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The Good Humor Men

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Last month, I wrote about the men who, by their patience, vision and perseverance, founded some of our most important institutions and raised the level of professionalism within our business. These were serious men pursuing serious goals. But along the way there have been others who, in a more light-hearted way, have taught us and motivated us to be better at serving the insurance-buying public and also working in support of our institutions.

They were a small band that brought humor to our meetings, thereby lightening up an otherwise serious business. But laughter was not all they brought. Their humor was laced with anecdotes and illustrations that made our products and our mission more understandable and more vital.

Creative uses of our products and how best to convey our message to prospects and clients were their stock in trade. It was a wonderful way to learn. My former minister used to say, “The anecdote is not the Truth, but it is the basket in which you take home the truth.” Their stories helped us to remember important lessons we might otherwise have let slip quickly from our minds. They were great basket weavers.

One of these good humor men was Fred Donaldson of Alabama. Freds favorite tale was about a statue in a small town in Alabama; I believe it was Enterprise. The people of this town erected a statue of the Boll Weevilstrange for the scourge of cotton fields to be honored. But there was an important point. The boll weevil had decimated cotton crops in the area and the community faced ruin. However, the loss of that source of revenue forced the community to find ways to attract new industry to replace cotton as their mainstay. They did this successfully and by raising the statue thus acknowledged that their current well-being was triggered by the disaster brought by the boll weevil. Fred taught us how to rebound from tragedy.

Another of these teachers was John Savage. John, with the circles drawn on a blackboard, made the most complex ideas look simple as we laughed with him and his presentations. One that I remember most vividly was two circles wherein he demonstrated that there were two kinds of peoplethose who saved from the top of the circle and spent the rest, and those who saved what was left at the bottom of the other. He then pointed to the circle where savings occurred at the bottom after spending and said, “These people always work for the people in the other circle where savings precede spending.” A lesson hard to forget.

Another entertainer was Charlie Flowers who, with Texas-style humor, dissected sales concepts like split dollar and deferred compensation in ways that anyone could understand. Charlie had laughs in every line, but there was a serious and important point behind every line.

One of my all-time favorites was Bart Hodges, past president of the National Association of Life Underwriters. I can remember stories that he told 40 years ago and the messages they contained. One of my favorites was in his famous “How I bait my APP trap” speech that he gave countless times to audiences where he raised money for LUPAC.

The essential message of Barts presentation was the importance of preparing the prospect before delivering your message. On the platform with him was a small table with a pitcher of water and a couple of empty glasses. Bart wandered back and forth across the stage comparing the salesman to a farmer who prepares the field before planting the seed. On one of his trips across the stage, he picked up the pitcher of water and a glass, then poured himself a drink. However, the glass was upside down and water spilled out over the stage. The audience howled at this apparent absent-minded move. But when the laughter died down, Bart turned the glass right side up, poured a drink and then said, “The glass was not prepared to receive the water.” Again, the audience laughed, realizing they had been “had,” but the message stuck in an unforgettable way.

Barts humor and lessons always looked spontaneous, but they were not. He practiced his speeches with great care. Every movement and every gesture was carefully rehearsed to lend meaning to his words. He was a great teacher and we enjoyed his lessons immensely.

But there was another good humor man who brought a different perspective. Ernie Cragg was a company president, president of LIMRA, chairman of LUTC and a John Newton Russell Memorial Award recipient. He brought us humor that helped us to be less serious about ourselves but in a constructive way. His tales ranging from an early life on the prairie and the journey from a one-room schoolhouse to the boardroom of a major company were not only entertaining, but they helped to humanize the people in our business.

With the recent passing of Ernie Cragg, these men of good humor have now left us and they are sorely missed. Each in their own way has left their mark, and we and our institutions are stronger and better because they cared enough to share this unique style of teaching.

Humor is so important and my hope is that a new generation of “Good Humor Men” will continue this tradition.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, September 23, 2004. Copyright 2004 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.