Finding the Keys
Kenneth G. Shipley
Alhambra, CA, about 10 miles east of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley, is where I was born and spent the first 25 years of my life. My father grew up in rural Oregon, where he completed the fourth grade. He was essentially counseled out of school. He was told he would never make it in any profession, so he might as well try to find a job. From about age 10, he worked any job he could find; odd jobs for neighbors, paper routes, farming, cleaning restaurant tables, washing dishes, cooking, driving a cab, and sawmill laboring.
My first mentor was the produce department manager at the grocery store where I worked. Again and again, he would say, “Someday you’re going to be much older. Do you want to be wrapping lettuce or stocking carrots at 40, 50, or 60 years old?”
When World War II broke out, my dad enlisted in the Navy. He studied hard and became a radioman in a combat fighter in the South Pacific. In ongoing combat for four years, he survived air battles and was one of those people who benefited from the service. In the military, he learned he was not dumb, could accomplish things, and that hard work could pay off.
My dad finished his tour of service, got a job as an appliance repairman, and married my mother. Her family had moved from Colorado to Southern California where she graduated from high school and then attended a trade school for six months to learn bookkeeping and how to be a telephone operator. Between them, they had enough skills to make ends meet—but both wanted more. So my dad opened his own appliance store. It was a whole new world of sales, repairs, inventory, bookkeeping, paying taxes, advertising, personnel management, meeting payroll, and everything that was necessary to make a business work. Dad relied on his knowledge from the Navy and experience repairing appliances and mom did the bookkeeping. I was on the way and two more kids were born over the next few years.
The store was always successful enough so our home was comfortable and we never missed any meals. And of course, we always had good appliances. We never had many books. About 50% of our home’s collection was a 28-volume World Book encyclopedia and 20 hardbound copies of Reader’s Digest Condensed Versions.
I was okay academically throughout elementary school, although, I found out years later, I probably started school too early and was considered for retention several times. I did not start reading until the third grade. That didn’t particularly bother me, but it apparently presented some challenges for my teachers. I loved sports. What got me going was my third-grade teacher’s suggestion that my parents take me to professional baseball and football games. I loved the old Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Rams. Reading became important so I could follow them in the newspaper.
In high school I earned A’s, B’s and C’s. School was something I had to do, rather than being something I invested a lot of energy in. My parents, particularly my dad, often said he did not care what I became, as long as I was the best in whatever I did. One high school counselor felt strongly that I should check out trade schools. College was something I should not waste time “fantasizing about.” That’s when it occurred to me. My dad wanted me to be good at whatever I did, but he had no idea what I was going to ever do. Neither did I.
My high school friends were all going to college, so that seemed like the thing to do. No one in my family had attended college, but if that was a problem, that hadn’t occurred to me. I enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles. I did fine my first year but I made some strategic errors my second year. I prioritized my girlfriend (who has now been my wife for many years), concerts, sporting events, the beach, and work, above school. I worked many hours to pay student fees, but also to buy a car, date and support my social life.
The university was a big place. No one seemed to notice my potential, and after my sophomore year, I received a formal letter informing me that my presence at the university was no longer wanted. They had some issues with my not going to class, not studying for tests, not stopping by on test days, not turning in assignments, grades that weren’t in the A-C range, and matters like that.
My first mentor was the produce department manager at the grocery store where I worked. Again and again, he would say, “Someday you’re going to be much older. Do you want to be wrapping lettuce or stocking carrots at 40, 50, or 60 years old?” Or he’d ask if I might want a job that paid more, set me up for a better life, and was more intellectually stimulating. When we talked about education, he’d end the conversation by saying “You can do it—or you can talk about it,” or “You can sacrifice a little now—or you can regret much longer not having done it.”
After several years, I decided my produce manager mentor was right. But I had needed to find out what I didn’t want to do, as much as I needed to find out what I wanted to do. I knew Cal State L.A. was not going to have me back until I proved myself, which I did by going to Pasadena City College. Later, Cal State L.A. welcomed me back and it was onward and upward with honors through my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I worked the whole time, but this time work was solely the method to finance my education.
After graduating, I worked several years in the public schools but found I wanted more, specifically the doctoral education needed to teach at the college level. Of the ten universities that accepted me, I chose Wichita State. My wife and I sold our house, many of our belongings, including one of our cars, and set out on our adventure to the land of tornados, Dorothy, and Oz.
I’d only passed through Kansas before, but knew it was 1500 miles from what I’d always called home. It was a scary time, living in a 200 square foot apartment, being a doctoral student among peers who might be younger, brighter, or richer, and the worry “what if I don’t have what it takes.” But, I soon found a mentor; a brilliant man but also a real people person. He liked his students, particularly his doctoral students, and he wanted them to succeed. He gave me the keys: approach your studies like a job, write at least two sentences every day, study at least 15 minutes every day (that makes us start and we very rarely stop at 15 minutes), finish studying for a test or finish any paper at least one day before it is given or due, always show up, understand the material more than trying to memorize it for a test, and be honest enough to ask if something does not make sense. The “always show up” referred to a class, a study group, an appointment, or any such event. What the advice meant was to be conscientious, dedicated, and persistent. School was a way of acquiring experience and knowledge, and “being there” allowed that to happen.
Years later, my dad told me, “I didn’t know what you’d end up being, but I knew you’d do it.” That was a real special comment from him. Persistence, the willingness to take a chance, a supportive wife, and “always showing up” were some keys for this first-generation graduate.