Tennessee Tom keeps me hopping

I transferred to the Monsanto plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in 1981. I worked for the plant engineer, Tom. I reported to my first level manager, who worked directly for Tom. You might think I had a cushion or barrier from Tom, but he had no qualms at all about going around his managers directly to the engineers.

Tom was a proud alum of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Not just proud, he was a fanatic. During the 1980’s UT was not exactly what you would call a football powerhouse. While I could revel in news of my Sooners doing well and ranked in the top ten year after year, the Volunteers hardly broke the top twenty-five. The amazing thing is they regularly had over ninety thousand fans show up on those football Saturdays. OU had an attendance somewhere in the seventy to eighty thousand. And they were ranked.

I learned years later during a trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, that the Wolverines of Michigan and the Tennessee Vols one-upped each other in stadium size. As soon as one completed a stadium expansion, the other started on theirs. Michigan, like OU, was a football powerhouse. Like Tennessee, Michigan regularly topped ninety thousand fans at its home games. It is still amazing to me the size of the fan base the University of Tennessee is proud to display.

In addition to various UT memorabilia, Tom talked all the time about how great his alma mater was. Often dressed in the burnt orange of the university’s colors, he also ordered various office supplies in orange. Take his notepad, five by seven inches and in bright orange, no one else had one like it. Tom’s management style was all about getting the edge on the other departments. This meant as one of his employees that I was held accountable to a higher degree than I had previously experienced. Tom used the orange notepad to communicate with us.

The dreaded orange note found its way to my desk magically over night. I never liked coming into work and before I had had any coffee, that glowing orange sheet stared up at me. His notes always contained questions about my ongoing projects, new ideas that Tom dreamed up, or suggestions to change my project to ‘make it better.’ When you’re in the middle of a project that has been reviewed by all of the stakeholders you can think of, getting a note from Tom was about the worst thing that could happen. Between the lines there could be hidden a complete scope change or reset of the entire plan or other bright idea.

On top of that, Tom’s handwriting was bad. Big black scribblings emblazoned across the orange page appeared at first glance to be very ominous. I often took my notes to his secretary hoping she could translate his hieroglyphics. After translation, sometimes it wasn’t too bad and other times he pointed out a screw up. Those were the worst.

My co-workers would review their notes and try to understand what Tom meant. Not seeing why I couldn’t go to the source, off I’d go to Tom’s office. They couldn’t believe I could be so brazen as to ask the head Volunteer what the heck he had wrote. I couldn’t believe they would be afraid of the guy. Is that some sort of alpha male versus the beta male thing?

I had a lot of respect for Tom. He knew what he wanted and how to go about getting it. Ensuring I was on the right path for success on whatever project I was managing and designing helped both of us. It kept me out of trouble most of the time, for sure.

Tom was one of my biggest cheerleaders when I announced I was pregnant. He always showed concern for my health and was one of the first to visit my new son and me in the hospital.

Classic Tom was to sneak in and grab extra office space. We called it midnight marauds. Literally. An empty office was always fair game and he always seemed to need more offices. I worked for a different manager when I returned from maternity leave. The law is the company has to hold your job, but not necessarily your position. There was an empty office vacated by an engineer who left the company.

My new management decided I needed an office so I stayed late one Friday night and witnessed my first midnight maraud. Monday morning, Tom passed by the office to see me sitting there. He couldn’t believe that I had been party to something so devious as to steal office space. I felt so bad that I had disappointed him.

Our relationship changed after that. Time healed that pain and he did realize that I was only following orders like I had when I worked for him. I appreciated working for Tom. I thrive in an environment of openness and while he may have been hard to work with sometimes, I always knew where I stood with him. Most of the time that was on his good side.


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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