Every Breath a Gift: a Memoir – My Life’s Work, Odd Jobs to Investment Rep

Larry Pearce

Larry unloading his new John Deere, a step up from 60 + years ago

Chapter 4A – My Life’s Work: Odd Jobs to Investment Rep

How many 11-year olds earn money mowing grass? Aside from getting quarters for placing missing teeth under my pillow at an earlier age, that’s how I began. I mentioned a lesson I learned as a lad at the bank in Chapter 2, when I took my earnings there only to find that they had  “traded” the silver dollars for paper. What was that worth? And compare that to the “invisible value” I ask my clients to invest in with mutual funds today as a Registered Rep with the Securities and Exchange Commission. By the time I was in high school, after we had moved to a richer neighborhood, I was earning $3 for mowing another neighbor’s yard. Was it more work or just inflation? That money went in another bank – a glass piggy bank – before being handed over to the bursar at my college. And to think that I now mow an acre of yard almost every week in the summer and six acres of field several times throughout the year for free. Aside from owning bigger, better equipment, what kind of promotion is that? Anyway, if I succeeded at mowing in my younger days, I failed at selling the magazine “Grit” door-to-door at the same time. I ended up giving the few neighbors who opened their doors to me their money back. As you’ll see later, I became a successful salesman in several “fields,” if I must say so myself, by applying some tricks of the trade.

Business card & Calendar

Just what is the difference between a hobby and a career: between what we do for fun and what we do for a living? I wanted to share all my ideas and experiences here, but as I began to write this chapter, I realized that I had too much material for a single section, so I’m dividing the information into three parts: this first, Odd Jobs to Investment Rep, some before and some after my other professional careers; the second, Broadcasting; and the final part, Teaching. I have devoted the next entire chapter to work in church music and volunteer activities, which I call “Missions & Ministries.” Because some of my organ playing now is gratis, I consider most of these jobs avocations. Most of my serious “performances” took place before my retirement years but occasionally now I still accept jobs for pay. They depend on how far I have to drive and the amount of practice that needs to be done. But, are long-term avocations, like music, considered hobbies or careers? Both, I’d say. They are carry-overs, if you will, from work, and I hesitate to call them that, being so satisfying and rewarding for more reasons than money, that I haven’t been able to let-go just yet. But enough philosophizing. On to other odd jobs.

When I was 15, my dad was strongly encouraging me to find part-time work. He had done very well fathering my two older brothers, both of whom found themselves shoveling manure at local farms. They were so successful with their “pitches” that they were able to buy their first cars in their teenage years. Again, my first encounter with such poop was much later in life, as I said in the last chapter, after I had “bought the farm,” moved my young family to Forwardstown, and acquired a series of livestock and pets. And then, you might say, I paid a price to do it! But anyway, back to pleasing my dad at age 15, first, I got a work permit, required by all Pennsylvania minors under age 16. Second, I went over to the local country club, hoping to “wedge” myself into a caddying job. As I recall, I sat among a bunch of rowdy high school boys, feeling like I was being hazed. Only a couple of them ever got to carry golf bags that morning, and I eventually went back home, feeling that I’d failed, never to make it to the PGA.

Vietnam War Memorial
Washington, D.C.

By my senior year in high school, 1966, the Vietnam War was really ramping up in America, and I had been dating a wonderful and ambitious young lady who got paid to go door-to-door asking people to complete surveys on how they felt about the war. She was a year older than I, so when she went off to college, I took over for her. I remember that my territory was in the West End of Pittsburgh and I found myself working after dark, something I’m sure I would not do now. I’m guessing the survey was commissioned either by the government or the peace-niks. I never saw the results. It was further sales training: How to get ones foot in the door. While I was relieved to have flunked my draft physical during my college days back at “Indiana,” I was later devastated to learn of the death of my friend Lou on the battlefield. A fellow member of my high school Key Club, Lou was most remembered by me for breaking up a fight during a neighborhood pick-up football game. I can still hear him looking the scrappers in the face, trying to reason with them , “Why are you fighting? What good can come of this? You’re here to have fun.” This gentle giant, I understand, was a radio operator for the Army, the first to be targeted in those terrible swamps of Vietnam. I got to touch Lou’s name on the War Memorial in D.C. As in all wars, the lucky ones, like me, get to stay home, make a living, and raise a family, while the unlucky ones have the opportunity to die for their country. What a price to pay.

The summer between my junior and senior years in high school and then through the summer after my graduation, I worked a variety of jobs at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. If you recall from Chapter 2 on Moon Township that was mostly night work, putting food on airplanes for the Gladieux Food Corporation. I was severely cut on my finger the final summer there by the sliding door on a catering truck. I didn’t return to that odd job after I started college in the fall of 1966.

Catering van with sliding doors, similar to the one that cut the author’s finger

Because of that injury, I was unable to play-for-pay at a small church in Ambridge, just down the Ohio River from Sewickley, where ironically I had had my first organ lesson two years earlier. Now I was asked to provide the music for a service. You might say, “Service for the service.” Sewickley Hospital was where I was taken to have the tip of my finger sewn back on. I continued to study music in college, playing keyboard with my right hand only for a few months, anticipating a career in teaching music at the high school level. Well, I taught alright, but it was eventually Communications at the college level. Yes, I substitute taught music for several years at all levels in area schools. But my highest level of achievement was what was called a “full-time substitute,” directing the Rockwood High School bands. However,  most of the use of any musical talents I had were teaching a few private lessons and playing the organ and directing vocal and bell choirs for area churches. My private lessons were on several instruments, including piano, organ, and guitar. One of my organ students even went on to graduate from college with a degree in music and another often leads the “praise song set” in our church services. Yes, I’m still playing in my retirement years, mostly in our church, but have given up private teaching and the directing – except for telling my wife where to sit and when to play during our piano-organ duets. Read more in my “Missions & Ministries” chapter.

Robinson-Lytle Funeral Home, Indiana, PA

In maybe the oddest job of all, I was on-staff at a funeral home in Indiana, PA, the second semester of my Freshman year. As I said earlier, I parked cars in the evening, helped pick- up bodies as necessary, and answered the telephone, all for free room and minimum wage – $1.60/hour. Back then tuition at a state school was around $3,000 a year, so my savings and summer earnings paid that bill and allowed me to eat in the dining hall. I didn’t have a car and seldom went shopping. Life was a breeze. I remember two special perks with that odd job: I could climb out the window of my room on the third floor to sunbathe on the roof of their new addition; and I could take a hot shower any time I wanted by riding the elevator, located just off the casket display room, to the basement and walking between the embalming and hair dressing rooms. I didn’t like showering after dark, however.

I left the funeral home at the end of the summer my senior year, 1970, knowing that I would be living at home in Moon Township while student teaching in the spring. The first semester, I lived above a laundromat with some rather rough characters. While student teaching, I submitted several applications and audition tapes to radio stations in Indiana and Pittsburgh. You’ll hear about the results of that below.

Another part-time job I had in the summer months during college in Indiana was at Penn Furniture, as described in the earlier installment. I did pick-up some furniture moving and carpet laying skills there, but what I remember most is walking down the street at noon to a little cafe where I enjoyed a home-made submarine sandwich, a bottle of Orange Crush, and a bag of salted peanuts for dessert. Yum!!

Brush or comb? Your gift for opening the door for me!

After I graduated from college in May of 1970, and was waiting for the job offers to come flooding in, I answered an ad for the Fuller Brush Company, a well-known door-to-door firm that carried household and healthcare products. I’ve described my experience there in an earlier installment. The best part of my declining sales experience west of Pittsburgh was learning what tenacity it takes to succeed. My approach was to hold up a small brush and a comb while standing on the customer’s front porch and ask, “May I give you one of these just for looking at a catalogue of the products we offer?” This come-on worked more often than not. I was appealing to their human tendency to want something for nothing. And I was paying for their free offer. This approach came in handy a decade later, after the Johnstown Flood, when I was moved from management to sales at WJAC Radio. We didn’t call it “bait-and-switch” because the customer was always offered something for free, like a coffee mug, but the phrase “selling-up” was more appropriate because in their minds the free stuff made the cost of the premium seem less. The first campaign by our new management was “run of schedule” (ROS). For $125 a month a client could participate with 30-second ads running at any time of the day of night. Depending on the number of spots open and the number of advertisers, they could get one ad a day or 100. The best part for me, who didn’t have an established base, was that I could pitch “Top of Mind Awareness” (TOMA) to any organization, profit or not-for-profit, from pizza shops to service clubs. Naturally, once our listeners heard these commercials and mentioned them to the sponsors, we could go back and “pitch” our more expensive programs.

I suppose my teaching assistantship (TA) at Penn State could be considered an odd job, but as I said in that installment, the $200 per month I received just did pay the $120 rent and $80 food stamps for my young family of three. I know that the free graduate studies tuition that went with it came to an abrupt end when the TA contract ran out. That was like hitting a brick wall, and I knew I had to fight for my degree and get a real job. I did love working with my students in Penn State’s broadcasting studio. Part of my duties there included running a TV camera for late afternoon Accuweather programs and my own August graduation at Beaver Stadium. That was a thrill, needless to say.

Following this section of Chapter 4 is another devoted to broadcasting as one of my major careers. While I was at my first full time position at WJAC Radio in 1977, the Johnstown Flood struck, and I’ll talk about that tragic adventure then. Our parent company, the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, a Monday through Saturday newspaper that began during the Civil War, had to move its printing operation over the mountain to Greensburg when its presses went under. Several regional newspapers sensed an opportunity to provide Sunday service when this happened, and so the “Trib,” as we call it, had to work quickly to meet that threat. They were desperately seeking Sunday carriers, and this young family man stepped up to the plate, printing plate that is. As a high school student I had filled in on my neighbor’s paper route when he went on vacation. I enjoyed getting up with the “early birds” and the smell of newsprint. I walked door-to-door with a large bag strapped over my shoulder. Now, I would motor from paper tube to paper tube, usually at the end of a driveway, stuffing the rolled-up periodical in through my rolled-down window on the left side of the car in all kinds of weather. If I had several dozen as a suburban teenager, I had well over 100 on my rural route. Worst of all, unless the customer mailed a check in to the Trib, I had to put a bill in with the paper, pray that they got it, and pray again that they would respond with the money. Most did, but some didn’t, and that meant a phone call or no more delivery. Either way, it was a burden for me. Overall, though, between my radio  and newspaper jobs, I felt like the great communicator. Better than that was the opportunity to have my teenage kids help stuff those papers on Sunday mornings. I gave them all the money that came in. Son Matt put his toward his first computer, and daughter Annie saved for her first years at Carnegie-Mellon. I delivered Sunday papers for about seven years.

Northern Propane Gas Company

Up until now I’ve covered, as one might say, “my odd jobs” – part-time, if you will. But let me spend a moment including a short-term, full-time, professional sales position. I mentioned moving from WJAC to my 18 months at Northern Propane, Norgas, in Windber, earlier. This was, unfortunately, after the international fuel crisis of the 70s. The national company had most of the aspects of that covered with appliances, home heating, and especially their program to install liquified natural gas (LNG) to run vehicles, from cars to the biggest trucks. My job was to “sell” these commodities, installations, and of course the gas to power them. I had my own office and a company truck. I usually worked Mondays through Fridays, often on the road, and Saturday mornings in the store. Once in a while the regional boss would come in and my manager and I would entertained him late into the evening at some local bar. I didn’t like that. I did like when all of the servicemen left the store each morning with their tools and clipboards and took me with them up to the Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and one of those holey things before actually getting to work. Ye, like I needed that!

When the end came in 1983, not unlike at my next job as you’ll read later, I felt that the product and services we were offering was out of touch with the marketplace. Our little store in Windber, or was it just me, couldn’t get people excited about running vehicles on LNG, mostly because the fuel shortage was abating. One day I lost my temper, which I seldom did while at a job, and after my boss gave me “what for,” I stormed out of his office, slamming the door, and walked the 12-plus miles home. I left my truck parked at the store, but I may have gotten a ride part way. I called in my resignation shortly after. Ironically, several of the fellows at Norgas bought financial products from me after I became licensed. One has since died, but the other is enjoying retirement on his dividends. He even help me install our swimming pool in 1982.

As I explain in the next section dealing with my career in broadcasting, I left Norgas to join “The Voice of Somerset County,” WVSC-AM & FM. These stations emanated out of our county seat, which incidentally boasts of the highest courthouse in the State. Legally, I was coming up in the world or work. After those years I went into financial services with one of the oldest insurance companies in America, New York Life, begun in 1845. After my training and passing the State and Federal licensing tests, I was shown my desk, phone, and laptop. The first task I was given was to write down the names and phone numbers of 100 people I knew; they could be family, friends, or associates. That may sound easier than it actually is, but that is what insurance sales people call their “suspect” list, which is different from their “prospect” list. Let me explain: a suspect is anyone who is alive and breathing; a prospect is someone who “might” buy your product – with enough calling and coaxing. The general rule is that with every 10 calls, you would get 4 appointments, 2 sales, 1 of which would “stick.” A successful seller should have one to two sales a week. The manager of the Johnstown office asked us to come in Monday evenings to make phone calls. That left us the rest of the week to keep appointments and visit potential clients on “cold calls.” My problem was that I conducted church choir rehearsal (literally) on Monday nights, and being sympathetic to such activities, a good source of sales, my boss excused me. By Friday afternoon most of us recruits were exhausted, and so that was the time we met with the manager to offer our excuses for not meeting the quota. We invariably got a pep talk for the weekend and encouragement to come back Monday.

New York Life Agent of the Month(s) announcement with note from manager

In the New York Life office were long hallways with plush offices on either side. Those were the abodes of the “successful” agents, the ones with six and seven figure incomes, or as the profession designates, “Million Dollar Roundtable.” We had to walk the length of the hall each day to get to our rather sparse quarters. A few recruits dropped out after the first week; some made it through the first quarter; I started to lose steam after about 18 months, ironically about the same time I lasted with Norgas. I did have some support from family members, who I didn’t want to let down, and was named “New Agent of the Month” twice. Acquiring my Federal securities license Series 6 to sell mutual funds kept me in the game with NYL a little longer. Anyway, I remember being asked if this was to be my final Friday meeting with the manager and whether or not I wanted to keep going. I hadn’t really thought about it until then, but the words “Yes” and “No” came quickly, firmly, and simultaneously out of my mouth. I stood up, shook his hand, and headed for the door. Incidentally, I still have some of my New York Life annuities and mutual funds. I never bought any life insurance because I had all the coverage I needed with my in-law’s Lutheran Brotherhood agent, now Thrivent. While I let my insurance license lapse, I kept my SEC papers and have worked for several wonderful brokers in the area over the past 30-some years. The mutual fund companies pay both a commission, which I don’t see much of now as I don’t sell much, and a small service residual, which I do enjoy along with periodic visits to clients I’ve had for years. The Feds call me a Registered Representative, but I like to think of myself as a Financial Consultant and friend.

As I look back on all the part-time odd jobs I’ve worked over the years, some for pay and other for none, I’m reminded of the various licenses and memberships I’ve had to obtain: Federal Communications Commission Radio Operator’s Class 3, H & R Block Basic Income Tax Preparation Certificate, YMCA SCUBA Diver’s Authorization, and of course the SEC Series 6 license to sell mutual funds. Some came at no charge, but all took time and effort to gain. Some came with pain, and I’d rather not have had to work for them, while others came with pride, and I’d still go after them today. In fact, one’s like my SEC license still require continuing education, although it’s all online today. I continue to sell and service my investment clients and help others with their income taxes. The later can be done online through a variety of tax aps. Both jobs require personal appointments, which I thoroughly enjoy.

I obtained a Coast Guard Auxiliary Membership, for which I got to wear white. I’ve always thought that if I had passed my physical and was served with draft papers back in the 60s, I would have taken my love of water and my SCUBA license and enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. But rather than protecting the beaches of America, the limits of my Auxiliary card was inspecting fire extinguishers and air horns on ski boats in our Lake Raystown.

My life in Forwardstown, now in retirement, consists of playing the organ for various churches in the area occasionally, usually for a stipend, singing in our church choir and the Johnstown Symphony Chorus, gratis, and servicing my investment clients, most of whom I’ve had since the 1990s. Some of them have handed their funds down to children and grandchildren. The majority of my free time, however, is spent “communicating,” but rather than teaching or sharing music, I research, write, and post articles for my family history website, E-gen.info. That’s definitely a hobby, costing me money out of my own pocket with the only rewards being the realization of where my wife and I came from and hearing from family around the world. I have had the opportunity to publish in genealogy magazines like “Mennonite Family History,” again gratis. More in a later chapter.

So, those are my part-time and short term jobs pre and post-retirement. God willing, 2022 and beyond will be more of the same. Hobby or part-time? It really doesn’t matter to me as long as I’m having fun and serving others, making the world a better place.

Move to: Chapter 4B –My Life’s Work, Broadcasting

Return to: Table of Contents

Last revised 5/19/22