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Still at the Helm

In February, 1908, an incident occurred which brought about a change in my business affairs. On my way from Milwaukee to Chicago, in company with Edward Fancourt, of the Pennock-Meehan Company, I became suddenly ill on the train. Mr. Fancourt was frightened, and ran hastily for the conductor. It happened to be a through train for Chicago. The conductor came up hurriedly, and seeing my condition, he went quickly through the train, calling for a doctor. Fortunately there happened to be one on board. After giving me temporary relief, he handed me a prescription, with instruction to take the medicine immediately upon my arrival in Chicago, and to retire for the night.

Mr. Fancourt and I had both worked Chicago the previous week, and meant only to make connections there for St. Louis. Upon arriving in Chicago that evening, we took a taxi and were driven to the Great Northern Hotel. I engaged a room, intending to dispense for the time being with my St. Louis trip and go as soon as possible to Philadelphia. Mr. Fancourt brought me the medicine prescribed, and urgent though his business in St. Louis was, he kindly volunteered to stop over at Chicago in order to be of aid to me. I would not hear of it, though I was deeply appreciative of the kindness which prompted the offer.

Mr. Fancourt departed, and I was left alone. About one o'clock in the morning, my troubles recommenced. I rolled out of bed in an agonized condition, and began to roll over the floor, unable to catch my breath. I thought that the end was at hand, and what passed through my mind at that moment would beggar description. By superhuman effort I dragged myself into the bathroom, and up to the hot water faucet. I felt that unless I took some immediate steps to alleviate my intense suffering, I couldn't last more than a few minutes. As if by instinct, I filled a glass with boiling hot water, and took a few draughts. I was relieved at once. That night I could not close my eyes. I thought of my whole past, of my business experience which at that time covered a period of two decades, and of the hard work I had done during that time; and I decided to change my plans—to retire, so to speak, from the road entirely, to have a younger man take my place, and to reorganize my affairs so as to carry on my business on my own account, instead of representing other houses.

On the following morning, I felt completely restored, and instead of going to Philadelphia, as I had intended the previous evening, I departed for St. Louis, where I met Mr. Fancourt, who seemed agreeably surprised to see me again among the living. I finished my trip, and a few weeks later I returned to Philadelphia.

The plan which I had formulated on that memorable night in Chicago was soon to be realized. I had heard about R. J. Irwin, and later met him on the road. On one occasion at Columbus, Ohio, we happened to stop at the same hotel, and there I had the opportunity to talk over things with him. It seemed to me that we were well suited for each other, and we came to terms. He was rather dissatisfied with the concern he represented at the time, and was open for a change to improve his own condition.

In August, 1908, we organized our small business under the name of Skidelsky & Irwin Company, and launched our enterprise under auspicious circumstances. We were both well known to the trade, so there was no reason why we couldn't succeed. Mr. Irwin was to take to the road, while I was to attend to the office and financial end of it.

It is all very well to lay plans, and standing off at a distance from a situation, arrange how it ought to be managed. But there are certain points of human nature that are likely to be overlooked in such abstract ordering of things. For me to decide that I had been traveling for a number of years and ought to take a rest was one thing; for the spirit of "get up and go" that had been fostered in my blood through years of habit to give way tamely to the new arrangement was another. I grew restive under the confining life I was leading, and to which I was so completely unaccustomed. I longed for my old friends, and the pleasant visits I was in the habit of paying them. I felt that my health was actually being seriously impaired by the change. In March, 1909, I was in such a state of nervous breakdown that I had to recall Mr. Irwin from the road to take my place at the office, while I departed for Battle Creek Sanatorium, to recuperate.

In May, 1909, a calamity overtook me, in the death of my wife, who had been so steady a help and inspiration to me in the days of my early adversity, as well as in the years when things eased up a bit, constantly giving me courage to continue with my work. My first impulse was to close up my business, and to retire for awhile, I knew not where. The future seemed to hold out no promise for me. Everything looked dark and desolate.

One morning in June, I decided to take a short trip through the State, to meet some of my friends once again. It wasn't business that I was after, either; I was in desperate need of a change. That little trip revived my spirits, and seemed to open the gate to a more hopeful future. I decided to recommence my travels, to go back to the life which in spite of its drawbacks was so attractive to me.

Upon my return home I disclosed my plans to Mr. Irwin. He could see the reasonableness of my idea, and yet it was a question how to arrange our business with justice to both of us. We soon found a way out. We were to travel alternately, each taking a certain part of the country. I was to work in the West; Mr. Irwin, in his travel period, was to attend to the New England territory.

Thus we continued until the Fall of 1911. Our business grew steadily, and we were on a fair way to success. Circumstances arose, however, that necessitated a change. We separated. Mr. Irwin started on his own account in New York, where he still continues, and from all accounts is quite prosperous.

I reorganized my business, and induced my son, who had just commenced practicing law, to take part in it. From then until now, he has been for the most part the "inside man," and I have continued on the road. The idea often occurs to me to retire from the road, and let my son take my place. But I realize that I am only theorizing. A habit of so long standing cannot be broken without entailing in its destruction some grave consequences, the nature of which I experienced once before. So long as my health permits me, therefore, I shall continue in the harness. I no longer look upon my travels as "hard work"; to me they are a pleasure. Nor would I ever think of retiring. I have often spoken to some of my friends among the trade about the fallacy of giving up active business life. I will go further and say that were anybody to pension me for life with an income of twenty-five thousand a year, on condition that I retire from business, and rest for the balance of my days, I would dismiss the offer as unworthy of consideration.

A few years ago I read a very interesting article in the Saturday Evening Post, entitled "Is Resting Rusting?" The conclusion at which the writer arrived was that resting means rusting. He gave a number of instances of wealthy men who had retired from active business, and who at the expiration of a year or so were only too eager to return to it. Thus a certain wealthy paint manufacturer, who had amassed a great fortune, decided one day that he had had enough of business, that he would retire to California, and enjoy the rest of his days in ease and comfort. He built a magnificent chateau, and laid out beautiful gardens, with artificial lakes, golf links, tennis courts, and everything that fancy could desire. A year later he appealed to the real estate agent through whom he had purchased the place to sell it for him, no matter at what loss. What was the trouble—didn't he like it? Oh, yes, he liked it well enough—the place itself, that is—but the life was killing him. He was eager to return to the paint factory and his old surroundings, and do up some paint packages.

Another instance given was that of a retired grocery man, who having received about a million dollars from his partners for his share in the business, begged them piteously a few months later to take him back into it. He could not stand the idle life which he was compelled to lead. Upon their refusal, he made it a point to come every day, get behind the counter, and help in putting up all sorts of grocery packages.

The actuary of an insurance company, the author also told us, will consider a man of sixty in active business a much better risk than a man of the same age out of business. Men whose activity and interest are maintained in life, according to all statistics, live longer. Their minds are keen; their very appearance indicates strength and energy-.

Among my own trade I could point to a number of old men, many in the seventies, who should be an inspiration to many a much younger man. They make their plans and speak of their future activity as if they were in their early forties. I regard such men as true benefactors of mankind. Pessimism and all that goes with it are not in their makeup.

Taking a leaf from their book, I have put myself in the attitude of mind wherein I give no thought at all to the possible "finish." I have traveled for twenty-eight years, I am still traveling, and life and health permitting, I shall travel another twenty-eight. During those first twenty-eight years, as I have already said a number of times, I have formed a great many friendships that are very precious to me; during the next twenty-eight, or the fraction of them that will permit my activity, I hope to strengthen them and to form new ones. Perhaps some of the little shavers of today will do business with the "old man" in days to come!

Looking back over my business life as a unit, I can say that I have enjoyed it. It has had its ups and downs, like everything else in life, to be sure. There have been moments of discouragement, and of a sense of failure. But there have been compensations. And I am not speaking only of money, either, though I have been enabled to support my family and to educate my children as I wanted to. It is to something less tangible that I refer—less tangible, but by no means less real. I believe that I have won the confidence of the trade, and that I have made my friends sure of the honesty of my intention in all my dealings with them. This it is that is my greatest compensation, and this it is that I hope to perpetuate during the remaining years of my life.