Words of wisdom still ring true

Columnist Esther Darlington MacDonald recalls some long-ago advice that she has never forgotten.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

One unusually quiet afternoon in mid-winter, some time around 1962-4, Government Agent George Brodie suddenly left his office on the main floor of the Williams Lake courthouse and walked up to the counter. With arms fastened to the counter, fingers spread, and his large grey eyes a little wider than usual, he addressed us in no uncertain terms.

“I don’t care what you are doing,” he began, pausing for a second, looking a little more severe than usual. “When a person walks into this office, I want you to drop what you are doing, and see to that person.”

Darlene looking up from her desk, where the fines which the RCMP Sergeant had left were spread out before her, occupying her full attention. I was at the typewriter, where I was typing the names of the Highways work crews for payroll. Eddie had just emerged from the safe where some of the files were kept, and Stan, seated at his desk in the corner, had been contemplating the latest land lease agreement.

We took in George’s order with appropriate, if not military, attention. We were all probably wondering what incident or accident had prompted this sudden directive from the chief of chiefs. We might even have been searching our minds desperately, wondering if we had done something wrong, or had not done something we should have done.

Before anyone could work up the nerve to ask, however, George swung around, and all we could see was the back of him as he returned to his office. The office door shut. Quietly.

Now that directive was one I have never forgotten. The government was a business. It still is, for that matter. For George Brodie, the customer was the public, and the public would not wait one nanosecond in a government agency that he directed. It was a lesson learned.

Today, when I enter a business establishment and the clerk or waitress or whomever is busy doing something else, and I wait to be noticed; or if I am told “I’ll be with you in a minute” or some such; or (worse) if I am standing in a business establishment and no one seems to be noticing that I am there, even after I have rung the bell for service, the immortal words of my former boss, government agent George Brodie, ring in my ears.

I can’t help it. That’s the way I was “brought up”, so to speak. And those orders uttered in no uncertain terms, either by my parents, my grandparents, or my bosses, are programmed in a way that I am not able to delete, delete, delete.

That Government Agency – courtrooms upstairs, Highways office across the hall – was one of the busiest business establishments in town. In those days, all government business excluding Forestry was handled in that one square-framed building whose dimensions were very modest indeed.

Ranchers, loggers, businessmen and -women, teenagers (accompanied by a proud parent) after their first driver’s license, peddlers, hunters, fishermen, resort owners, about to be marrieds after a license, doctors, lawyers, and even Indian chiefs were “the public”, and they were all after services provided by the Government Agent. Privately, agents were sometimes referred to as “The Great White Father.” Publicly, they were GAs, Clerks of the Court, Commissioners for taking oaths, Land Commissioners, or simply merchants.

When the courts were in session, George Brodie donned his black robes and swirled in and out of the office like a giant bat out of hell. Mild in appearance, and quietly spoken, George nevertheless represented the dignity and bearing of his many offices with all the decorum of regency.

He was a man who clearly loved his job, and the job fitted George like like a fine kid glove. Later, George became the head of all government agencies in the province.

I learned so much from the man, as I have learned from all the “bosses” I had over the years. In academe, in business, in government, these men and women taught me a lot.

They taught me to listen. I was a little tardy with that skill, more’s the pity. I was more than thirty before I learned to press the think button in my brain, stop, wait, and actually listen, hear the words spoken, and (believe it or not) think about what was being said.

Computers have changed everything. We can’t get along without them. Whether in producing newspapers (nationals or weeklies), in every sphere of education and academia, or in business (where laptops for travelling business people have become a necessity), communication has become the media and the message. In those old days in the 1960s, government business was conducted one to one, and how we met that “one” – whether with body language or orally – would become (and has become) one of the most important assets we can have.

How we meet the public today really hasn’t changed that much from yesteryear. When the atmosphere in a place of business is friendly and congenial, it is bound to succeed. George Brodie knew that. And whether or not it was some incident in George’s past that prompted him to approach us that day in the Government Agency in Williams Lake, with that severe expression on his usually congenial face, and remind us just who was the most important person in that office, even when we were at our busiest, the axiom George set before us has not been forgotten by me. Or, I suspect, by anyone else who was in the office that day.