A radio interviewer recently asked me which three people had the greatest impact on my life – and how it has been turning out. There are so many – some dead for centuries. However, those aren’t the people she was interested in. Of course, I needed to pick actual contemporary people – ones who directly interacted with me and made a difference.
First was Paul Brinkman, the first pharmacist I worked for. He ran a small pharmacy on the east side of my home town. He was firm, but very approachable and he seemed to be fearless in expressing himself.
I was working for Paul when the first insurance prescription co-pay cards were introduced. That was back in the late 1960s. I vividly recall a meeting of the local pharmacists association (now defunct). Paul tried to explain to the attendees – mostly independent pharmacists – that those cards marked the beginning of the end for independent pharmacies. The other folks argued that the cards were a real blessing because customers would stop worrying about prices. We’d all be free to charge our prices and the patient would only have to pony up a couple of dollars. Some pharmacists suggested it was like finding money because we’d first get the co-pay in cash, then the rest of our price from the insurance company.
Paul explained that the person who pays the bills called the shots. Things work best when the customer paid their own bill and interacted with the pharmacist and doctor (when needed). Once another party entered, the relationship would change. Sure enough, insurance companies began calling the shots – telling us what we could dispense, how much, and what we could charge for it.
Paul’s prediction came to pass. At the time he issued his warning there were approximately 25 independent pharmacies serving a town of around 100,000 people. Today that town is approaching 200,000 citizens and there are under five independent pharmacies. The big box chains have taken over because they can afford to sell prescriptions as a loss leader and make their real profits on other products – cosmetics, magazines, liquor, automotive supplies, seasonal decorations, wading pools, lawn chairs, and so on.
Next was Ernie Stinebaugh, formally Earnest H. Stinebaugh, R.Ph. He was recruited from Galesburg, Illinois, to be the director of pharmacy services at Cook County Hospital. I was blessed to work with Ernie from 1969 to 1975 and learn at his side. Ernie was a very bright guy and somewhat deceptive. I remember that he wore reading glasses with a lens in only one side. He’d been engaged in a negotiation with someone – a country board member, an executive, or even a salesman – and he’d nonchalantly reach up and rub his eyelid through the glasses. It took others by surprise. that’s when he’d drop his negotiating bomb – the one thing he was most interested in obtaining. It only took a fraction of a second to distract his opponents. i learned to organize my thoughts and prioritize, then work on getting the priorities met – with honest dialogue. A trick here and there was allowed, but never deception.
I also recall how often we’d conduct business at a commercial restaurant or lounge. Ernie would switch to martinis after a beer or two. He would become visibly impaired – at least that’s how it appeared. Come to find out, Ernie had friends at the bar in most of the places we visited. They’d make his martinis with scant gin (just enough to smell), a few olives, and a large slice of lemon. He could down a dozen of them and never consume even a shot of alcohol. He didn’t put on any acts, but the people he was negotiating with just assumed he was getting loaded. He allowed them to believe what they wanted and didn’t try to prove them wrong.
Until I learned his method I was regularly surprised by how much detail he remembered the next day at work. If we were at a place where Ernie wasn’t known, he’d quietly pour his martini into a cup or saucer – and replace the liquor in his glass with ice. I once observed him ask for a glass of ice just like the one his martini came in. He quietly moved the lemon wedge and olives to the glass of ice and sipped from it slowly as it melted. Ernie didn’t drive in the city. He always used a hospital car or a cab. I suppose it was less expensive and it added to the perception that he “shouldn’t be driving”.
I learned to take responsibility for my actions, to “man up” so to speak and also recognize and respect authority. Ernie liked to say, “When I tell you to jump, I expect you to first say ‘how high, sir’.” He showed me how that approach was valid only when the demands were legitimate. The “jump” comment was hyperbole because Ernie never asked anyone to do anything stupid or impossible.
My final mentor in this abbreviated list is Dr. David Ozar, PhD. David was my philosophy and ethics professor at Loyola University in Chicago. He had been a Jesuit – however, once a Jesuit, always a Jesuit. He “awarded” me the first D I had ever received on a paper. It was particularly hurtful because of the grade requirements in graduate school. I was distraught over that grade and my wife commented that she thought it best if she hid the knives during that episode.
Not only was the grade prominently posted on the front page, but David must have used a couple of cartridges of red ink with comments and notes. It wasn’t nasty, but highly critical and corrective. I rewrote the paper and received a glowing comment on it. Of course, it was a solid A. An A+ was impossible. Dr. Ozar showed me how to “unpack” a situation, to look at the parts, and to question the whole of it from all sides. David steered me to coursework in phenomenology, a specialty area in philosophy. I learned to hone my observation and analyzing skills that I employ every day in practically every way.
As a student, I had a cordial relationship with the professors. After my oral dissertation, however, I learned how a person operates within an academic structure. Upon closing my notes, one professor leaned toward me and said, “Now that we’re colleagues, I have a question for you”. Dr. Ozar overheard the comment and smiled proudly. I had made the mark.