This week I lost a good friend. It happened suddenly – unexpectedly. It happened in a way it should not have happened, like something stolen in the night, like waking up one day to find that a mountain was simply gone, that the sky had simply fallen.
For the past 15 years, I’ve worked for Jim Stigleman at The Safety Zone. That’s a long time to see someone every day. Most people see their bosses every day, but only briefly as they come and go. That wasn’t the case with Jim and I. My office sat diagonally across a narrow hallway from Jim’s. Our desks sat opposite each other. To see Jim, I just had to look up. To see me, he just had to look up.
We looked up a lot.
Jim hired me when I was 17-years-old. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. He set me to packing gloves out in our large repacking room. I did that for about two weeks before I realized that packaging gloves was not for me. If I had to do that every day for 8 hours, I was going to lose my mind. So I found another summer job and told Jim, “I’m sorry, man. I just can’t do this.”
He wasn’t angry or upset. He let me go and wished me luck. And he hired me back the next summer after I graduated as I was preparing for college, this time in the warehouse instead of the repack room. A lesser man would have written me off after quitting on him the first time. A lesser man would have been bitter. Jim wasn’t a lesser man.
He was a decorated Vietnam War soldier with a strong, athletic build…the kind of build that would have been intimidating if that’s how he chose to live. But he wasn’t intimidating. He was inviting and welcoming and generally kind-hearted to people. He was a professional manager, and Jim was lucky enough to have the kind of work he was best suited for. He was born to work with others.
Earlier in his career he managed one of the largest glove factories in the world during the great United States manufacturing age. He was a powerful man, greatly respected. He was an important man in a world-renown company. When the manufacturing business began to move overseas Jim saw it coming and adapted, first with his own glove-repacking business and then as an officer of The Safety Zone, LLC.
He was a smart guy. A lesser man would have been washed out by the changes Jim faced. A lesser man would have settled into something more comfortable, but less fulfilling. Again, Jim wasn’t a lesser man. Jim thrived.
But before I ever knew or appreciated Jim “the businessman”, I simply knew him as “Jim from church”. That was the spiritual high-point of his life, when he was a man who read his Bible and wore out his notebooks in the process. He went through Bibles fast in those days, underlining and making notes, highlighting and memorizing until eventually they were so marked up and tattered that he’d have to buy a new one to start over with. Somewhere in his attic is a box of Bibles that would rival the wear and tear of the Apostle Paul’s own library.
This was the Jim I respected most, and to this day, there are not many other men that I’ve ever admired like Jim in his spiritual climax.
So it was hard for me to watch Jim stray from church over the last ten years of his life. He had his reasons, reasons I told him plainly I did not agree with. Those were not comfortable conversations. But he never expressed doubt about his salvation or the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. He never stopped believing in Jesus. Still, his life unquestionably shifted away from the man I’d come to know and love at the beginning. The man in love with his Bible stopped reading it. The dedicated evangelist stopped challenging others to be saved. My friend changed. That was hard for both of us, I think. But he was still my friend.
Jim watched me grow into the man that I am now. No. He did more than that. Jim helped me grow into the man that I am now.
When you start working beside someone at 18-years-old and you work right there in his shadow until you’re 33, the influence of that person during those transformative years will be inescapable – and I wouldn’t escape it now, even if I could. In fact, I wish I could do them over, to put it bluntly. There are still questions I’d ask and things I’d like to know. Alas, the game of life is a one-strike at bat that rarely affords us second chances.
Which is not to say that all of our times were happy. There were times when Jim was angry at me, and justifiably so. I hadn’t done my job well, or I’d let someone down, or I’d failed morally in a way that neither of us were okay with. And sometimes Jim failed, too.
I remember one occasion in my early twenties when I’d messed something up and Jim let me have it. I was mad…really mad. I was embarrassed. I was ready to quit. On my way home from work that day I was still fuming, but something happened on that drive. I credit it to the work of God in my heart, because I can remember thinking to myself quite suddenly, “Well, he had a right to be mad, didn’t he? You really screwed it up.”
The next day I went in and told that to Jim. “I screwed this up. It was my fault. It won’t happen again, Jim.” He smiled, nodded, and everything went back to normal. He never mentioned it again.
In my later twenties Jim was having a particularly hard time in his life. There were things outside of work bearing down on him and things at work bearing down on him. He was distressed, and everyone knew it. Those were tough days to work beside him. He was often tired and short-tempered. There was a particular week when he snapped at me several days in a row, even though I was doing my job and trying to tread lightly.
Again, I remember being so angry at him…at how he was unfairly making me pay for things that had nothing to do with me. But as time went by, I learned something that has been an invaluable lesson for me through the years: everybody’s human, and everyone has rough stretches in life.
I came to see that Jim was no more perfect than anyone else, and it was wrong for me to expect perfection just because he was the boss. Whether you’re the President of the United States or the manager of a gas station, you’re going to have bad times. Jim got through it. We got through it. Lesson learned: you can make it through bad times.
Mostly, though, my time with Jim was marked by respect and friendship. We’d text back and forth, talk on the phone, exchange emails. He knew he could count on me, and I knew I could count on him. When I found out I might have cancer and needed help, I called Jim. When Jim’s knee gave out in his driveway one day after work, he called me. These are singular examples of the trust we both had in the other: he would always come for me, and I would always come for him.
Jim knew my faults, and I knew his, and we both knew that the other knew our weaknesses. Toward the end, we learned to be much more honest about our shortcomings with each other, which only drew us closer. We had long ago stopped trying to pretend that we had no flaws. The screw-ups that used to embarrass us in front of the other now caused us to smile, chuckle, and shake our heads or shrug our shoulders. We were comfortable in our weaknesses, and that made us somehow stronger.
Jim was a kind man – a very kind man. I watched him give money to every person who asked, even when he knew they were using him. I watched him put up with all sorts of problems and failings, many of which would have gotten someone fired or suspended somewhere else.
On Friday morning I had to gather our first shift employees and deliver the shocking news of Jim’s death. As it sunk in, I told them this:
“I’ve sat in meetings with Jim about policy and performance for the past five years…I’ve even been in meetings where he knew he had to let someone go, and deservedly so…and in every meeting, no matter what was going on, it was just so obvious how much Jim cared about all of us. And I know that that’s the one thing Jim would want me to say to all of you…that he cared about all of us so very, very much.”
As far as bosses go, I can’t imagine there’s a better boss out there than Jim Stigleman. As far as friends, Jim never turned away from a single time I needed him. As far as Christians, I can honestly say that for a long period of his life, he was the example of what every Christian layman should aspire to be.
Jim took me under his wing when I was 18 and trying to figure my life out. He came out to me on the docks one day and told me that he wanted to help me. He told me I was smart, and hard-working, and communicated well…and, if I wanted to, he wanted to bring me along to step in someday when he retired.
As an 18-year-old young man, it was pie-in-the-sky talk, but Jim was serious. For 15 years he protected me, embraced me, and slowly gave me more and more until, at the end, he held nothing back from me. That is a kindness I could never repay, though I’ve tried very hard to live up to it. I hope, in the end, he counted it as a good investment.
Over the last five or six years Jim would often tell me how proud he was of me. He would thank me for everything that I did. He would tell me how he needed me, and he was glad to have me. We’d moved far beyond the sharp corrections and the hard conversations. I wasn’t a green kid anymore, but a colleague and a friend. Earning Jim’s respect was one of the greater rewards and accomplishments I’ll ever know in my life, and I’m grateful that he did not hide that from me.
I will miss Jim. I will miss him very, very much. It’s just now sinking in that he is not coming home. The shock is giving way to the new reality. I have lost a friend and a partner. There is a part of me that feels very alone. I know that there will never be another “Jim” in my life, because I will never be that impressionable 18-year-old young man again. He gave me a friendship that only he could give me, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Rest in peace, Jim.