Friday, August 1, 2014

A Simple But Powerful Lesson

You may have seen a picture I posted on Facebook recently of my elementary school PE teacher, Emilio Mendillo, and me- - -together again after almost 60 years. It was a moving and very emotional moment for me and my comments under the post reflected as much. Here’s why.
In the fall of 1956 I was a 6th grader at Colbert Elementary School in Hollywood, Florida. The school Principal, Marseline S. West, had hired a 27 or 28 year old ex-GI as the Physical Education (PE) instructor for all classes- -a really progressive concept at the time. The ex-GI, who had been stationed in post WWII Italy, was a young Italian-American fellow- - -Emilio Mendillo- - -or Coach Mendillo as we all called him. Whatever the sport Coach Mendillo could easily teach eager young minds and bodies the fundamentals and the rules. Basketball, baseball, football, kickball, dodgeball, volleyball, track and field- - -he knew each sport and took great delight in teaching all of them to kids who thrived on the participation and the competition. Over the years he would directly and indirectly touch thousands of young lives in that town.

I don’t know what prompted Coach Mendillo to do so but early in the school year he decided to put together an elite group of boys to form a military style “Drill Team”. I was one of those chosen. He would teach us how to march and drill, just like the soldiers in the US Army. As he did with all things, he first explained why “marching in cadence” was important (an efficient, effective way of moving bodies of people, on foot, from one place to another without chaos or incident) and then demonstrated the fundamentals of marching and of obeying “marching orders”.  Understanding and executing marching commands is NOT as easy as it looks- -timing is everything- -but within a few hours we had the basics down solidly and it wasn’t long before we were a cohesive team capable of proficiently displaying the intricacies of “close order drill” in public.  In fact, we got to be good enough to march in the Fiesta Tropicale Parade that year and win wide spread recognition for our school- - -Colbert Elementary. When the school year ended in June of 1957 I would not see Coach Mendillo again until July of 2014. But that didn’t mean we lost touch with each other over that span.  

Coach Mendillo, while stationed in Italy, had met and married a beautiful young Italian woman- -Dolores—who was the product of a classic European education and who, years later would be my Latin teacher at SBHS. Through her and through her daughter, a friend of my youngest sister, The Coach and I each had some idea of what was going on with the other during the intervening years. More recently, social media has allowed for periodic updates- -each with the other- -through mutual friends. 

As I was driving back from Hollywood to Tampa a couple of days ago- -a 5 hour trip- -I had a lot of time to reflect on the re-union with Coach Mendillo (arranged by his daughter Laura) and it occurred to me that the lessons he taught us as 11 year old schoolboys in a drill team were, in fact, the lessons that stuck with me and guided me through most of my adult life. Let me explain. 

When the “troops” are assembled and in formation the day’s objectives and the goals of the march about to be undertaken are shared with everyone. Then, when it is evident that everyone has a clear picture of the task at hand and it is time to begin, a very simple but powerful command is given: Forwaaaaard. . .March.  The first word- -forward-is loudly emphasized and drawn out in order to alert the troops that they are about to be given an executable command. The second word- -MARCH- -is barked out tersely and with maximum emphasis. At that command each man in the ranks takes that first step forward and immediately becomes aware of what each man in front of him, behind him and either side of him is doing. Teamwork and discipline become the watchwords of the day. And it was this ability to give, take and execute marching orders, taught to me by Coach Mendillo, that allowed me to secure a leadership role in my own US Army basic training days several years later. 

 While on the tedious drive home and giving thought to those lessons learned from Coach Mendillo it dawned on me that in “marching” as with life in general, the solution to the task at hand always starts with, “FORWARD” MARCH. It NEVER begins with “To the left, march” or “to the right, march” or even to the rear, march”. FORWARD, march. ALWAYS forward. It was then that I realized I had applied those same lessons, learned from Coach Mendillo as an 11 year old, to a long and reasonably successful business career especially in those assignments where I was mandated to create change from stagnation, bring order out of chaos or create an achievable vision of the future. The solution was always the same: Assemble the troops; look for those who already knew how to “march in cadence”(understood the concepts of teamwork and discipline)  and make them leaders; formulate goals and objectives of the “march”, share that vision with every single “trooper” making sure they too had a clear vision of the desired end result, then finally giving a simple but powerful command: FORWAAAAARD, MARCH!!

Thank you Coach Mendillo- -now 85 years young- - for that simple but valuable life lesson. Thank you for teaching me that even the shortest journey starts with but one step . . . FORWARD.