Phil Hugo: Lessons in work; gifts from the elders

By Phil Hugo - Guest Columnist

I’m standing at the rear of our SUV, the lift gate open, staring at several bags of groceries and a gallon of milk. Should I try to manhandle nine bags and the milk and close the gate all at once, or do I make two trips to the back door of our home and into the kitchen? It’s not like I’m incapable of walking some 400 feet in two round trips. What’s the big deal?

Earlier in the day, I went down to sweep the basement floor. I know the drill: sprinkle sweeping compound, grab a broom and hit the dirt, being careful not to create a minor dust storm. As I completed those tasks I reflected on my youth and my mentors who taught me how to work.

I grew up in the family business, Hugo’s Plumbing and Heating, which my great-grandfather Cornelius Hugo started in 1894 and is now five generations strong in West Point, Neb. During my formative teen years, I worked with my late father, Al, and his three brothers, Paul, Matt and Ambrose. I would not say I was an apprentice-in-training because I chose not to follow in the footsteps and soiled hands and work clothes of skilled tradesmen, but it was a good schooling in the blue-collar work ethic.

The assigned tasks were many. Helping Uncle Paul insulate pipes in a 100-degree boiler room at the sausage plant on a hot July day was, among other things, an exercise in tolerance. Uncle Matt was the heating and air conditioning man, and since I was the kid of slender stature, aka the grunt, that meant I got to crawl around and be on my back in the aptly named crawlspaces while installing ductwork.

Uncle Ambrose was the youngest of the brothers and possessed a broad knowledge of the trade regarding installation or problems to be solved. And, here is where the grocery bags come in.

We were at the sausage plant to do a job one afternoon. We grabbed the necessary tools from his truck and headed off. My uncle turned around, looked at me and said, “You can carry more than that. Learn to make your trips count.”

Ambrose also told me that clean tools, e.g. shovels, work better than dirty ones. I keep my tools in working order.

As a plumber and the manager, Dad worked on many projects: cleaning sewers, laying water and sewer lines, fixing leaking faucets and so on. I once asked, as a teenager might, “Why do I have to do the crappy jobs all the time?” His retort: “Because that’s how it is.”

One day I was helping my father lay a new sewer line. I was what is known as the top man, i.e. hand him whatever is needed. At some point Dad caught me doing nothing.

“Don’t just stand around,” he told me. “It doesn’t look good to the public. You never know who is watching.”

Another time we were installing a new water service, and for some reason I took to dissing another local plumbing business. Dad’s immediate response: “Don’t knock the competition. It’s good for business.”

Now we come to the sweeping compound in our basement. One afternoon after school I was sweeping the shop’s floor. My Uncle John, the bookkeeper, salesman and brother-in-law to the Hugos, caught me using no sweeping compound. He and Dad were on the phone when the conversation apparently turned to me. “Phil, your dad wants to talk to you.” Dad to Phil: “You use sweeping compound when you sweep!”

I worked with and learned from all of the Hugo brothers, but spent more time with my father, both at home and in the business world. I saw how he worked to do things the right way. His mantra: “Learn to be particular about your work.”

Dad enjoyed talking with people. We would go to a customer’s house to look at a problem, and before you knew it, he was commenting: “Agnes, that is a pretty vase.” He had an appreciation for the finer things.

As a teenager, I doubt I spent much time pondering those directives that were sent my way, not seeing them as lessons.

Now, as I pass through the autumn of my life, I continue to take what I learned, reflect and make it part of my journey in work and pleasure. I thanked my father more than once for instilling the work ethic but told him that “learning to be particular about your work — sometimes that can be a curse.”

Dad chuckled and said, “I know what you mean Phil.”

At this writing, Ambrose, who is 91 years old and retired, is the surviving brother. As an adult, I may not have thanked those men often enough, but I do here as I acknowledge what they gave me — lessons in work, gifts from the elders.

By Phil Hugo

Guest Columnist

Phil Hugo lives in Lima. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.

Phil Hugo lives in Lima. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.

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