A tribute to my first boss

My first boss, Tommy Spires, died October 19 after contracting COVID-19. He hired me to be a cashier at Spires IGA grocery store in my hometown of Lake Butler, Fla., when I was 16. 

A tribute to my first boss

I’ve said multiple times in all kinds of conversations, “I think about my first job — at Spires IGA — almost every day of my life.” That’s saying a lot considering it’s been almost 40 years since I worked there.

Here’s a loose collection of memories and anecdotes that may explain why

The early 80s were relatively low-tech compared to now

My tenure at Spires IGA occurred before scanners and barcodes. We had to enter the prices into the cash register item-by-item. We had to know what was taxable and what wasn’t. We had to know what was on sale that week (the sale prices came out in the newspaper on Fridays). It will surprise no one who knows me that I did flashcards at the beginning to try to memorize the sale prices. 

I might as well admit how the skill of making change took some practice (it’s still a good skill to know, even though cash registers do the thinking these days for the most part). I remember someone’s bill being, for example $19.25 and them giving me $20.25 so I would give them $1 back instead of $0.75. I remember a customer saying to me once (as if I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, LOL): “You need to give me $1 now.” 

**Note: In my defense, I was the valedictorian of my high school class, but it wasn’t on the strength of my math skills. I think these kinds of situations are why to this day I harp on the need to teach common-sense skills and I gravitate toward people who have them. Maybe I’m still hoping they’ll rub off on me! 

But working at Spires got my head out of theory and into reality … I will always be thankful for that.

Teenagers can be flighty

I guess this goes with the comments above, but there was one day that sticks out in my mind. I had to replace the paper in the cash register (another of those common-sense skills — is there a theme here)? I got the process started, but then the little roller kept going and there was paper spewing out of the machine. I couldn’t stop laughing as the customers (probably not laughing…) piled up in my line. I got on the microphone to page Mr. Spires and it was probably impossible for him to tell he was being paged because I was laughing so hard. 

Over a lifetime in the grocery business, I imagine this type of thing was commonplace. I think he had more patience than I have ever mustered.

But this teenager could be inflexible

Flexibility has never been my strong suit either, although I have gotten better with time and experience. At my current job, I say, “flexibility is the key” often, sometimes in my head and other times to others. I remember a customer once buying, for example, 10 packs of cigarettes and handing me 10 dollar-off coupons for the purchase. I insisted he could only use one. This transaction turned into a production, with Mr. Spires eventually honoring all of the coupons. I’m not sure if he was just humoring the customer or if I had misread the fine print. It was one of those situations where I probably should have stopped insisting on being right sooner and sought help. It would have been easier on the customer and saved Mr. Spires the time involved in resolving it.

He gave me many opportunities

Mr. Spires gave me varied opportunities to expand my skills, be involved with his family and earn more money. 

I babysat his youngest daughter, Sarah. 

I tutored his middle child, Michael. The last time I was supposed to tutor him, the guidance counselor gave me an opportunity to put the gold seals on our diplomas (it was my senior year). I, unfortunately, made some excuse to the Spires family and put the seals on (what was I thinking, seriously?) instead of helping Mike prepare for final exams. I’m sure missing one tutoring session didn’t derail Michael’s career (he now runs the store), but I’ve always regretted that. Another time when talking to all parties involved would have possibly led to a resolution that made everyone happy.  

I spent some time with his oldest child, Shelly, when she visited Tallahassee. 

One of the biggest opportunities was when the store FIRST got a computer. I took the day off school to work with Fernie Spires, Mr. Spires’ dad, on trying to figure the computer out. (Remember how I could barely make change when I started?!). We’re talking floppy disks and thick manuals. This was going to be a process. They wanted me to come back the next day, but my mom insisted I go to school. This was probably a good decision, because we were all clueless, and I don’t think I was too sad to have to return to school. It meant a lot, though, to be asked to help.

Structure is a good thing in a job for me

I’ve been thinking as I prepared to write this about the parallels between that job and the one I have now. I’m so glad I had my career at Healthy Kids; I loved the cause so much and the things I learned there are irreplaceable. However, when I look back, I realize I always struggled a bit with a job that was relatively unstructured. 

At Spires, you showed up, rang up groceries, and went home (whenever I wasn’t ringing up groceries, I was looking for something to do. The freezer case was right in front of the registers at the time, so I was always straightening the ice cream and freezing my hands off). There are parallels with my current job. Although there are always extra things to do, at its core the main demand is editing newsletters and getting them done within a certain time frame every day. Then I can look for other projects. But I end every day knowing I at least did the minimum of what I needed to do.

Standing up all day is intense

My job at Spires taught me rather quickly the exquisite pain of standing on your feet all day (hats off to my pharmacist relatives, among others). It didn’t matter what type of shoes I wore or what strategies I employed. It’s simply physically demanding! I have friends who are my age (or older) who are still working at Publix most days every week. I truly don’t know how they do it.

I also realized all the little mind tricks you need to play on yourself to get through this type of job. We had an 8-8 shift and an 11-8 shift on Saturdays. The latter sounds “easier,” but if I recall, there was only one half-hour break. With 8-8, there was an hour lunch and at least one break (maybe two). I learned to evaluate some options in my life not by the sheer hours involved but by the way they would be arranged.

A last reunion

The last time I recall seeing Mr. Spires was at a 50th Anniversary celebration for my Aunt Faye and Uncle Marvin, who were very close to him. Wayne and I sat down at a table and a man said hello to me. The man obviously knew me. Cue my faceblindness (and to be fair, his appearance had changed drastically over the long period of time since I had seen him last). Anyway, I had to ask him who he was. He told me and all was good, but of course I was embarrassed not to recognize him. 

Finally

Peoples’ memories of their first jobs probably vary widely. I’m fortunate that mine are so good, and that my first job laid the groundwork for how I would approach the work world for the rest of my life. 

As I’ve mentioned in this post, there were a few situations that I wish I had handled differently. But I guess most of us can say that about our first jobs. I’m thankful I was shown grace, given an environment where I could learn some real-life skills and — most of all — shown an example of decency.

I’m sure there are decent bosses like Mr. Spires in other industries besides grocery, and in cities and towns of all sizes. 

But it was to my benefit to have my first job at a small-town grocery store, with such an outstanding boss. The takeaways have stayed with me in jobs in New York City, in Tallahassee and now as a remote worker for a global company. 

Thank you, Mr. Spires.

10 thoughts on “A tribute to my first boss

  1. I have worked in 30 places over my lifetime. I still remember the ones I call first jobs. As I tell my grandchildren no experience or learning is wasted. Thank you for sharing your sweet tribute.

  2. The perfect first boss! He laid the foundation…
    My first boss was very kind. I think of him–and the job–very fondly!

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