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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: One-tooth Ree

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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About six months ago, as I walked into church I was warmly greeted by my two neighbors, Betsy and Howard Nielson. The two warmly shook my hand, gave me a weekly bulletin, and smiled as they politely moved to the people standing behind me. This charming pair in their late 60s had been appointed to the newly-created position of “greeters.” Each Sunday it would be their job to stand at the chapel door, smile, hand out church bulletins, and make small talk.

By profession, Howard had been a chemistry professor and Betsy a lawyer. Both had been retired for about five years. When I first met the two at a neighborhood gathering I discovered they lived in the Bay Area in the early 70s at the same time I had been stationed there in the Coast Guard. As we shared memories of the area and era, the conversation somehow turned to the marvelous regional theater. I enthusiastically explained that one of the highlights of my stay in California had been a local theater competition I had attended. The theme had been “One, Two, Three” and one of the ten-minute skits that competed was aptly re-titled “One-tooth Ree.” As you’ve probably guessed, it was about a poor fellow named Ree who had but one tooth and the challenges he faced trying to find a girlfriend. The music, lyrics, script, and staging were delightful and I gushed over its creativity.

“One-tooth-Ree!” Howard exclaimed. “Why Betsy wrote the play, the music, and the lyrics. I did the costuming, sets, and staging.” Then the two began singing the theme song as I stood there with my mouth agape. Somehow, after thirty years of moving about the country, I had run into the people who produced my favorite mini-musical of all time. The three of us laughed about the coincidence and I marveled that a chemist and lawyer had crafted such an incredible production. Both were modest in their response and eventually went on to talk about their other surprise talents—the books she had written and the photo contests he had won.

“Actually I’ve written quite a lot,” Betsy enthused, “but over the past few years nobody has asked me about my work.”

From there the conversation turned to the fact that aging, along with its physical challenges, was putting them out to pasture despite the fact that they still wanted to be yoked. It turns out both Betsy and Howard had been (in their own words) “given the bum’s rush” into retirement. And now within their own parish, two vibrant parishioners who had once run the church’s charity drives and led the youth camping programs had been politely released from their volunteer jobs and appointed “greeters.”

“It’s a token job,” Betsy explained with a sad smile. “You can’t exactly fire people at church so you make up some position and move them to that.”

“Not that people don’t need to be greeted,” Howard added. “It’s just that we have so much more to offer.”

Since talking with Betsy and Howard that day, I’ve made it a point to converse with each of the retired people in my environs to learn what it’s been like as they moved into their “golden” years. Some have loved the transition to a life of less stress and more free time, some report a hollow feeling they can’t seem to fill, and all allude to the fact that once you reach a certain age (or look), people don’t exactly view you as a cauldron of wisdom. Friends, family, and neighbors don’t seem to care a whit about the photos you shot back in the old days or the books you wrote back when the earth was still cooling, or for that matter, the advice you might want to proffer today.

What must it be like to be bubbling over with ideas and never asked for your point of view? How does it feel to stand on the sidelines and crave to be sent back in the game? “Put me in coach,” you think to yourself. “I can do it!”

But nobody calls.

At some level I understand why today’s senior citizens aren’t always valued for their years of priceless experience. Centuries ago, when people worked in jobs like saddle maker or silver-bowl master, it took years to learn the craft. Consequently, older people were quite likely to know more about how to complete a job than just about anyone. Two hundred years ago, skilled craftsmen remained rock stars right up until the day they died.

But things have changed. Today’s older generation isn’t going to pass on the wisdom of five generations of haberdashery or the finer points of millinery arts. Nowadays, technology moves so fast that almost no form of expertise remains relevant for very long. For instance, my folks learned how to sell radio advertising space and process black-and-white photos, but those fields have long since been replaced with new technologies. Nobody cares much about them any more.

But that doesn’t mean that today’s more senior and experienced citizens don’t still have a lot to offer. I know this is true because I took my cue from the Nielsons and started making it a point to talk to older people—no longer making small talk—but now making big talk. In church, between meetings, and after exchanging greetings, I ask: “What’s the most interesting thing you learned in your career?” or “What advice do you have for me as a new grandparent?” or “What’s the most important book you ever read?”

From there the discussion always turns lively and interesting. It’s like opening the door to a library. For instance, last week when my neighbor George (a retired geologist) stopped by to take a look at our remodeling project, I took him over to the new granite countertops and asked him to teach me about the stone.

“If I were still teaching Geology 101,” George enthused, “I’d bring my students by your place just to look at this! Examining this stone is like reading an ancient manuscript. The granite you see in the field is covered with dirt and even when it’s exposed it’s hard to examine. But when you slice and polish a massive piece like this, you can peer back into the very formation of the earth. For example, you see this dark brown scar that runs across this slab? The stone had a crack in it and millennia ago magma poured into the void. And you see these tiny marks that look like ancient writing, they’re called ‘glyphs,’ but they’re not made by man, they’re made by nature. It all starts when . . .”

After enjoying several equally enlightening conversations with several other friends and neighbors, I decided to ask Betsy Nielson to share some of her writing with me. She had suggested that nobody asked her about her work anymore, so I asked her. Within hours, Betsy appeared at our front door with a large book in hand. She reverently opened it to a picture of a smiling young man standing at attention in full flight gear. It was her brother Roy and he had just graduated from flight school.

“In this book,” Betsy explained, “I contributed a story about my brother Roy’s flight experience in World War II.”

Then I noticed Betsy cradling a letter in her hands—holding it more like a religious artifact than an epistle.

“It’s a letter Roy sent me,” Betsy said as she fought back a tear. “It starts out, ‘Dear Sis.'”

She then paused to regain her composure.

“Roy was eight years older than me, and kind enough to write his kid sister about once a month. Receiving a letter from him was the highlight of my youth. In this particular letter Roy makes small talk about his daily goings-on and ends by hoping that his flight scheduled for later that day will be successful. He and his crew were hunting down enemy submarines and that was always dangerous.”

“So what happened?” I asked.

“You’ll note the date on the letter.” Betsy answered. “You’re a bit young to know this, but it was the last day of the war.”


“And Roy’s plane was shot down. He and his entire crew were lost. My brother and his buddies were among the last soldiers to die—they may have been the last soldiers to lose their lives in the war.”

No wonder Betsy was cradling the letter. It was a poignant and tender piece of history. Tears ran down our cheeks as we discussed Roy’s sacrifice and Betsy’s feelings.
It was a cherished moment for me and it had been the result of asking a simple question: “Would you share some of your writings?” I had called Betsy back into the game and both of us were blessed for my having done so.

And what did I do to get Betsy back into the game? How did I open the library door? First, I took the time to talk with an older friend. Second, I traded small talk for big talk. Third, I listened intently as my friend shared a story.

In Betsy’s own words, unlocking untold treasures had been as simple as One-tooth Ree.

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26 thoughts on “Kerrying On: One-tooth Ree”

  1. Don

    Kerry – great story. There is so much meaning here. I will share this with my father-in-law, a pastor and my brother-in-law who loves older people. They will enjoy it more than me!

  2. James Wilson

    WOW! great article. I know personally what you are writing about. I am 61 in great health and can work circles around others but I’m too old. I have a stress free job now so I have taken up house flipping so I have a place to use my energy that is rewarding. If I look at other jobs it quickly becomes evident that I am too old. But that just means I have to redirect my energy into useful, rewarding things that I like while others may never know that I had something to offer them.
    Thanks again for a great piece!

  3. Rudy Linke

    An amazing piece!

  4. Margie Gillean

    This is an insightful, poignant, and good lesson to business today. There are countless senior employees pushed out of their vital roles who still have valuable contributions to make. As one of those, retirement is not what it used to be and should be a good experience for everyone whether they desire relaxation or vital contribution in their daily lives. I hope business executives and decision makers are listening, quality and quantity are not the same thing, and if you need a good dose of realism and honesty look at the boomer, zoomer generation to lead the way. Best regards, Margie

  5. Jessica Roy

    I was so touched by this article, I’m sitting here crying like a baby in my cubicle. Thank you for the reminders to take the time to get to know our older ones. They do have so much knowledge and experience to share. I will make a point from now on to give a hearing ear.

    Thank you,

  6. Jenny

    A few years ago, my family moved Cleveland so my husband could attend law school. Our next door neighbor was a very old immigrant grandma. She made me nervous, because she seemed so crabby! For three years, I’d shovel her sidewalk when it snowed, but I didn’t make much of an effort to talk to her. That was my loss. A week before I moved away, she invited me in to see some pictures of her family. She had been in the Olympics when she was younger, before she had come to America, escaping the Nazi’s during WWII. Her family had all moved to Arizona and she was selling her house to move there with them. It was a shame I had let being shy keep me from enjoying a friendship with a wonderful person for 3 lonely years, away from my friends and family.

  7. Tricia

    What a great article. Thanks so much for sharing. I have two older, retired neighbors who are always out for visits. Now I will have the right frame of mind and questions to ask them. They are wonderful gentlemen!

    Glad I took the time to read this today! Thanks!

  8. Cathy Farrow

    What a wonderful story. I have a passion for older people & love to listen to their stories. I agree that this generation is generally not valued – often they sit quietly in meetings, discussions…possibly feeling that what they would/could contribute would not have value/relevance. My husband is just retiring after 52 years in his industry…their are few people remaining in the industry who know him…& few who know his contribution(s) to the industry…& few who seem to care. It is great that you have discovered the richness that these stories/expertise can add to your life experience. Thanks for sharing. Cathy

  9. Kerrying On: One-tooth Ree | archively

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  10. Sandra Smith

    Your analogy of engaging in discussion being “like opening the door to a library” is so true and it leads me to add that there truly are opportunities for seniors to share their wealth of knowledge and one of them is at… the library! Many libraries offer programs of all kinds to their communities, and are looking for knowledgeable people to add their skills and life expertise to them. Having been in libraries for 28 years and worked with many such seniors has been very rewarding for all persons involved. And now as a manager of staff learning for 500 individuals,I am bringing Crucial Conversations to library staff throughout Colorado so they can interact even more effectively with both their co-workers and our wonderful, valuable volunteers! Thanks, Kerry, for your insight as I and others work to make everyone’s day more fulfilling. Sandra, Denver Public Library

  11. Steve Laswell

    A powerful story and told so well; thank you.

    The key to personal growth and future success is the discipline of consistent reflection; when we give careful thought to the story we find truth. Truth, of course liberates.

    Part of the truth deals with our loss when we miss the “treasure and contribution” available through those ahead of us on The Journey. Perhaps the “value” is not in passing along the technical skills of a craftsman, rather the life lessons of one who persevered, learned, and arestill growing.

    The other observation comes as I think about people in the workforce. Those without a voice – not due to age or lack of something to give, not because they don’t have a story from the front lines, or an nothing to contribute, instead they are not recognized and given a voice.

    You engaged Betsy and Howard with questions and found a treasure in the story.

    When leaders do, great things happen.

    Great stuff. Thank you…

  12. Linda C.

    What a beautiful and true story! I have to share a similar experience that taught me this lesson some years ago. A previous employer was very involved in United Way and encouraged departments to take on a special organization for the annual “Day of Caring”. Our group of about 10 staff members went to an inter-city retirement home where we served a meal and interacted with the residents for the afternoon. Our entertainment for the afternoon was a group of employees who played guitar and sang. Part way through their first set, an elderly gentleman approached us and asked if he could play his harmonica. Of course we ‘youngsters’ thought, sure, we’re here to humor you today and said with a smile “go right ahead”. WOW – this gentleman had been a member of the original “The Harmonicats” from the 1940’s – and boy, could he play! He glowed with such excitement and was so thrilled to have the opportunity to express his talents through music after years of being ‘just another crotchety old man’ in the home. We made his day, but I don’t believe he had any idea how thoroughly he touched our hearts as well.

    The second experience of that day was a personal interaction with a gentleman who spent his time alone, in a room off to the side of the festivities. I’ve always been a bit of a loner myself and thought I would be able to step away from the hectic activities and spend some quiet time. One of the resident staff saw me heading to the room and quietly let me know he probably wouldn’t speak to me, but I was certainly welcome to try. I took an extra glass of punch with me and just quietly sat at his table. His head was lowered, and I made a few quiet comments about how nice it was to see the facility and how so many people were enjoying themselves but that I, too, enjoyed a few moments of peace away from the noise. He tilted his head up slightly and said “Me, too.” His voice was strongly accented, which gave me the perfect opportunity to ask where he was originally from. Over the next 45 minutes he told me parts of his life story that remain in my memory today and that the workers at the facility had never heard. He was a priest from Eastern Europe who had been thru the Great War and seen friends and family killed, who had hidden in all kinds of unimaginable places, hearing the enemy looking for him and the group he was leading to freedom. He talked on in a very clear voice about his brothers and sister and how thankful those who survived were to reach America where they could start their life over again.
    I will never forget either of these gentlemen and the lives they led ~ my fervent prayer is that someday, some ‘young whipper-snapper’ will take a few minutes to listen to my story.

  13. Teresa Clayton

    I always enjoy your writings. You make me feel like I am right there as the story unfolds. Thank you for this wonderful lesson.

  14. Leslie W

    I look forward to Kerrying On, they are my favorite newsletters. You are a master storyteller. In my opnion, True Storytelling is a talent. Your insight, relevance and the human experience are profound. I am lucky to get to interact with a variety of age groups. I enjoy them all. From the funny and profound of children to the stories, experiences and wealth of knowledge of those who have seen and done so much more than I have done – yet. May God continue to grant wonder and knowledge to each and every day. May my eyes be open, and ears filled with understanding as to what surrounds me.

  15. Joe Lehman

    A beauty of a story. I work as a manager in a hospital setting. When I was more of a direct caregiver I always loved asking the older patients what they did for a living, or about their lives. It was always an instant bond when I asked the question.

    I learned so much and it was cool to find out the little old lady was a designer on a movie set who rubbed shoulders with a great star, or had developed a new system of production.

    Now that I’m getting near the older demographic I feel the lack of interest in what I have to offer. Everyone has a great story, everyone has something to add to this soup of life. Ask a direct question from the heart, and you’ll be surprised what comes back.

  16. Suzanne

    Thank you, for the reminder and lesson, Mr. Patterson.

    I call this the Art of Visiting. I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of retired and elderly folks. My mom is a nurturing woman who always helped them out when their children weren’t able to. Since I was on her apron strings, I was forced to visit. This often meant sitting in a quiet room, clock ticking, holding a glass of tea, talking about the weather, and other small talk for nearly an hour. An eternity to a kid.

    Sometime along the way I learned to make things more interesting by bravely asking questions. And then just sit and listen. I didn’t realize the skill I had taught myself until just a few years ago when my sister asked how I knew personal stuff about distant relatives.

    It takes very little effort, as in your examples, to get older folks talking. Keep fishing and you’ll find the right question that breaks the dam and floods both of you with memories and stories and real wisdom.

  17. Woodstock Bob

    Great story; that really hit a nerve with me since I’m now approaching that age of being ovelooked, though I desperately want to remain in the game and contribute. thanks for sharing and keep up the good work!

  18. Rose

    This was a marvelous story and oh so true about the untapped wisdom. I couldn’t help but think that I would love to read Betsy’s work and see their musical. Maybe there’s a new career there afterall.

  19. Ellen Woods

    Marvelous article! We all have a life story, both young and old, and it’s the asking of the bigger questions that are seldom asked that bring us to new views and shared experiences. I loved this article.

  20. Karen Saleh

    What a beautiful piece of wisdom. Older people used to be valued and revered for their wisdom. Even the Bible tells us to value the silver-haired members of our community. What has happened to our society? Now that I, too, am nearing retirement in a few years, I am even beginning to feel that the younger staff do not always respect my opinion. I am sure that when I was young, I probably rolled my eyes at the older nurses, but now being “older” at age 58, I feel the rolling eyes!! Well, it’s now my job to revere those older than I and hopefully encourage the younger crowd to do the same. Thanks Kerry….what an encouraging article…Bless you.

  21. Dan Brunet

    A great story Kerry, as always. This one in particular touched me. I always try to ask questions to allow the other person to talk and tell their story. I will be even more committed after reading this. Thanks for your continued writing Kerry.
    Dan Brunet

  22. Shirley LaVergne

    I loved this article and plan to share it. Thanks so much!

  23. Robyn Becker

    One of your best columns. As we move to our “place by the fire”, we need to remember those that have been seated there before us. Their wisdom and grace can not be underestimated.

  24. Name Withheld

    It’s wonderful to read the other comments on this site about the value of others. Please permit me to point out a bit of irony in that regard. You invited the Nielsons to share their life with you and welcomed them into your heart. Mr. Nielson made the statement, “Not that people don’t need to be greeted. It’s just that we have so much more to offer.”

    Is there more we can offer than to be “greeters” in life? To invite people to a place where they can feel they belong and to welcome them into our hearts? The Nielsons do have a lot to offer and they have been given an opportunity to use all their experience to “greet” others the way you have greeted them.

  25. Eva B.

    What a nice article.
    I work with older adults and truly enjoy the stories they have.
    On the other hand, it is not always as easy with the closest family. I once had my 83 year old father in a car, and it was going to be a 3 hour drive. I asked a simple question: “so, tell me what grandma used to cook for lunch when you were young?”. At first, he did not believe I would be interested. Once he started talking, I realized I had no idea how different life in a small village was back then, 70 years ago. It turned out to be a great starter to more talks that followed, and I heard many interesting stories about my Dad’s youth. I wrote them down for my kids to cherish once they reach “certain age”.

  26. Lynda

    Agreed, you are a master storyteller Mr. Patterson! Vital Smarts is so fortunate to have you! Your humble, heartfelt stories are gems to your readers. Thank you so much.

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