Here I am, age 67, with no intentions of retiring, with 33 years at the same firm, and suddenly I face an unexpected career choice. How did this come to be?
Let’s go back to 1980. Our family had realized that we needed to make a change. Although we were current on all bills and the mortgage, we had so much debt on the farm that the light at the tunnel was so small that neither of us were willing to wait to see it grow bigger. We needed to make some changes. Number one was to sell our 347 acre farm and buy a smaller one, keeping only our heifers and some of the machinery. Now that would mean a year or two without an income.That could be fixed by a job. My mind naturally gravitated toward being a farm real estate agent. I’d spent 2 years of my recent life looking at farms, and saw probably upwards to100 of them, spread over 9 or 10 states. I’d done all the charts and comparisons, knew what to look for, and how to get them financed. I’d sold my previous home and my first farm myself. I’d be a natural.
I interviewed two firms, decided I did not like one broker’s laugh: it seemed fake to me. But the other guy, I did like. That was Mort Wimple. So I signed on, took the course and got the license. (There was a third firm, which I did not like and would not work for; we joking referred to them as“The Mafia”, due to their long black overcoats, and their pushy underhanded ways.)
I’d warned Mort I would not have much time to work until our farm was sold and then I’d work full-time. He was good with that and only sent me a few buyers, except of course on our own place. My first sale was our own place; we got excellent folks to take it and they are still there. And for the first time, I paid a commission - and received a commission.
Now, I really got to know our listings because we were frantically looking for that smaller farm for ourselves. After getting an offer turned down (on a place I sold for someone else many years later, and,incidentally. have for sale once again), we stumbled upon the perfect place. I’d looked at enough property over the years to recognize that the perfect place rarely if ever comes around. We jumped on it. I even hand-wrote the offer. My attorney screamed when he saw that, “You darn fool, don’t you know you are bound by that?” I smiled beatifically. Heck, that was precisely what I’d wanted. After we got settled into the new place, the buyers started rolling in from Mort.
That first year, God knows how many listings I took, and how many showings I made. I once figured that I drove 40000 miles and averaged 60 hours a week at it, all for one small sale. I earned $1649 that year. Why didn’t I give up? There were 2 reasons. First, I can be stubborn and am not one to give up easily. But also Mort was there for me, calling nearly every day, offering advice and giving encouragement. Looking back, I have seen many salespeople go by the wayside, undoubtedly for many reasons, one of which was that they may not have had the same support that I got. How could they? There’s only so many hours in a day and supporting salesmen was only a tiny bit of what Mort had to do.
Then, why did he spend all that time with me? I think it was because as we got to know each other better and better, we began liking each other more and more. This was largely a telephone friendship, but it blossomed. We’d discuss business, our various buyers and sellers, crack jokes, work on difficulties that we faced, tell stories and then crack some more jokes. It was fun for both of us.
And I learned a lot from him. Here was an early lesson, one that has stood me in good stead for decades now. One of our salesmen asked me about what places we had that could interest a customer he had. I thought of one and told him about it and he showed it and sold it. It had been listed by another salesperson. When we got to closing, I got to thinking, “What am I going to get out of this?” In real estate, the commission is like a big pie and it gets divided many ways, some to firms we co-broke with, some for the parent firm, an amount for the listing agent and an identical amount for the showing agent. But there was nothing designated for an agent who’d done my part. So, I asked Mort. And he told me that I shouldn‘t expect to get every time I give, that there are times when you do favors and don’t get paid. That was a good lesson and has served me well. You are happier and people think better of you. What goes around, comes around.
At that time, Mort always drove big old cars, Lincolns, Caddies, but mostly Lincolns. One would give him trouble (hey, they were old) and he’d get rid of it and get another. He said he didn’t know anywhere he could get such cheap luxury. (Later on he changed his tune and went for economy cars, ones that had less headaches and got twice the milage.) I once had received a $20,000 deposit on the place - all in $100 bills. I got in late Friday night with the money and called Mort. This wasn’t our money and I wasn’t comfortable with that much cash lying around until Monday when the banks would be open once again. Making it worse, we’d planned to take the weekend off and go canoeing with my brother-in-law.
So, talking it over, we hatched a plan. Mort could not get up to my place until the next day. So, I agreed to hide it. Afraid my phone might be Mafia-tapped or something, I wouldn’t tell him where it was, but did tell him where he could find a note describing the hiding place. And off I went the next morning, kind of worried, but determined to canoe. Returning home, we found in the hiding place, not the money, but a realistic gun, a plastic one (it’s 4’ from me now) and a Polaroid photo of Mort’s mother, Margaret, a sweet older lady if there ever was one. She was sitting in the passenger seat of his black Lincoln, wearing an old-fashioned lacey high-necked dress and, with a stern expression, holding a sawed-off shotgun, looking like Bonnie (of “Bonnie and Clyde”) might have appeared had she reached 60. The note accompanying it said, “We were worried about the Mafia, but they split when they saw us.”
No matter how rushed Mort was when on the phone he always held on if I had a new joke to tell him. Sometimes he’d call mostly to tell me a new story. He knew how to tell ‘em too. Gosh, I wish I could remember them all! And he’d get me once in while with a practical joke. Once, I’d made the local paper for a lecture I’d given. Knowing I did not receive that paper, he copied the article and sent it to me. But not without messing with it first. He typed out a new headline, let’s say one “far less flattering” than the original, pasted it on, before making the copy. It was pretty convincing too and gave me quite a start. This, I might add, was way before computers and a choice of fonts and type sizes came in. I bided my time on this one.
Years later, Janet was in Albany and saw on one of those big boards where everyone hangs folders and leaflets, just what I wanted. A retaliation!!!! Incredibly enough, there was a guy in the Albany area advertising his services as a soldier of fortune, a private spy, find-your-kidnapped-kid, parachute-behind-the-lines kind of person. Where in H___ did he come from? How did he ever think he could earn a living? Who’s going to engage his services? I took the leaflet home. Rejoicing, I had a plan for it.
It seems we had a salesman with us then, Jerry Mracz. Jerry was hard-working, good looking, and had enough testosterone for any 5 men. You could almost see it ooze down his leg or condense on his arms. The word “Macho” was invented for men like Jerry. Dirt poor, he always carried a wad of cash. He also carried a pistol which he claimed was legal. And he didn’t mind showing them to anyone who would look. He loved bragging about his championship cows, his hunting prowness, his accomplishments in sports, fights he got in and won, and of course his beautiful wife (who later left him, solving her problems but just creating more for Jerry). This, of course, was not what customers wanted to hear and Mort and I worried about what kind of trouble Jerry could land us in. He was a true loose cannon, but despite that, we both liked him.
Well, I took this flyer, did some altering using cut-outs and paste, and substituted Jerry’s name and used Mort’s address and phone number, then I copied it onto some green paper so it looked pretty real. I put it in an envelope, with a note, “See what your salespeople do on their days off” and sent it off. As a precaution, I also called Jerry and told him what I’d done; l didn’t want him getting fired over it and wanted him to be able to tell Mort it was a joke in case he called Jerry first. He didn’t; he called me first, outraged, sputtering and nearly foaming at the mouth over what Jerry had done, using the company name and address. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon how you might look at it), I was out when he called and my wife answered. She let him rave a bit, then told him the truth. Silence. Then, in a humbled voice, “Well, he got me... good.” Still, he was not fully convinced. He called me the next day to verify that I’d made up the flyer and not Jerry.
But mostly we did not do that much practical joking against each other, knowing that it could lead where neither of us wanted to go. But regular jokes were fine, bring ‘em on. Neither of us could get enough of them. Dirty jokes were OK - as long as they were funny. And I knew he’d repeat them to his wife. No sense in telling any of them to mine: she’s like the true story about Mark Twain. He’d been giving a speech to a group in Vermont and no one would laugh, not matter how funny he was. The lecture over, defeated, he went into the john and over heard two men there. “That Twain fellow; he’s pretty funny.” “Ayup, had all I could do to keep from laughing.”
While Mort’s mother was alive (they were partners in the firm after his father died), they’d invite us over around Christmas-time to celebrate his birthday. We used the time to give each other Christmas gifts as well as eat birthday cake. One year, I went to Salvation Army and bought the most outrageous used ties I could find. Then I wrapped them, one at a time, in different-sized boxes, and mixed them in with real gifts. How we howled each time he opened another stupid tie. He never did that to me, however, and was always thoughtful and generous, real gifts.
I should interrupt a bit here and talk about his parents. Mort Senior founded the firm in 1953 when their vegetable farm/restaurant/tourist home business tanked when the Thruway was put in and business bypassed them. He needed to find something to do to support the family and settled in farm real estate. Ironically, it was the long-ago sale of the same 347 acre farm I’d once owned that gave them the start to make the company successful. Mort Senior had died shortly before I came on board and I always regretted not ever meeting or knowing him. He’d died way too young and Mort more than once had voiced his concern that the same thing would happen to him too. I would point out to him that he also had some genes from his mother and that she was in her upper 70’s and was putting right along. Margaret, his mother, was a fine lady and also took part in the business, mostly fielding the evening calls. One night Mort called and told me that she had just died. We were shocked, but he explained that she‘d requested that no one be told of her illness; she didn’t want friends to see her this way. A bit unfair to us, but perfectly understandable. A person had the right to die the way they want.
A lover of good food, we would go out together once in a while with our wives and try a new restaurant. Often we would discuss them. Or he often would tell me of some new recipe he’d just made or some tried-and-true meal he’d just cooked. He would find a new store with great buys in this or that, or one offering some special food he’d just discovered and I’d hear about that. He loved a deal. Those places were always in Schenectady or Albany, always ones I’d probably never get to as I went there far less often. True, he lived much closer than I did, but it seems he was there once or twice a week. He’d drive into the office, do his work in the morning and then by 2 or 3 , he’d be off to see what he could see, to do what he could do. If I got bent up about me doing more work than him, it was easy to calm down. Heck, he was the owner and could do what he wanted, when he wanted, and since he did everything that I needed him to do, I should just be glad he was not out there competing with me the way some owners do with their agents.
I didn’t have much cause to complain, except about one thing: listing numbers. Each listing is identified by a unique number, each one sequentially higher than the last. We were over #10,000 when I joined the firm. About the time computers came into our lives, things on this front went kafloozey. You’d think that with a computer it would be easy to keep a series of numbers straight, but it didn’t seem to work that way. Numbers started getting skipped, or there’d be two propoerties with the same number. He’d forget to tell any of us what the new numbers were and someone would ask about #12524 when the highest number I knew of was #12449 or some such thing. Which sent us scurrying to the web site to see whatever it was the customer was talking about, all the while trying not to let on that we had no idea what they were talking about. I don’t like being embarrassed and see enough of it that is unavoidable to want to add those that could have been sidestepped. And some listings would get advertised and never receive numbers. I offered more than once to take over the numbering for him but he always said that he could do that. Which was true; he could - not that he did. It got worse after #12999. Instead of going to #13000, he went back to #12000 and started over! I was dumbfounded and asked why. He didn’t feel comfortable with 13 - superstition.
Yet, Mort was an early adopter of a real estate firm web site and inside of 2 years, the vast majority of our customers had contact with it. It remains our best source of advertising. To his credit, he did not eliminate print ads when he started doing internet ones and he would advertise each week in some publications, feeling that consistency was important. That paid off; many times over the years a customer would tell me that they’ve been seeing and reading our ads for so long that they finally felt compelled to call us.
And he was a master at writing ads. I listed this farm that two fellows had been renting. They only had enough cows to fill half the barn and their tractor or spreader was busted or repossessed. So, what did they do? They put their cows on one side, a long row and pitched the manure to the other side, eventually filling it nearly to the ceiling before the landlord got them off the place. So, what did Mort do? He advertised the “PItchfork Special” and told people right upfront that the barn was half full of manure. You’d think no one would ever call on it, but we got calls, lots of them. And we sold it fast, too.
Two or three times over the decades, I’d had an altercation with a customer and they would call, irate, wanting to get me fired. Mort always took my side - and I appreciated that. Recently, I screwed up and for the first time just blew off a customer. I’d made the appointment way early and did not write in her name or date. There is no excuse for that; even “old age” is not good enough. My only savation: the time had not been determined yet. Later, I’d remembered that someone was coming up to see one of my nicest places but I could find no records on it, zero. I searched all my emails and all my calls and notes, looking literally for hours, and there was nothing to be found. One Friday, I had three appointments to see a cheap operating dairy farm. I normally try to have one person per day, but that doesn’t always work and this time I was delighted to be able to stack these three in a row with enough time between each to allow for someone to be late. It saved me five hours of driving too. Only, the last two customers stood me up. When I got home, there were messages. One was from a gal who apologized for forgetting the appointment, explaining her husband had been taken sick and was hospitalized. So she was forgiven; I’d known he’d been having trouble. But the other call was my missing customer for the nice place, wondering where I was and why I wasn’t there. She called several times, and even called Mort. Now, I had her name and number and I immediately called with an abject apology. No one answered and I had to leave a message. “I’ll never hear from her again”, I thought. That was the only thing I got right that day. So, armed with her name and number, I went back to my books, emails and notes, trying to find out how’d I’d screwed up. I found the number right away - it was the third party who was supposed to meet me at the dairy today, the one who’d never shown up, although the name was different. The two places had nearly identical acreage, though the similarities ended there. So part, not all, of the mystery was solved. Mort called, wanting to know what happened and I told him. Most folks would have exploded at that, to blow someone off is an unforgivable sin in my book, but Mort took it philosophically and let it go. That was nice of him.
Years back, he was more feisty and if we got screwed, he’d get a good lawyer and see that justice was done. When he parted company with the last lawyer that he’d used (who finally turned on him - I’d seen it coming and had once tried to warn him that I didn’t trust this guy, successful lawyer or not), he never got another and didn’t seem to mind so much when we were taken advantage of. Red-haired, he’d get mad of course, but would quickly settle down and put it away where he could forget about it. Things like this don’t happen every year, so it was not like it was a big deal. But it was a change. I wonder if he was noting the changes in me?
During the last few months, he’d been having chronic trouble with his feet and back and that was taking a toll on him. Our conversations were less frequent and often involved his frustration at not been able to solve why they hurt so much. But, as time wore on, we called less often and emailed more frequently. But emails are more business and less personal. That is probably as much my fault as his; you get busy. I noticed for some years that his memory was not the awesome thing it had once been, but I saw no reason to bring this up. Mine wasn’t as good either. You learn ways of coping with things you used to be able to remember and life goes on. I thought the ads were not as frequent; the customers weren’t: that I could measure. On the other hand, it was the Great Recession and no one in the business really knew what to expect from day to day.
The last times I called him, Mort sounded very subdued and listless. “That’s the feet and back talking,” I reasoned. But it didn’t explain why his voice was almost a whisper. Concerned, I went over to visit and was shocked to see him. If you’d shown me a photo and told me it was Mort, I might have argued. A week later, my wife and I went over to see him. Janet had been a hospice nurse and was as concerned as it was, for better reasons. I have nearly always taken health for granted; she knew better. That’s when we learned he had cancer. I was scheduled for hip replacement surgery the following day and figured that the timing for that could not have been worse. I am the only other broker in the firm. The next day, when I woke up from my anesthesia, Janet told me that he’d died quietly that night. Let’s say, this news took my thought away from my own pain and troubles. I deeply regretted not being able to attend the viewing or memorial service, but I was flat out in the hospital myself during those days.
But thoughts and memories of Mort dominated my waking hours. The nurses thought I was tearing up from my own pain and kept trying to offer painkillers. They weren’t what I needed for this kind of pain and I refused them, remembering instead all the tennis games where he’d beat me - and now I’d never get a chance to get back. I thought of our times together and all the things we should have done but never got around to. I recalled asking him once what his retirement plans were, as they would affect my own, and was relieved to hear that he wanted to work as long as he was able. He did. Since no one saw it coming and hie certainly didn’t broadcast his troubles, the community slowly felt the shock waves over his departure. Many have said to me that they only just learned about his death and have offered condolences. I know they are unsure how to approach the family at this late date.
And so we now have a surprise ending to a business relationship and a friendship that lasted 33 years - with never a bad word between us, not once. I’d often wondered why I did not start my own company since it is very unlike me to work for someone else. Friends always asked me that. And I had the answer ready; I couldn’t quit someone who always treated me so well. I made enough money and didn’t feel I had to have it all. And he was there to take care of business when I went away. When Mort took a vacation, which was not as often as I did, he did it like most everybody else and would be in touch when needed. He’d monitor calls and check in or email every so often and keep things going while he was away. My style of vacation is to go someplace far away, someplace where no one can reach me, and I could do this, knowing Mort was there to take care of emergencies. That was a real and, let’s face it, a handy excuse to my friends’ queries. But I think the big reason was simply loyalty. But now it’s time for me to make some decisions that I thought I’d never have to make again, and I will - once things are straightened out with the firm. And now all our lives are veering from the pattern we'd always expected them to keep.