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A Sharp Man

My father, Albert John “Van” Van der Leun was a Gillette man. He liked to look sharp, feel sharp and be sharp. I never saw him unshaven except very early in the morning before he’d had a chance to lather up. Beards? He was a child of the hard times, of the Depression, and beards were for bums.

When it came to haircuts my father favored the flat-top for himself and his sons. Butch Wax was a staple in our house where four males could go through a jar a week. He grudgingly accepted my 3-inch “Ivy League” cut once I went off to the university but was never reconciled to the longer and longer hippy hair that came later.

My father was a sharp-dressed man. He liked the snap of a freshly laundered, starched, and ironed white shirt. His suits were always cleaned and pressed and his shoes shined to a military gloss. I still have many of his gold and silver tie-tacks and cuff-links and although I seldom wear them, I do wear them. They make me feel sharp.

As the eldest male in his family of five children, he was the one that dropped out of high school to work when the 1930s started to bite, and his own father proved less than…. well, dependable when it came to providing.

He went out to Los Angeles to open a service station since, next to my mother, he loved cars. The war caught up with him there and he was, due to a heart murmur and complications from rheumatic fever, declared unfit for service. He then got his high-school degree by studying books and passing tests most university graduates today would fail.  He was sharp enough to teach himself chemistry. He got a job working on new formulations of explosives until the end of the war. Then, with a wife and two sons, he went back to what he loved, automobiles; filling, fixing, and selling.

My father was a car salesman and a good one. He was a sharp salesman; one that was always looking for what the customer actually wanted as well as what the customer could really afford. For every minute selling, he spent five qualifying. He didn’t boast about being the top salesman at the lot, although he usually was. He did boast that he had the fewest repos of all the salesmen and the most repeat customers. He liked to sell people cars that he knew they could afford. His most repeated admonition to me was, “Never try to profit off of another’s misfortune.”

My father hated smooth. He liked plain talk and despised euphemism and manipulation, especially among salesmen. He’d fire car salesmen working under him if he caught them lying or even shading the truth to make a sale. “A man that will lie to a customer will lie to you,” he’d say. He looked at every deal brought to him for approval and if the buyer didn’t have the credit to carry the loan he wouldn’t approve it.  “Bad for the buyer and worse for the business,” he’d say. “If you let a man buy what he can’t afford on credit, you’re going to be taking the car back and making an enemy. We’re here to get cars off the lot, not see them come back after repossession. A man who can’t make his car payments is a man who can’t maintain his car. A salesman who’s so smooth he’s selling people cars bigger than they can afford is a salesman who’s taking a kickback from the repoman.”

My father was a man for whom honor was essential. Did my father sell as many cars as he could have? Probably not, but he raised three boys well and without want. My mother worked hard, day in and day out, in her career as a mother of three and did, in the final analysis, a pretty good job of it. My father saved carefully and retired all debt as quickly as possible. When he died, a relatively young man after years of expensive medical treatments, my mother was still set up comfortably for life. He loved my mother devotedly until death parted them and she has never loved another for the 46 more years of her life.

My father despised debt and avoided credit. Educated by himself, he’d seen the worst of the depression and, during one hard winter in Pittsburgh in the 30s, had to patrol the railroad tracks hoping to pick up lumps of coal fallen from the trains in order to heat his home.

My father was a life-long Democrat and despised Richard Nixon for his five-o’clock shadow, his smooth palaver, and his treatment of Helen Gahagan Douglas in an early California election. But in the Nixon-Kennedy face-off, he felt the same way about Kennedy. “He looks sharp but when you listen to him he’s just too smooth a talker.”

Like he said, “A salesman who’s so smooth he’s selling people cars bigger than they can afford is a salesman who’s taking a kickback from the repoman.”

Like I said, my father was a sharp man.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Hangtown Bob June 16, 2018, 10:14 AM

    A man of independence, self-reliance, and honor……

    I wish that the folks of our country had more of these qualities nowadays.

  • Larry Jones June 16, 2018, 10:51 AM

    I know it is cliche’ to say that your father was from the “Greatest Generation” but, he certainly fits the mold. Your life probably wasn’t perfect growing up, no one’s is but, I was thinking how lucky you were to have such a man as a father.

  • Deana June 16, 2018, 4:55 PM

    I agree with the above comments.

    Frequently people find these stories boring but I do not. They are dear lessons. These people were real and they made an impact that we are still benefitting from today. I just wish we had more people like your mom and dad.

  • Punditarian June 16, 2018, 8:32 PM

    Thanks for republishing this essay Mr Vanderleun – one of my favorites.

  • Bruce June 18, 2018, 5:37 AM

    What a blessing an honest, good man is…especially when he’s your father.

  • prusmc June 18, 2018, 5:55 PM

    I never get tired of reading about your Dad. My Dad was the greatest man in the World as far as I am concerned. He went to 8th grade but I wish I had been one-tenth as smart as he was.

  • ghostsniper April 17, 2021, 2:18 PM

    gillette?
    bastids
    (no reflection on your dad, they probably used to be a decent company – before half the world went insane)

  • EX-Californian Pete April 17, 2021, 2:42 PM

    Gerard, your dad was obviously a good, decent, stand-up guy.
    No mysteries as to why you turned out to be one, too.

    In my opinion, the main reason kids nowadays have turned out to be so worthless is because of bad (or no) parenting. It’s no secret that “single parent households” are a huge factor in producing worthless, uneducated, nere-do-well kids.

  • PA Cat April 17, 2021, 2:44 PM

    Thanks for reposting this, Gerard. I’ve always thought that my dad (a WWII vet who died relatively young at 51) and your dad would have understood and liked each other. Unlike your dad, my dad was a lifelong Republican who detested FDR and thought the only good thing about Harry Truman was dropping the Bomb to end the war– but he was also a sharp man in the Gillette sense.
    After finishing high school during the Depression, he worked for the local evening newspaper (Lancaster, like most small cities, actually had two dailies until the 1980s) in the advertising department. His job involved a daily trip to each store in his “territory,” writing down the material that each merchant gave him, going back to the newspaper office to mark up the copy on large tear sheets, indicating the type face or illustration best suited to it, and handing the tear sheets to the compositors in time for the late afternoon edition of the New Era.
    Like Gerard’s father, my dad wore crisp white shirts to the office with a striped tie– no solid colors, no club patterns, no knit ties, just stripes in conservative colors. And yes, he kept his shoes polished the way he had once polished his paratrooper jump boots; I often kept him company on the back doorsteps on summer evenings while he polished his work shoes. I enjoyed buying birthday and Christmas gifts for him at the local men’s store because the salesmen all knew him from his newspaper job, and they knew just what kind of tie or shirt he preferred. They usually commented that my dad “always looks like he just stepped out of a bandbox”– which he did.
    Like Gerard’s father, my dad thought of beards as the mark of a bum; he shaved every morning even on weekends and followed up with Yardley After Shave; no other brand, and certainly nothing as effete as “gentlemen’s eau de cologne.”
    Yes, he was sharp, and I still miss him so very much. We used to watch Gillette’s Cavalcade of Sports together on Friday nights, and the program’s theme music, the “Look Sharp/Be Sharp March,” still reminds me of him. I bet Gerard knows the march too:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TNhQpb-OEA&ab_channel=SpazzerXSpazzerX

  • jd April 17, 2021, 2:44 PM

    It sounds like you had an outstanding childhood, Gerard, with
    admirable parents. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  • gwbnyc April 17, 2021, 4:59 PM

    mine- a minor league ballplayer, an only child, sandlot POI, three seasons& out from his last team, the Durham Bulls.

    where he met my mother, far from the tentacles of his.

    also a fastidious dresser, always in a coat& tie, never without a hat.

    then an accountant at the Fisher Body trim plant in Cleveland.

    he excelled and retired at the almost top of management on a high school education.

    his father was a ballplayer and raised my father to be the same. my brother& I knew he was named after a pro but we never knew which one. I watched the ken burns baseball documentary and when he got to “Rube Waddell- George Edward Waddell” all was revealed. my brother was gone by then, so I had no one to share it with.

    Grandpa, 2nd right, top row, the Perry (Ohio) Athletic Club

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ef3cf98aa19c4a5a50af13cd541e2ed13cd2b28d6faf69d8f0d8b5643e1f0f81.jpg

    the Gillette ads always ran during ballgames, and the jingle has never left me. my father would sit in the car in our driveway in the dark listening to the end of a game on the radio.

  • Hale Adams April 17, 2021, 5:44 PM

    I second the motion by jd and prusmc — I look forward to stories about your father, even if they’re the same ones from years past.

    My father thought honor was essential, also, and took his duties as a father very seriously. He was a very imposing man, physically and mentally — imagine Raymond Burr, the actor, with a height of 5′ 11″, strong as an ox, and equipped with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (from the days when BS degrees meant something).

    Yes, he had his flaws — he could be rather difficult to live with at times, partly because his only son can be difficult, too, sometimes. (wry smile) But every boy should be so lucky to have Raymond Eugene Adams for a father, and the world would be a better place if there were more men in it like my father.

    He faded away at age 70, halfway to 71, at Christmastime, 1997. God, I miss him.

    Please excuse me — the air in the room is all of a sudden very dusty.

    Hale

  • mmack April 17, 2021, 7:07 PM

    Gerard,

    I like reading this story about your father. My father was of the same generation. He never faced the dire circumstances your father did growing up but my grandparents were damned lucky grandad kept his job during the Depression. My father graduated high school in 1941. By 1943 he was in khaki in the US Army and in 1944 got an all expenses paid tour of France and Belgium courtesy of Uncle Sam. Of course the Germans were less than gracious hosts and took to firing bullets, mortars and artillery shells at dad and his buddies. Won a Purple Heart 💜 for his troubles, but no $100 million wound to send him stateside.

    Once Harry ordered The Bomb dropped dad came home and Grandpa got him a job in the same factory he worked in. My father used the GI Bill to go to night school and get a college degree and somehow found the time to moonlight as a car salesman like your father did. And court a young lady in accounting who fell in love with him, married him, and became his wife and my mother. Then it was time to climb the corporate ladder and support a growing family.

    Like your father my old man “looked sharp”. For work dress shirt 👔, tie, dress slacks, polished dress shoes. On the weekends no blue jeans 👖 or tee shirts. And I try to mirror his outlook of “if you’re not going to give it your best don’t try, you’ll just waste your time.” The Old Man pushed himself hard, and pushed us to succeed.

    Perhaps my father and yours could have met, talked, and struck up a friendship. Both were forged in an era of hardship and tough, no-nonsense realities. Both knew we work, or we fail. And failure wasn’t an option. And I fear we’ve lost what they’ve bequeathed us.

    I know you are proud of your father Gerard, as I am of mine. Goodness knows my father was no saint but people like him and your father made America great.

  • ghostsniper April 17, 2021, 7:15 PM

    My dad used Old Spice.
    As a child it was the first thing I smelled upon wakening.
    After some forays into Brute and English Leather in high school I settled into Old Spice.
    My son started Old Spice about 10 years ago.
    We have no grandson (yet) but if we do he’ll adapt nicely to Old Spice.
    Classic, that is, none of the embarrassing silly stuff they’ve come out with lately.

  • mmack April 17, 2021, 7:15 PM

    Ironically before I read this story I mowed the lawn, came back inside, and told my Lovely Mrs. I needed to clean up before dinner. With hair mussed and clothes dusty I went upstairs to the master bath, showered 🧼, changed into clean clothes, and came downstairs. Her response:

    “My God, sometimes you are too clean!” 😆

    I guess I’m channeling your old man and mine Gerard. 👍🏻

  • TRT April 17, 2021, 7:35 PM

    NIce

  • TRT April 17, 2021, 7:36 PM
  • TRT April 17, 2021, 7:36 PM

    Thanks for reposting this, Gerard. I’ve always thought that my dad (a WWII vet who died relatively young at 51) and your dad would have understood and liked each other. Unlike your dad, my dad was a lifelong Republican who detested FDR and thought the only good thing about Harry Truman was dropping the Bomb to end the war– but he was also a sharp man in the Gillette sense.

    After finishing high school during the Depression, he worked for the local evening newspaper (Lancaster, like most small cities, actually had two dailies until the 1980s) in the advertising department. His job involved a daily trip to each store in his “territory,” writing down the material that each merchant gave him, going back to the newspaper office to mark up the copy on large tear sheets, indicating the type face or illustration best suited to it, and handing the tear sheets to the compositors in time for the late afternoon edition of the New Era.

    Like Gerard’s father, my dad wore crisp white shirts to the office with a striped tie– no solid colors, no club patterns, no knit ties, just stripes in conservative colors. And yes, he kept his shoes polished the way he had once polished his paratrooper jump boots; I often kept him company on the back doorsteps on summer evenings while he polished his work shoes.

    I enjoyed buying birthday and Christmas gifts for him at the local men’s store because the salesmen all knew him from his newspaper job, and they knew just what kind of tie or shirt he preferred. They usually commented that my dad “always looks like he just stepped out of a bandbox”– which he did.

    Like Gerard’s father, my dad thought of beards as the mark of a bum; he shaved every morning even on weekends and followed up with Yardley After Shave; no other brand, and certainly nothing as effete as “gentlemen’s eau de cologne.”

    Yes, he was sharp, and I still miss him so very much. We used to watch Gillette’s Cavalcade of Sports together on Friday nights, and the program’s theme music, the “Look Sharp/Be Sharp March,” still reminds me of him. I bet Gerard knows the march too:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TNhQpb-OEA&ab_channel=SpazzerXSpazzerX

  • TRT April 17, 2021, 7:37 PM

    Thanks for reposting this, Gerard. I’ve always thought that my dad (a WWII vet who died relatively young at 51) and your dad would have understood and liked each other. Unlike your dad, my dad was a lifelong Republican who detested FDR and thought the only good thing about Harry Truman was dropping the Bomb to end the war– but he was also a sharp man in the Gillette sense.
    After finishing high school during the Depression, he worked for the local evening newspaper (Lancaster, like most small cities, actually had two dailies until the 1980s) in the advertising department. His job involved a daily trip to each store in his “territory,” writing down the material that each merchant gave him, going back to the newspaper office to mark up the copy on large tear sheets, indicating the type face or illustration best suited to it, and handing the tear sheets to the compositors in time for the late afternoon edition of the New Era.
    Like Gerard’s father, my dad wore crisp white shirts to the office with a striped tie– no solid colors, no club patterns, no knit ties, just stripes in conservative colors. And yes, he kept his shoes polished the way he had once polished his paratrooper jump boots; I often kept him company on the back doorsteps on summer evenings while he polished his work shoes. I enjoyed buying birthday and Christmas gifts for him at the local men’s store because the salesmen all knew him from his newspaper job, and they knew just what kind of tie or shirt he preferred. They usually commented that my dad “always looks like he just stepped out of a bandbox”– which he did.
    Like Gerard’s father, my dad thought of beards as the mark of a bum; he shaved every morning even on weekends and followed up with Yardley After Shave; no other brand, and certainly nothing as effete as “gentlemen’s eau de cologne.”
    Yes, he was sharp, and I still miss him so very much. We used to watch Gillette’s Cavalcade of Sports together on Friday nights, and the program’s theme music, the “Look Sharp/Be Sharp March,” still reminds me of him. I bet Gerard knows the march too:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TNhQpb-OEA&ab_channel=SpazzerXSpazzerX

  • Cappy April 17, 2021, 7:42 PM

    Your dad sounds like a great guy. My dad was somewhat similar. Very hard life before he came to America, but once he got here he was in the land of opportunity.

  • Dirk April 18, 2021, 8:11 AM

    Ditto, my father is of that era, shaved daily, shined his shoes as needed. Dixie peach, and Marlboro’s, good whiskey, and sports. In high school he was Ronnie the toe, “ field goal kicker” in death, he is my father, and i miss him daily.

    Village Idiot

  • Bill Jones April 18, 2021, 8:36 AM

    And your father’s views on Gillette’s “Toxic Masculinity”?

  • Vanderleun April 18, 2021, 1:52 PM

    Passed away in 1972.

  • Margot April 18, 2021, 9:45 PM

    The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the Air!
    https://youtu.be/agD4Qxsw7Ik
    I remember it like it was yesterday!
    Your dad dressed to the nines. When people dress up they act differently. They stand taller and seem nicer. Nothing like that today.

  • Dan Patterson April 19, 2021, 4:01 AM

    Blessings to all you good men. And to your fathers, good men too that helped make you what you are.