 9 a.m. and conclude with cheers at 5 p.m. We did this without realizing what a very long time eight hours is, even if you stop for lunch. We were world-class idiots.

Anyway, I began my part of the seminar at exactly 9 a.m. because I believe that being prompt is a virtue. I had all my notes and overhead slides in place right there on the desk in front of me. The blackboard was over there and the new chalk was in the tray. So far, so good. I would speak for the entire morning and then turn it over to Bob.

At precisely 10:15 a.m. (I remember this because I glanced at my watch) I realized I had shared with the contractors absolutely everything that I knew about steam heating. My head was empty. The only thing left was my foolish grin.

“Are there any questions?” I asked, hoping the group would have answerable questions I could stretch toward lunch, which seemed as far away as Moscow.
And that’s when I met Ray.

Ray was sitting in the back row and was much older than me and very dry behind the ears. He raised his hand and said, “Dan, would you please explain the difference between a condensate pump and a boiler-feed pump?”

“A condensate pump and a boiler-feed pump,” I said, never having heard of either device before that moment. “A condensate pump and a boiler-feed pump.”
“Yes.” Ray replied. “A condensate pump and a boiler-feed pump.”

“You want to know the difference, right?” I looked at Bob. Bob looked at me. We both looked at Ray.

“Yes,” he said, “the difference.”

“Well,” I started, “one pumps condensate. You can tell that by its name. And the other feeds a boiler. It’s a boiler-feed pump so it feeds. One pumps. The other feeds.”

“You don’t know the difference, do you?” Ray said. “You never heard of either of those components have you?”

I looked at Bob. He looked at me.

Now here comes the scary part. Ray shook his head, sighed, got up, walked to the front of the room and held out his hand for the chalk, which I handed him. “Take a seat in the back, kid, and I’ll explain the difference to these people. That’s what they paid for.”

I scurried back to Ray’s seat, sat down and tried to disappear. Ray taught the rest of the class and he did a great job. My boss came in to watch for a while. He looked at me and at Ray and I tried to get smaller. At one point, I disappeared entirely. But before I did, I promised myself this would never happen to me again.

Lifelong lesson

“How did Ray die?” I asked Bob.

“Alzheimer’s,” he said.

“That’s rough.”

“Yeah, but I hear he was snappy right to the end,” Bob said.

“In a good way, though.”

“Yeah,” Bob said.

Ray taught me a fine lesson that day and I was lucky to learn it at an early age. I should never open my mouth in front of a group unless I know what I’m talking about. And I should understand how very long eight hours is.

I studied hard after that, mostly out of pure terror, and I think I got better. Years later, Ray returned to one of my seminars. When he walked in, I felt nauseous. He sat quietly through the whole day, never asking a question. At the end, he came up to me and said, “That’s better, kid.” And he just walked away.

Ray had a brutal brand of kindness, one that did not suffer fools. He knew that anyone teaching has a responsibility to the audience, and that anyone speaking or writing from a position of authority has a responsibility to the listener and to the reader. I think every young person who thinks he knows it all should have a guy like Ray land on him like a Mosler safe, and the earlier in life this occurs, the better.

More years went by and I was speaking at a big trade show in Boston. The subject was steam heating, of course, and I had about 500 contractors in the audience. On my way in, I spotted my old boss, who was now retired and living in Boston. I hadn’t seen him in more than 10 years. We made a date to have dinner that evening. I left him in the back of the room with my buddy, Al Levi, who now writes for various BNP Media magazines, but still was a contractor at the time.

Before I began the seminar, I drew the group’s attention to my old boss, sitting there in the back with Al. I told of how he had raised me in the business and how he had believed in me at a time when I needed that most. I didn’t tell the story of that first steam seminar and how he had watched Ray deliver the seminar I was supposed to be doing. The group gave my old boss a round of applause and he beamed.

After the applause died down, Al said, “So how do you like the way he turned out?”

With a twinkle in his eye, my old boss said, “He turned out just fine. But the birthing was difficult.”

He’s gone now, and so is Ray, but I’m going to keep trying to please both those guys. I owe them.