My grandaughter in Chicago, who attends DePaul University, wrote asking me to respond to a questionaire about work.
Interesting exercise. Here’s what I sent her:
My first job was selling The Detroit Times in front of the Ditzler Color Company to the men as they came out of work in the afternoon. The papers sold for 3 cents apiece and I netted about 50 cents a week. I was maybe 12 years old. While in grade school I worked at a grocery store (one week, I didn’t like that) and as a car hop at a drive in root beer stand.
In high school, I worked at various jobs during the summer. One year I worked for the City of Detroit, counting cars at various intersections. The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at the railroad station loading bags of mail onto box cars. My regular shift was from 3 to 11, but sometimes I got to pull an extra shift until 6 AM.
In college, during the school year, I worked at the Michigan Alarm Company. I was a night dispatcher on weekends. I went in on Friday night and stayed until Sunday. There was a cot to sleep on. My job was to alert the police if an alarm went off, and to send our service men out to repair or reset the alarms. On Monday I went to the office and picked up my check. Thirteen dollars and twenty cents. Ten went to the bursar at the University of Detroit. The other three twenty was for car fare. If I wanted spending money or date money, I set pins at a bowling alley on weekday evenings.
During the summers when I was in college, I worked at a stone yard. Lots of heavy lifting. I had been turned down at Ford Motor Company because I had a hernia, but the stone yard was a small shop and they didn’t require a physical. While there I learned how to cut stone and drive heavy trucks, including one all night trip on a semi to Indiana to pick up twenty tons of lime stone. Big kick for a college boy.
When I started law school I got a job at the Detroit Bar Association Library, re-stacking books and doing a little research. When summer came, I went back to the stone yard. In 1950 I got a job delivering photographs to drug stores for a company that developed pictures. That was from 5 to 9 PM after the stone yard. The extra job was how I made enough money to buy an engagement ring for my sweetie.
By the time I was a senior in law school, I was working at Burton Abstract and Title Company. I had several jobs there. The boss was kind to law students. If I finished my work, I could do my school work on company time. I put in eight hours a day there, usually finishing around 7PM.
I was still working at Burtons when I graduated. About two years later, I was hired by a law firm that did a lot of collection work. It was a volume operation, and afforded me a lot of experience in a short time.
In 1955, I left the firm and went into practice with Bob Waldron, a young lawyer who had been elected to the state legislature. We shared a small office downtown. No secretary. We hired secretaries from other firms to work after hours.
Starting when I was still in law school, I began running for public office. At age 23, a senior at the U. of D. I garnered about 60,000 votes to be nominated by the Republicans for the state legislature. Of course, I didn’t win, as Detroit is a Democratic stronghold. I lost again in 1954, and in 1955 was defeated for the United States Congress by a young fellow named John Dingell. He is still in the House of Representatives, the longest tenure in history.
In 1957 and 1959 I ran unsuccessfully for Common Pleas Court Judge. It wasn’t very good for my law practice. I think that in my best year, I made about $11,000.
In 1961, I was elected to the Common Pleas Court, where my salary was $18,000 a year. A big raise, but I was about $25,000 in debt from campaigning and feeding five kids.
Two years later, Governor George Romney appointed me to the Wayne County Circuit Court. That was a very interesting job. Two years after that, the Governor asked me to run for the Supreme Court. Nobody thought I would win, but I did.
Two more years passed and the Justices appointed me Chief Justice. Very heady stuff. I was 39 years old, the youngest ever to hold that job.
One of the reasons I was made Chief was that the Court had not received a raise in many years. The salary was $35,000 per year. As Chief, I managed to persuade the State Officers Compensation Commission to give us a boost to $42,000. A twenty percent increase.
Still, I was struggling financially with six children, the oldest starting college, and the others right behind. I managed to make a few extra dollars teaching at the University of Detroit, although it was burdensome to drive 180 miles round trip.
In 1972, I began working on a new project: starting a law school in Lansing. By the end of 1973 the school was up and running with about 150 students. I decided it needed my full time attention, so I resigned from the Court and became the first Dean of Thomas Cooley Law School.
I continued to work at the school for the next 29 years. I remain on the staff, mostly just consulting and doing ceremonial things.
That’s my career path.
Probably my most favorite job was being Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That’s partly because I was young and energetic then. It was obviously a great honor and the work was fascinating. My family was proud of me, and that meant a lot.
The job I liked least was working at the grocery store. A classmate in the eighth grade worked there before I hired on. He got to wait on customers while I swept the floor. I got paid on Friday and didn’t come back on Monday.
How many hours a day? I never counted. During many times of my life, I worked from the time I awoke until I went to bed, sans about two hours for eating, dressing, and attending to personal needs.
Work is satisfying. It defines us, rewards us, strengthens us, and gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It always has. Many surnames come from occupations: a Fletcher made arrows, a Cooper made barrels, a Smith shod horses. In many ways, you are what you do.
What I most dislike about work is failure. And doing things that I perceive as a waste of time, but which are necessary to do because someone else has ordained that they must be done.
I work because I want to.
The competitive edge comes from trying to achieve self-established goals. Just trying to beat the other guy is a sure recipe for failure.
Work is any productive activity. Right now it is 1:11 AM. Except for lunch and dinner, I have been working at my computer since I got dressed after my morning swim. That would be about 14 hours. I won’t quit until I finish this letter. Then I will go to bed with a smile.
My parents expected me to work. I never questioned why.
To me, a man is born to work. Hunter gatherer. Not to say that women don’t work, too. Indeed, a mother works all day and night. No overtime pay. Trying to compensate my wife for all does for me and our children has always a source of motivation for me.
Old Judge Lacey who lived next door said it best,”Do today your nearest duty.”
My Dad was the person I most admired. He was not complicated. He spoke simply and directly. “You know what’s wrong and you know what’s right. Do what’s right.”
What most excites me is the opportunity to be creative. To build. To invent. To design. Nothing quite satisfies me like hearing someone say,”That’s a good idea.”
Nobody in my family ever went into business for himself, until I opened my law office. The Irish were all cops or politicians. When I graduated from Law school there were four lawyers named Brennan in Michigan. Three of them were Circuit Judges. People said I ought to run, and I did.
My biggest dream for my children has already taken place: Among my grandchildren, two graduates of Michigan State, two from Notre Dame, two from Boston College, one from Holy Cross, one from Colgate, one from Marquette, one soon from Wake Forest and one from the University of Michigan, soon to be followed by another from U. of M., one from DePaul, one from Georgia and Georgia Law School. And I didn’t pay a nickel of it! My kids did well!
If I had all the money in the world that I would ever need or want, would I continue to work? Absolutely. Wealth brings great power, but more importantly it brings great opportunity and responsibility. I would not be a passive investor. I would use my money to start businesses, to create opportunities, to establish institutions where people could WORK doing things they enjoy and appreciate.
Perhaps the greatest satisfaction I have had in my life has come from my role as the founder of Thomas Cooley Law School. I hired a lot of people over the years. When I think of the children raised, the homes purchased, the vacations financed, the retirements assured because I started that school, it makes me very happy.
And I am appreciated. Whenever I go near the school, they treat me like a rock star. Old friends I hired years and years ago, even new employees who came on board after I retired, tell me what a wonderful place Cooley is and how much they appreciate working there.
You can’t buy that kind of love investing in the stock market.
Maybe that is what work is all about. Loving people and participating in the dynamics of the economy by doing your share of what needs to be done so that everybody can pursue their happiness.
. . . → Read More: A LETTER TO GRACIE . . . → Read More: A LETTER TO GRACIE