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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.

{ 29 comments… add one }
  • 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.

  • Gandalf Beard June 19, 2022, 3:57 PM

    Now it’s the best a maam can get.
    Remember when a “bearded lady” was a freakshow carny item? Good times.
    Gillette stadium is so sporty and fabulous in rainbow colors.
    All that faded glory and burning it down better of the Long March.

  • Dirk June 19, 2022, 6:07 PM

    These days it “Harry’s”Razors. Fantastic razor, works as advertised.

    Peter White, of WRSA fame turned me on to Harry’s.

  • david June 23, 2022, 12:33 PM

    I am posting this as I spoke it at Dads funeral 4 years ago. He was a sharp dresser when not dirty from dairy farming. If he needed to go to town to get parts he ALWAYS changed cloths. And yes he was strict, found out years later that yeah he had fun as a youth. I am now operating the family farm and hopefully my son after me will to. He was all set to go to collage to study dairy science at Ohio State but his older sisters threaten to sell the farm if he did so at 18 he took over and helped raise the 4 younger that him. Dad was A MAN his viewing broke records for the number of people that paid their respects several from 4 states away
    —————–

    In 1934 Ivo was born into a loving family, the middle child of nine, in the big brick house that his grandfather had built to shelter his family for generations
    Other than his time in the army in Korea Dad never left this land, and this parish that his family helped establish. His family is buried here and soon he will join them. He truly loved this parish and the support that it offered. This was home
    When dad was 17 years old Dad received His State farmer Degree from the Future farmers Of America, he love the FFA and wore that pin on his suit jacket for a long time, he still has it as well as his FFA jacket, while he was away in Columbus getting his award, his father Aloys died, and dad and his brothers took over the farm, Dad and the family worked to keep the farm, and take care of their mother Blanch, Dad and mom took care of her until she died, the thought of leaving that house was never on the table, it was all he had left of his dad
    In 1958 Dad married my mother and well here we are, all six of us kids, dad loved us, and expected us to do well. He also expected us to work, and we did, and we all thrived
    I was blessed with being able to farm by dad’s side for over 40 years; few get to say that they spent their entire lives at the side of the father. First him leading me and finally the roles reversed so seamlessly it was hardly noticed till after it happened.
    Dad was remarkable, he was forward thinking, in some ways ahead of his time, he and Irvin built an elevated milking parlor when everyone else was building flat stanchion systems to get on grade A milk, many in the area told him it would never work, cows won’t ever get comfortable on a raised platform, they won’t milk like that. He did it anyway, he built the first 20 by 60 foot silo in the area, the rumor was that he would never be able to fill it, he didn’t have enough land for it. Well he filled it year after year on 20 acres or less of corn. In one year he purchased a 4010 john deere tractor with a loader, a 5 bottom fully mounted plow and a four row planter, a FOUR row planter, no one had a four row planter. Good heavens he was sure to go broke. At one point dad and Irvin milked 88 cows, one of the biggest dairies in this part of Ohio at the time.
    Dad loved his Holsteins, the high point of his day was milking time, would tell me to go feed or do field work, “I can fix busted equipment, I can’t fix a ruined cow” in the early to mid 70’s dad showed registered Holsteins at at least 5 county fairs, the state far and the state Black and white show, a full string, one in every class plus a few, it was the way to merchandize your breeding stock, It was A LOT of work, Joe, Ron and Mark Puthoff can attest to that along with the many others that worked for dad at the time.
    Dad did like to have fun, once we drove into the yard after looking at some feeder pigs, there was snow on the ground, he spun that truck around twice in the yard and then pulled it into the shed, looked at me and said” well I like to have fun too”
    Then I can along, and wouldn’t leave, so he handed me a shovel and said get to work, if you’re going to be here we need more cows, so we better pour more concrete
    He was member and president of several boards through the years including the Ohio Holstein association however his pride and joy was the presidency of the Minster farmers Coop board, several times he lamented the demise of that fine company, for years he would not drive past it, it hurt too much, he always told me that the people he served with some of the finest people he knew
    I tell you all this because a few years ago he and I were talking and he said, “of all things I did, all that really matters is that my brothers and sisters and I are on good terms with one another and and My children all get along, if any of this had caused my family to split apart I would have felt a failure,
    All that really mattered to him was family and friends. Now as we pray for the repose of his soul I pray that he has joined the family and friends that have left this earth, and that someday we may join him.
    I wish to end with this story from Paul Harvey, I have taken the liberty to revise it slightly

    And on the 8th day God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker!”. So, God made a farmer!

    God said I need somebody to get up before dawn and milk cows and work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the elevator board. So, God made a farmer!

    I need somebody with strong arms. Strong enough to wrestle a heifer, yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to milk the cows, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry and have to wait for lunch until his wife is done working with the 4-H girls and their sewing projects and telling them to be sure to come back real soon…and mean it. So, God made a farmer!

    God said “I need somebody that can splice a fork handle, splint a calf’s leg with plastic pipe, a burlap bag, duct tape and bale twine. And…who, at planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty hour week by Tuesday noon. Then, pain’n from “tractor back”, put in another seventy two hours. And milk the cows in between, So, God made a farmer!

    God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So, God made a farmer!

    God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees heave bales and yet gentle enough to wean the calves and tend the cows…and who will stop his mower for an hour to help his children with their 4-H show heifers. So, God made a farmer!

    It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight…and not cut corners. Somebody to seed and weed, feed and breed…and rake and disc and plow and plant and nurse the calves and milk the cows. Somebody to replenish the self feeder and then finish a hard days work with a drive to church. Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who’d laugh and then sigh…and then respond with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life “doing what dad does”. So, God made a farmer!

    • Vanderleun June 23, 2022, 1:47 PM

      God bless him and all like him.

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