I’m not sure when school let out right before Christmas break, but I do remember a few times on the last school day before Christmas I was able to rush home and then with my mom take the trolley to Downtown before my dad finished work.
For me and just about every other kid, Downtown was the place to be around the holidays. There were three major department stores – Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne’s, and Kaufmann’s – and usually depending on which one was closest to your trolley or bus stop, that was your family’s go-to place. Ours was Gimbel’s.
As you approached the store in the dark and the cold, you’d be greeted by those well-lit and colorful Christmas dioramas in the windows. You’d start to feel the warmth even before you spun through those heavy brass revolving doors.
Bright lights, and garland of red and green, gold and silver, blue and purple, all glittering and sparkling everywhere you looked, and shiny new things that my mom said not to even think about wanting. The 11th floor at the top of the escalator was my destination, even long after the reality of Santa Claus had set in. That was where they had the good stuff.
After that, we’d hit the lunch counter at a nearby restaurant which had the best hamburger, chocolate milk and French fries you could want.
But before all of this Christmas sensory overload, we’d stop by the corner of Pittsburgh’s Sixth Avenue and Grant Street, right in front of the William Penn Hotel. That’s where I’d watch my dad work for a few minutes before he’d visit with us. He was a traffic cop who seemed more like the host of a constantly unfolding social event, rather than just someone who pointed cars and trucks in the right direction.
There always seemed to be someone else standing on one of the four corners of the intersection wanting his attention, wanting to talk to him about something. I’d watch him get traffic moving and then make his way over to whomever seemed to have a need.
That mom and her kids across from me wanted him to give them directions. Another man asked my dad if he knew a good place for shoe repair. A college student wanted to know where to get a good fish sandwich. A young man in a Marine uniform asked my dad if the Pittsburgh Police Department would be hiring new officers soon. These were the little things, and they were non-stop.
Sometimes he’d tell me about other things people approached him about. He once told me about a woman who had passed by his corner for years with nothing more than a smile and a pleasant “Hello.” But one day, she stopped to talk. She told him that her adult son had gotten into some trouble and she didn’t know where to turn. He gave her the names of some people he thought could help. Not coincidentally, these, too, were people he had met and gotten to know on this very corner.
Doctors and lawyers, executives and CEOs, bus and delivery drivers. As their routine took them through the intersection of Sixth and Grant, sooner or later many got to know my dad and all were the better for it. He was a visitor’s bureau with a badge, who every now and then had to keep the peace along with direct traffic, and he loved just about every minute of it. Anyone who knew him would tell you that.
At Christmas, people who walked by his corner seemed to have the holiday spirit and the mood was always upbeat. There is something about seeing your dad do his thing out in the world when you’re a young boy. As I watched my dad in action, he seemed larger than life. I was proud of him.
He was in his element. Almost no one got away from him without a handshake or a pat on the shoulder.
So, what does this all mean to PR?
My dad gave me a lot of good advice over the years, but it was probably his example that taught me the most. This was most predictably evident when I watched him do his job.
To him it wasn’t about directing traffic. It was about people. It was about being a goodwill ambassador. It was about helping. Clearly when I think about it, he understood as much as anyone the value in helping people connect with each other in meaningful ways. He created community.
That’s the life lesson I learned without a word in the falling snow on the corner of Sixth and Grant during the Christmas season.