There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men, true nobility is being superior to your former self. Lao TzuHe is a giant bear of a man. Staff admire him. Clients respect him. He is always smiling. Always courteous. Always respectful, no matter if you're lying on the ground in a drunken stupor or standing at the front of a meeting talking about cut-backs and deficits.
I met him the first day I came to the shelter where I work for my job interview. I stood in the lobby of the building, waiting for someone to come and give me access to the elevator so that I could go to the sixth floor for my interview.
He stood in the middle of the lobby, mop bucket loaded with water, mop in hand cleaning up someone else's mess.
I was nervous. I'd never been in the shelter before. Never stood in the middle of the lobby surrounded by people sitting on chairs, heads hanging low, or tucked into a corner, lying on the floor.
He recognized my state of being. It's something I will come to admire about him over the years of our acquaintance. His uncanny ability to tell someone's state of being -- even when they're trying to hide it. He walked over and said "Hi. Has someone helped you?"
I wasn't sure about the 'helped' part. I was feeling uncomfortable. Unnerved. This was a new environment. (As an aside, that first exposure to the shelter helps me when talking to groups who come to the centre for the first time. "How many of you were nervous or afraid when you first walked in?" I always ask. Inevitably, there are a few people brave enough to put up their hands. "I was too," I tell them. And I recount that morning in April 2006 when I first walked in.)
"I'm waiting for someone to take me up to the Exec Director's office," I told him. "I have an interview."
He nodded his head. Smiled a toothy grin. I didn't know if he was a client or staff. He was big. Really big. He leaned on his mop handle. Nodded his head. "Job interview?"
"Yeah," In my mind I was hoping I'd get into the elevator soon. I didn't know what to say and my nervousness was making it hard to engage in what I considered small talk. I should have known. To Ron, there is no such thing as small talk. He's always observing. Always assessing. Always weighing up people and situations.
He would tell me many months later about his years as a bouncer in a bar and then a hotel manager. "You always gotta be watching out for everything and everyone. You gotta know where the exits are. Who's got your back. Who's doing what. Who's most likely to blow. You gotta know where you're at. And you've gotta be willing to stand your ground and take whatever's coming at you."
Recently, he discovered where he's at on this journey and what life has in store for him. Cancer. Lung. Stage 3.
"I don't know how long I've got," he told me yesterday as we sat in a coffee shop sharing a tea and chat. "But whatever I've got, I want to ensure I put back what I've taken out. I figure if I've taken out what I've needed for fifty years, I should be able to put back the equivalent in goodwill before I go."
His life has been a storybook journey of the rough and tumble kind. "Been there. Done that," he says about hitting rock bottom, searching for a place to land and coming up empty. It was Christmas 1993 when he began the long road back. Walked out of Vancouver's east side. Broken down and broken up. He kept walking. Eventually, his path led to the doors of the shelter here in Calgary. It was spring 2002.
"I don't know what it was but, I walked through those doors and I knew. This is it. This is the place I can find myself again."
He'd given himself one last chance. One last kick of the can before he ended it of his own volition.
"None of us know how long we've got, or how it will end. At least not until you sit in a doctor's office and they tell you something like, there's a 5% chance we'll get this. Then, you start thinking, what do I want to do with the rest of my life?" He pauses. "I want to make sure I give back as much as I've taken."
He's got plans. Ideas. Notions on how to do it. He's putting them in motion. Cleaning up business the way he's kept the floors and hallways and public areas of the shelter clean for all these years.
"When I think of leadership, I think of Ron," I told our executive director a couple of years ago.
"You do? Why?" he asked.
"Because there are no small jobs to him. No unimportant tasks. No matter what he's doing, he gives his 100%. He's always leading by example. Always teaching the younger guys how to act. No matter how someone comes up to him, he always responds with kindness and consideration. He is a natural leader."
Once again, he's leading the way. Showing through his example how to deal with tough situations. How to be a man of integrity, no matter the hand life deals.
I'm learning from him. I've still got time.