There are people throughout our lives who inspire, mentor and show us the way without even knowing it. It’s just who they are. This month is the 70th birthday of one of the most influential people from my childhood. The person who, when I was a little kid, was the living embodiment of the ‘You can do anything you set your mind to’ philosophy. Ironically, he got his degree in philosophy from Cornell, so it seems appropriate. And he taught me lessons I have never forgotten.
Nearly 40 years ago, on a summer day in Portland – in my mother’s humble kitchen – my sister’s boyfriend, Rob, made up the first batch of Big League Chew bubble gum. It”s well known in the US – now. It’s a story that is almost too bizarre to believe, but I find that the truth is always stranger than fiction. Rob was a minor league relief pitcher on the local single ‘A’ pro baseball team in Portland, The Mavericks, and he dated my sister for nearly 16 years. But this was way back at the beginning.
Rob had a baseball school that he ran in the summers in Portland, where he earned the money so he could spend the winters in South Africa playing more baseball, during their summers. At the school is where he met my older sister when she was dropping my brother off to attend. Rob didn’t chew tobacco, but he watched a ton of players who did and his idea was that kids should have an alternative – thus the gum kit cooking in my mother’s kitchen, and me playing their ‘crash test dummy’ guinea pig. Tasting the first batch, that had been colored brown to mimic tobacco with the horrid maple flavoring, made me gag. But I was in middle school, idolized him, and was game for crazy thing he thought up.
Watching this thing start in my own kitchen, by this humble man, and then it growing in to what it did, was a huge example to me that big things can come from small beginnings. No one expected this small time baseball player, with no car, who was living pretty much hand to mouth, to make it big. Or to invent anything of consequence. And yet he did.
Back then, it was like a lightening bolt in my world. The idea that if you could dream it, you could do it, was suddenly very real. I had evidence of it. Rob had a belief in himself that I found magnetic. And inspiring. He never saw limits, only opportunities.
I don’t tell many people this story – although by doing this post, I guess I am now. It was just my childhood. But a friend sent me this link a while ago and it made me smile that Rob talked about making it in my Mom’s kitchen, with my brother Todd. But we were all there, watching and participating. My Mom likes people who cook or sew. She liked Rob, and I guess that’s partly why she likes Jeff.
Years later, when I ran the Innovation Lab at Nordstrom, I often thought of him. Throughout my career, I was always coming up with ideas people thought crazy. But I never doubted our ability to actually see them into reality.
I had a VP once who listened to one of my ideas. He said ‘Come on, lets take a walk.’
After walking around the block a few times, and questioning me and my sanity – he stopped and said. ‘Do you really want to take responsibility for seeing something like it’s through? If it fails, you own it.’
I remember never hesitating. ‘Yes, of course.’ I couldn’t imagine anything else.
I got that from Rob. ‘Be bold and powerful forces will come to your aid.’ It’s the only way to live.
He was also a kind person. Even after selling the idea to Wrigley’s, he lived a simple life while buying homes for, and taking care of his family. He never cared for ‘things’; he cared for people and ideas.
A few years ago I took a cultural communications class. We were required to write the story of our lives to help us understand our cultural biases, but also to acknowledge those who had influenced our thinking the most. Before that, I’m not sure I really had a handle on how much my friendship with Rob impacted my life. But reading my own story, it was clear he had. Even when I was in college, and they towed my car for unpaid parking tickets, it was Rob I called. He picked me up, convinced the closed tow yard to open up and give me my car and then he took me out to one of many dinners. He was an amazing listener and was always interested in what I thought and why. I would leave those dinners, or even just a coffee, feeling lighter. He made me think differently.
Rob was there when my parent’s bought their grocery store in 1978. Before Big League Chew was even a kernel of an idea. He was their first customer, and bought a six pack of Heineken and paid $5. That’s before there were micro-brews and foreign beer seemed so fancy to us. My Mom had him sign the $5 bill for good luck, and she kept it framed over her desk in the back until they sold the store in 2010.
On the last day, before they handed over the keys to the new owners, Rob showed up by surprise. My brother had called him to let him know my parents were selling the store. He told my Mom, ‘I was your first customer and I’m going to be your last one too.’ He bought another 6 pack of Heineken. My Mom was so touched he had remembered after all those years.
I haven’t seen him in a long time. But one of the last things I did before we moved to Spain was to write him a letter. I’d been meaning to do it for a long time and I had put it on my list before we closed the door in the US for the last time. I tear up thinking about it, but Rob is a big part of how my life became what it is today. And acknowledging that was important to me. I’d left it well past time to say Thank You.
So this is to honor Rob Nelson’s 70th Birthday. He’s lived a big life, by anyone’s standards. But to me, he’ll always just be Rob, my friend, who was there for me when I needed him. Happy Birthday, Rob.