I grew up on a small farm in Keokuk, Iowa, at the end of a gravel road with a gravel driveway that was often filled with chickens pecking around in the dirt. As kids, my brother, Craig, and I were always looking for ways to make money, and one of our favorite ways was to collect bottles and cans. Iowa is one of those states with a bottle/can deposit law, and back then it was 10 cents for bottles and 5 cents for cans. We would cruise up and down the country roads on our bikes and walk the ditches, picking up the empty, thrown-away cans and bottles of soda pop and beer that were treasure to us. But not all bottles and cans were of value. Keokuk is the farthest southeast you can go in the state of Iowa, with Illinois due east across the Mississippi River and Missouri to the southwest, across the Des Moines River. This is relevant because Illinois and Missouri did not have bottle deposit laws, so when you picked up cans, you had to check the top to make sure it read “IA Deposit 5¢.” The cans that came from Illinois or Missouri were only worth scrap value, and they said, “No Deposit, No Return.”
Taking the bait
Our best day ever with getting deposit money was when our Uncle Oney, who was a commercial fisherman on the Mississippi River, asked us to get him some crawdads for bait, and he would pay us for them. My brother and I snagged a bed sheet from mom’s linen closet, attached it to two big hickory sticks and proceeded to poke holes in it to make a homemade seine. We took our seine to the back 40 of our farm, where we had two cattle ponds, and we scooped up loads of crawdads. However, when we got to my uncle’s house, he pulled a fast one. He was a prolific drinker of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and he had a shed filled with those refund cans in big black trash bags. He told us that our pay for the crawdads was all those refund cans. We dutifully loaded up the bags and asked our mom to take us to the grocery store to redeem the deposits. Mom was a teetotaler and a rather fierce Baptist, so the sight of her two boys loading up literally thousands of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in the parking lot of the local Hy-Vee grocery store, in plain sight of God and everybody, was a very stressful event for her. My uncle grossly miscalculated how much he was paying for those crawdads. A large trash bag holds about 300 aluminum cans, and we had 10 or more of them. Simple math: We made more than $150 on those crawdads.
What has this got to do with the cooperative difference? One of our cooperative principles is concern for community, and here is the connection. I think that people are a lot like those aluminum cans and bottles. If you don’t deposit any time or money into them (No Deposit, No Return) they don’t reach the same level of value that they do if you deposit even a small amount of time and money into them. You only need to invest a little bit of your time and your talent in someone else to add an incredible amount of value to their lives.
Making a difference
We have all had people in our lives who made a difference. A teacher, preacher, coach, friend, co-worker or supervisor who took time to invest in us — to teach and mentor us to become who we are today. It’s like the person who invests 5 cents in an aluminum can by paying a deposit that raises its value from the scrap price of aluminum, which is about 1 cent.
Forrest and Janie Walker are two of those people in my life. Forrest Walker was the principal of our very small Christian school where I attended junior and senior high. It was so small that I was the sole graduate of the class of 1985. It is really something to be both the valedictorian and the anchorman of your class. It was a unique school in that it used a curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE).
I remember the day when the Walkers moved to Keokuk to lead our school. I quickly became friends with their two boys, Bill and Tim. They lived in town, right next door to our church and school, and I lived out in the country, so there were always a million reasons why I wanted to spend time at their house. For example, every morning I would get up and run 5 miles to town as part of my training to run the mile in track. I would meet Bill and Tim at the halfway point, at the bottom of a very large hill. They would turn around, and we would run back to their house. Mr. and Mrs. Walker were generous enough to let me get ready for school at their house, and they fed me breakfast, just like I was one of the family. Likewise, if there was a church event or youth group event on weeknights, they would let me hang out at their house after school. After I finished my paper route, they would feed me dinner.
You wear many hats in a small school, and Mr. Walker taught me algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry. He was also the track and basketball coach. Once Mr. Walker drove us all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona, in the church van and acted as our chaperone so that we could compete in a track-and-field event. For a kid who had never left Lee County, Iowa, it was really something to get to go whitewater rafting in Colorado, see the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The truth is that my family never left the farm — we took zero vacations when I was growing up. It was these little things that made a big difference in my life. Mr. Walker gave up a lucrative career as an engineer at Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois, to go into the ministry to teach young people. He was one of those people who did it because he truly cared. He made an impact.
Investing in others
Two other difference-makers in my life were my Aunt Tonya and Uncle Hugh Ferguson. Hugh was a high school math teacher. Together they made many investments in me that helped me with life and my career. The most significant investment was made in 1986. At the age of 17, I left the farm and was working at a die-cast factory in St. Louis. Uncle Hugh thought that was a terrible waste of my potential, so he called the Navy recruiting office and had them come to my house in Keokuk when I was home for Christmas. The Navy tested me and told me I would be perfect for a career in nuclear power. Little did I know that this day would forever change the course of my life. It truly paved the way for a career that has resulted in me having the blessing and opportunity to serve the state of Arkansas as the CEO of Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives, Inc. (AECI).
I love cooperatives because our members care about their communities. Our cooperative business model focuses on how we can raise the quality of life in rural Arkansas.
I truly believe this is a cooperative difference. Hopefully this column will serve as testimony that the little things each of us do for others in our community make a difference. I also hope it serves as motivation for all of us to follow the examples of Forrest and Janie Walker and Hugh and Tonya Ferguson. Like them, we can invest in those around us to help people and communities achieve their full value. The alternative is “No Deposit, No Return” scrap.
Recently, I found a unique way to thank Forrest and Janie Walker for their selflessness and generosity. I hope that this column serves as thanks to the many others who also made a difference in my life.
In the words of John F. Kennedy, “We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.”