Burger flipping. It has become a reference that we all understand.

A low-paying job. A place you might end up if you ignore education. A last resort.

A McJob. gates

I learned a lesson early in life about the dignity of work. Any kind of work.

Dad was a union steelworker. It was the opportunity of choice in my industrial home town. It paid the best wages, had the best benefits. It was something to aspire to for so many, particularly in the post WW II economy.

We didn’t know the details of his job. We just know he supported a family of 8.

One day at dinner, my older sister was discussing the fate of a proud young man that we all knew growing up, the kind who boasted of big dreams, ambitious plans. Francis was going to be “Somebody”. He looked down on his peers, couldn’t wait to get out of town.

He was spotted pushing a broom outside of a local McDonald’s. We laughed at the irony. But, my father saw it another way.

He saw us laughing about a man pushing a broom.

Our normally very even-tempered father went into a tirade, and a lecture for which we were never prepared. It was about the dignity of all work, our attitude of superiority, our lack of knowledge of real-world issues.

He was furious, frustrated, ashamed. We slipped away from that dinner table, both embarrassed and confused.

A few days later. We understood.

The mill was a mere block away from our home.

On this particular day, we passed the mill yard where the steel plates were loaded into railroad cars. My sister was driving. I looked on in surprise, and understanding.

Dad was pushing steel shavings across the pavement with a very large broom.

I cried when we got home.

It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.


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59 Responses to Dignity

  1. wow, a life lesson for sure! Yes a good honest day’s work is gold!! My grampa worked at the brick yard for years, and I thought he was the most important man, even wealthy until years later when I realized he and my grama must have really struggled to raise their three girls. I still have his brick he gave my mom when he retired- it is a prized possession in my garden! A wonderful post Van and a great read!

  2. What a wonderful story and lesson. I enjoy your blog so much!

  3. Bradley says:

    Great story and a good lesson on life. When I was younger I was very much a snob. Nowadays I try to treat everyone with dignity. I can tell a lot about a person based on how they interact with a cashier at the supermarket.

  4. Elyse says:

    What a terrific story!

    My first job was in a burger joint, and it was fantastic experience. It wasn’t a McD’s but an independent little place that served burgers and barbequed food and was known around town for its food and its staff — wiseasses every one of us. We had a BLAST!!! And I learned all the valuable lessons a good job will teach you. How to work hard and have fun, how to spot folks who will help from ones who won’t. And of course, where all the really gross places are in a burger joint!

    • The closest I came was a soda-jerk at a pharmacy lunch counter. It was my first job past babysitting, and an eye-opener. I went on to an assortment of factory job experiences, long before any professional job surfaced. There were great lessons in all of them. Thanks, Elyse, for sharing. 💖 (and for not revealing the gross places. I love my burgers. ☺)

  5. Love your father. What a great teacher. My first job was literally flipping burgers. I was 15 and so thrilled to have a job, to have the tiniest bit of independence, to earn money for the first time, and to feel grown up. My parents taught me to respect work of any kind — in the home or out. I still do. I haven’t loved every job I’ve ever had and loathed a few but have always been grateful for an opportunity. I think that’s perhaps what many people feel who work a variety of jobs a whole lot of people don’t respect. They may know something others don’t. Work feels better than not working. Wonderful post.

    • “The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one.” Oscar Wilde. In today’s economy, this bit of truth seems to hold up. I know so many who are struggling to find any kind of full time work. Thanks, Deb. ☺

      • As much of what he said, that’s brilliant and funny. I know too many people my age who found themselves unemployed and not happy about it. It’s awful.

      • I know. Millenials without work is one thing. Folks in their middle years, and those close to retirement who lose their job…quite another.

      • It can be ugly. Most of my clients who were downsized from their jobs were ultimately able to find work but it was an arduous job to find that work and usually involved earning less money. I am grateful every day that I was the age I was when my own business shrank in size. Had it been 10 years earlier, I’d be one of those folks trying to find someone who appreciated my talents! This way I only have to get my husband to appreciate me!

  6. I quite understand that the job may not pay so much, but it’s better than doing nothing and an honest living. Besides, while flipping the burger, the person can work towards the dream of what they want. I ran a catering business several years ago and my staff marveled over the fact that I would do anything and every chore. I never saw myself as a boss in the sense that anything was too demeaning for me and in the years that I did that business, God multiplied my efforts many folds over. Your dad is the kind of man that I am proud of. Full of humility, good sense and a great teacher.

    • Wonderful, Jacqueline. Honest work always seems to be rewarded, sooner or later. And yes, I was blessed to have him. For this, and so very many other life lessons. Thanks. ❤️

  7. Wow. That is a potent piece of writing with a real gut punch at the end. Because I grew up in an area ravaged by high unemployment and all the concomitant social ills that accompany it, I have always just appreciated the luxury of having a job, any job. That is not to say, of course, that working night shifts in Burger King in my students days did not add to my motivation to study well and have wider opportunities but I did not regard even that awful job as being “beneath” me. It was a job. It put food on my table and kept a roof over my head.

    • So glad the gut-punch came through for you, Laura. There is a lot more to his story. He took a foreman/management job years before, and left to go back to the union for very personal reasons…they promised him further advancement if he’d join the country club and change his religion. He refused, and was moved back to the labor force. It was a proud decision he shared with us often. ☺ I understand the motivation to do well in school, I took well-paying, grueling summer factory jobs that worked for me in the same way. Thanks for sharing. ❤️

  8. Sadie's Nest says:

    So much to be said… Great share.

    • It’s so relevant to me now, family members seeking work in their field, and having to consider other options. It’s rough out there. But the message is, all work is valued. Thanks, Sadie. 💖

  9. Erika Kind says:

    Wow, what a lesson. But for sure one that shaped you a lot!

  10. Actually, “flipping burgers” is fast becoming a dream job for people in my area. When the minimum wage goes up to $15 an hour for fast food workers, many of my friends and relatives will have to switch to burger flipping in order to get a raise. At that point, I suspect the new insult will be, “Do you want to grow up to be an office worker?”

  11. A valuable lesson learned. I remember a college professor once saying, “if your job were to dig a ditch or pick up matchsticks, work at it as hard as you can. Give that employer your best no matter what it is you do. I’m not asking you to look for a job that necessarily pays you less, only to take pride in whatever it is you do and give your employer your best, until you move onto a higher paying job. Then you’ll have already developed a work ethic of being dedicated to whatever it is that you do for a living.” That advice has stayed with me over the years. Sounds like your father was trying to instill in you and your sister a similar appreciation. Sounds like it rubbed off on you both, Van :O)

    • I think it had an impact on us, Paul, for sure. Excellence in any job can only benefit yourself, and all those around you, no matter the job. It’s a noble pursuit. Thanks for your comment. ☺

  12. George says:

    Wow…that’s a pretty powerful story. I can understand why you never forgot this lesson.

  13. What a powerful story and lesson in dignity, Van. Clearly you never forgot it. Thanks so much for sharing. ❤

    • Never could forget this one, D. One example… years later, I developed a friendship and enormous respect for a young man who had a 20 year career as the Houseman/janitor for the hotel where I worked. He was one of many who lived with this kind of pride in a job well done. ☺

      • Society REQUIRES a wide variety of jobs to function. In fact, we need trash collectors more than we need lawyers (in my humble opinion 🙂 ). Everyone deserves respect, dignity, and a livable wage.

  14. What a lesson – well learned

  15. lbeth1950 says:

    We just don’t know what we don’t know. Glad you posted this.

    • I hesitated. This one was deeply personal. There were residual tears over that lesson. Dad was sending us to college, hoping we’d never forget where we came from…as if ! Thanks, Linda 💕

  16. macjam47 says:

    Sometimes the most important lessons we learn are the most difficult. Hugs.

  17. masgautsen says:

    Wow that is a real life lesson. And a really important one.

  18. Thank you for sharing this.

    • My pleasure, Sawsan. Thanks for the read and comment. 💖

      • My son starts his first year of college in August, going into physics and biomedical engineering.
        He’s been looking for a job and on Monday he starts at my favorite grocery store. He will be in charge of cleaning, stocking, and rotating (expiration dates based) the whole dairy section.
        I’ve been so happy and proud to see him taking it with dignity and honor. He is looking forward to it.
        He said “Mom, I learned from you, grandpa, and uncle (He calls my husband, his step-daddy, uncle, that work is work. We work hard.”
        Look up one of David Kanigan’s older posts, the Water Buffalo.
        My father printed it and framed it on the wall in his office.
        We did the same too.
        Much love Van.

      • That’s a great testimony to how you have raised him. I think one never forgets those early lessons from work experiences, even as they prepare for something more professional. I’ll have to look for the Water Buffalo piece. Thanks for sharing, Saswan. Be a proud parent. 💖

      • Perfect. I was not following DK back then, he has featured inspirational posts for a very long time on his blog. Thanks so much for your research, Sawsan.☺ Note to self: Put a Search button on the blog.

  19. Nick Verron says:

    It’s all a matter of perspective. I would feel privileged to one day be physically able to flip burgers.

  20. joey says:

    Very touching. Labor jobs are an honest day’s work and often pay well. I mean, at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished something. I have great respect for those who MAKE something. And also, I kinda don’t trust anyone who doesn’t regularly push a broom, lol! But anyway, I can understand why you laughed at the kid at McD’s given his previous behavior. It’s unfortunate you had that experience, but oh I know you will never forget.
    Burger flipping may not be intellectually stimulating, but burgers are tasty and cooking’s hard, hot work 😉

    • It is much easier to rest and recover from a day of hard physical labor than the one that taxes you mentally…that’s a huge plus ! And for sure, you can see the results of your work daily. There is a lot to be said for that.

      Thanks, Joey, I am grateful for that experience, especially in retrospect. ❤️

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