When a boy goes to get a man’s job

On Wednesday I was schmoozing with my old landsman Paul Pillis. When I refer to Paul as a landsman, it’s not in the usual ethno-religious sense but an institutional one: He and I were both students and teachers at Paul Smith’s.

Beyond just that, we’ve got something else in common: We were both hired by Chester L. Buxton.

Dr. Buxton was PSC’s president for 30 years, and the way he ran the school, he was Paul Smith’s. We referred to him as Dr. Buxton, Dr. B. or The Old Man, and all were terms of respect. I’d heard that one of the old-time teachers, Doc McKee, actually called him Chet to his face, but never found a witness to it.

There were no other administrators of consequence, and every decision, no matter how small, was made by Dr. B. This, of course, included all the hiring – teachers, staff, cafeteria workers, maintenance people – the investments, the team budgets and, for all I know, how many pieces of chalk were allowed on each blackboard.

All his decisions were indisputably final, so in that sense he was easy to deal with. Take the afore-mentioned chalk as an example. We frequently ran out of it, and when we did, we were left to our own devices to get more. The usual alternative was to take it from other teachers’ chalkboards and then hoard it like crazy. We did the same with mimeograph fluid, carbon paper, pencils, you name it. The upside of this was it led to a creativity few if any other college faculties ever possessed.

Furthermore, Dr. B was as traditional a gentleman as ever donned a trilby. And if you want an example involving hats, how about this: Once he called Ed Woodward, one of the forestry profs, and read him the riot act. Over what? Dr. B. had driven to the cafeteria and he saw Ed outside, talking to a student. And catch this: The student had his hat on! Dr. B. couldn’t understand how Ed could allow such a lack of disrespect to take place on his campus.

Another thing about the good doctor: He hated any kind of written contract. Everyone who worked for him knew that; anyone else had to find out the hard way. That’s exactly what happened to Bill Madden.

Bill was in Rotary with Dr. Buxton, and after one meeting he asked Dr. B. if he’d sponsor some event or other. Dr. Buxton said he would, and the next day Bill mailed out a pledge form. A week went by and Bill had no word from Dr. B., so he called and told him he hadn’t gotten the form back. Dr. B., whose normal talking voice was a whispered mumble, said very clearly and audibly (his version of bellowing): “I told you I’d send you the money.” And that was it. Bill had a better chance of getting the autograph of Lord God Almighty than he did of Chester L. Buxton.

And that policy went for our contracts – we had none. At least we had none in writing. We all got hired for one year at a time, and April 1 was the renewal date. Of course, he renewed our employment in his own Buxtonian way: If you were not rehired, then you got The Call from Dr. B. on March 31. If you heard nothing, it meant you were rehired. Thus, in this special instance, no news was indeed good news.

The face of a boy, the heart of a highwayman

Someone else hired by Dr. B. was Kirk Peterson. And while Kirk taught English, like me, his experience in the job interview was completely different from mine.

Kirk, my best work friend for 40 years, is about as honest and decent a human being as any who’s ever tread in shoe leather. But he also has a deceptive wiliness, given his open, aw-shucks visage. And thus he’s one of the few people who managed to euchre Dr. Buxton and stay employed long enough to tell the tale.

When Kirk went for his interview, he and Dr. B. did the usual dance, and then they got down to brass tacks – the salary.

“Well,” said Kirk, starting the horse trading, “I’d really like to work for you, but I’ve got to tell you I’ve had another offer.”

“Oh?” said Dr. B.

“Yes,” said Kirk. “For eight thousand.”

Dr. B took that in, mulled over it a bit, and then said, “I can give you eighty-four hundred.”

“It’s a deal,” said Kirk, and they shook on it.

And what’s so sneaky about that? Just this: The only other offer Kirk had was no offer.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

I was not half so slick as Kirk.

Back in the Glory Days, we got paid once a month. Three weeks into the semester, I got a call from Eileen Crary, Dr. B.’s secretary and the undisputed Brains of the Outfit. I later found out Paul also got a call from Eileen three weeks after his hiring, and for the same reason.

“Dr. Buxton would like to see you this afternoon,” she said in the damnably neutral professional tone of hers.

“OK,” I said, feeling either sweat or blood bead up on my forehead.

The last thing any of us wanted was an appointment with Dr. Buxton. Since he micromanaged the whole joint, there was no telling why he’d want to see us. Maybe we let out a class four minutes early. Or perhaps we let a student call us by first name. Or maybe we were seen in town talking to an undesirable. Who knew? All we knew was no one had ever been called into the Sanctum Sanctorum and told he was a helluva guy.

I arrived at the appointed time, sat in the antechamber long enough to wish I’d had either a quart of Maalox or a fistful of Xanax, and mulled over my future as an EX-college teacher.

Finally, I got called in.

We exchanged the usual civilities, and then Dr. Buxton said, “Since we never discussed it, I thought you might like to know how much you’re getting paid.”

My exhale didn’t last any longer than three minutes.

In truth, I’d never asked about my salary because I didn’t care. I was doing what I wanted to do, where I wanted to do it and with the people I wanted to do it with. Everything else was pure cream.

He then told me my salary.

My heart about jumped out of my chest, and I almost plotzed: Compared to what I’d made before, as a Navy enlisted man, it was a fortune.

Then again, compared to what Conniving Kirk had finessed out of The Old Man, it was small potatoes at best.