Editor's Blog

Truest Grit

April 12, 2011

Construction and maintenance pros, do you have what it takes to takes to excel today? I'm not talking about aggressive cost cutting or crazy-efficient management techniques. Chances are you are already doing those things.

I am asking what is below your surface, deep down inside you. Do you have an extra gear that will allow you to bravely lead your team into an uncertain future? Can you withstand undetermined months (or years) of a brutally slow construction economy?

I have been thinking about this since running on a beach in Florida one evening and encountering a boat washed up on the shore, right where you would normally find sunbathers and sand castles. It was clearly out of place.

Ironically, the boat was named "Perseverance".

I admit curiosity got the better of me. I stuck my head into the cabin. It was filled with personal effects, food and dirty clothes. Clearly, this boat had become a residence. Was it owned by someone down on his or her luck, perhaps resorting to rent-free living in this modest vessel?

The next day’s newspaper told how the boat owner got caught in a nasty storm and ended up beached on some hotel's sandy playground. The city was showing some mercy to the owner, but the clock was ticking for the owner to remove it before fines and penalties would be enforced.

I wondered if he or she had the resources to do so. Hopefully, it ended well for the Perseverance and its owner.

This encounter made me contemplate the word perseverance. I wanted a clear and unmistakable definition. Although the film True Grit (great dialogue) had just been released, “true grit” did not define perseverance deeply enough.

Then it hit me. I had just seen, and hugged, the world’s best definition of perseverance.

Meet my Grandma Saimi. She turns 100 on July 4. She’s pictured here with great, great granddaughter Lorelei.

I could write a book on my Grandma Saimi’s life, but I will share only a condensed version in this space.

Saimi Marie Paloheimo was born in Finland in 1911. Several years later, her father emigrated to the U.S. in search of the American dream, or at least a sustainable future. While he was away, a little tussle called World War I broke out.

Saimi and her mom did what they could to keep the family farm going. At one point, Russian forces invaded the coast and pushed refugees past their little home. At great personal risk, they harbored refugees and shared their meager food supplies.

The family eventually made passage to America via Ellis Island, enduring the kind of discrimination often directed at poor people when they try to improve their lot in life.

They settled into Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where grit is plentiful. But bad health claimed her father. Saimi dug deep, struck out for Chicago, and soon married my grandfather, a widower with two kids. They became a blended family.

Then her mother died and Saimi’s three sisters needed a home. They moved back to the Upper Peninsula to care for them. She also bore a son. The blended family grew larger.

Before long a little downturn called The Great Depression dropped by for decade-long visit. My grandfather got a public works job building the Great Alaska Highway and sent home whatever money he could.

It wasn’t enough, and Saimi needed a little help in the form of public assistance. With seven mouths to feed, she told me she wasn’t too proud to accept it.

What followed was a journey that could fill tombs. World War II, struggling, business ventures, a son in the military, kids in college, weddings, retirement in Florida, the death of my grandfather, terminal stomach cancer (it failed) and the death of a younger sister and all but one of her children.

Throughout it all, Saimi has been a rock. She encourages others with a positive, can-do, never-say-fail attitude. Even in her advanced years, she was the one checking on friends, making sure they were OK. She’s an inspiration and hero to those of us who have benefitted from her kindness.

I hope you have a Saimi to inspire you to persevere in your business and in life. If not, I’ll lend mine.

Her first 100 years have been incredible. I can’t wait to see what she’ll do in the next 100.
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