Respect — The Golden Flash and the Nurse’s Aide

Sometime after we started writing about the 6 Rs, I began to feel that something was missing. What we had was fine – Relevance, Relationships, Rigor, Rhythm, Responsibility and Resilience – but it just wasn’t covering everything that defined the excellent organization or the excellent supply chain.

Then it came to me what was missing. Like most things, the answer did not come to me directly, but rather in some kind of stream of consciousness association exercise. I was watching the movie “The Blues Brothers” – not really paying close attention, and waiting for my favorite parts – when Ray Charles puts the Wanted poster on his wall upside down and when Cab Calloway sings “Minnie the Moocher.” The boys were in the diner trying to talk Matt “Guitar” Murphy into hooking back up with the band and Matt’s girlfriend, Aretha Franklin, reads him the riot act and issues an ultimatum:

“You better THINK, think about what you’re trying to do to me…” ultimately ending up spelling out the 7th and most important “R”: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Respect is the silent R. It sits there behind all the others as the medium necessary to host, grow and support the other six. Without Respect, the other six “Rs” are just laudable traits. Fueled and supported by respect, the environment has been created for excellence.

As I began to think about the trait, it immediately occurred to me that respect is something that is extended to others before it is returned to you. To be respected, you must first respect. It is that simple. Maybe the reason Rodney Dangerfield got no respect was because his characters didn’t extend any (Rodney himself was universally respected and loved).

Once I identified the Seventh R as the lynchpin of all the others, I began asking myself who I knew that personally exemplified the term. I thought of my longtime friends and bosses—Glen Hall, Ed Hisscock and Brian Keeley. I thought of my grandmother, Ida Leavenworth, and former schoolteachers Miriam Wilkes, Howard Farnsworth and Whittington B. Johnson. I remembered colleagues such as Robert Collier, Todd Rupert, Nancy McFarland, Deb McCarty, Joe Powers, Sherry Weiner, Mark Jensen and Tom Sisk, and friends such as Dennis Orthman, Afshin Fatholahi and Nick Gaich.

Then I hit on the one person that stood out above all those folks: The Golden Flash.

That wasn’t his real name, of course. His name was Roland (Rusty) Slay, and I met him in June of 1969 as I started working at Baptist Hospital of Miami. I had just gotten out of the military, moved to Miami to get married and was preparing to start classes at the University of Miami. I was able to get a job as a nursing aide at Baptist to help pay the bills.

Baptist was an interesting place. At the time it was about a 375-bed hospital stuck out at the end of Kendall Drive. Ten years before I got there, a two-lane road winding westward from US-1 was all there was to take construction workers to what was going to be a new, state-of-the-art medical facility. By 1969 the hospital had survived its early struggles and was fast-becoming a community healthcare leader, second only to Jackson Memorial, the county hospital that served Miami’s center city.

I don’t know for sure when Rusty arrived, but I do know that it was at least two years before I did, because one of the first things that happened to me personally was my recruitment to the BHM softball team. Bob Gunter was a fellow Hurricane student who worked in the lab at the hospital. When someone told him about my softball career, he cane a-calling. He told me about the team and its coach, Rusty Slay. He said they had had a team for two years and had never won a game and that they could really use me.

I signed up, and it was probably at practice that I first met Rusty. My first impression was that he was short. He couldn’t have been more than 5’4” tall, with flaming red hair. He came up to me and asked me what position I wanted to play. I told him I always liked second base best but that I would play wherever he needed me and I asked him what position he played.

“I can’t play,” he said.

“Why,” I asked.

“My wife won’t let me.”

I didn’t even know what Rusty did until I went back to work and told my co-workers about him. I called him “Rusty,” and they quickly corrected me, telling me his name was Mr. Slay and that he was a big shot in Administration. They told me he was the comptroller—what today is known as the chief financial officer.

He was a big shot, but he didn’t act like one. We lost the first game I played in, but won the second one on a game-saving play I made at first base. The team carried me off the field and we retired to Rusty’s house for a party, an event which nearly ended my nascent marriage before it began.

Here I was, a lowly nursing assistant partying at the CFO’s house on a weekly basis. How likely is that to happen today? And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was welcome at Rusty’s. That’s just the way he was. He had served as a tail gunner on a B-17 in World War II, and was shot down over Frankfort, Germany. He spent two years in a POW camp. When he got out of the service, he worked his way through Kent State University (the Golden Flashes). Then he got a job working for Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and was sent to the Philippines, where he and his fellow co-workers were twice kidnapped.

Rusty’s experiences may have humbled him. I choose to believe he was just raised right. No one I have ever met in my professional career measures up to him when it comes to treating his fellow human beings with respect, and as a consequence, no one I have ever met was more respected.

Rusty had one limitation; his wife, Molly – five inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than him – would not let him play softball because he had broken his jaw in his first year as coach when an errant throw hit him in the face. She told him that if he ever played again, she would leave him. In my third game for the team, I was on third base with two outs in the last inning and the score tied. Our worst hitter was due to bat and Rusty put himself in as a pinch-hitter. He got a single and we won. After the game we saw Rusty wandering around the parking lot confused. He couldn‘t find his car. Turns out Molly got in and went home when she saw him coming to the plate.

Rusty was my friend and mentor, giving me some of the most lasting insights I have ever received. Once, when I got into an argument with a doctor about Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average, Rusty waited until after the doc left the table and told me, “Fred, you’re a bright guy. You probably know more about more things than anyone I have ever met. But you don’t always have to prove you’re right, especially if it makes the other person look bad.”

That was Rusty, quietly teaching life lessons.

In 1973 our softball team won the league championship. After the season we all chipped in and bought pewter beer mugs with our names on them as well as one for Rusty and Mac—our 75-year-old scorekeeper who worked part time in finance. At the party, we each presented him with our mugs and a rack to hang them on so we would have them to use when we came over.

Rusty cried.

Eventually, Rusty retired and moved to North Carolina, where he died in 1992.

A few months later, a package arrived in the mail from Molly. Inside was the old pewter mug, dented and worn, with my name on it.

That day, I cried.

Two more things: In 1998 I learned about Rusty’s far-reaching influence. I knew that he had been active in the Healthcare Financial Management Association, but I didn’t know his impact. I was doing some consulting for a small IDN in South Florida and I found myself dealing with a CFO who was a real jerk. He would not cooperate, and tried to stifle our progress at every turn. At some point I must have mentioned that I had worked at Baptist and he asked, “Did you know Rusty Slay?” I said that I did, and that he had been my good friend and mentor. The CFO said, “He was my mentor, too. I got this job because of him.” After that I got all the cooperation I needed.

And finally: It was Bob Gunter who began calling Rusty “The Golden Flash.” Gunter discovered that the nickname for Kent State teams was “The Golden Flashes,” and since Rusty had gone there and had even named his son Kent, Gunter decided to call Rusty “The Golden Flash.”

One of the proudest moments in my life was May 14, 1988, the day I received my MBA. Everyone who knows me knows I am a Hurricane first, but few know that my MBA is from Kent State.

I, too, am a Golden Flash.

Thanks, Russ. You taught me how to show respect. All of us who have ever known you will always love and respect you the same way you loved and respected us.

Rest easy, my friend. You earned it.

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