Trouble in Camelot

Copyright © 1998 John D. Beckett, Loving Monday: 31-36.

MY FATHER'S INVITATION to join him in his small manufacturing company caught me completely by surprise. It happened one evening when Wendy and I were at my parents' home for dinner.

"John," said my dad matter-of-factly, "Fitz has been my business partner for over twenty-five years. He's going to retire soon. How'd you like to join me in the business?"

I was equally surprised by my response. "Dad, I really haven't thought much about it, but it sounds awfully good to me. Yes, I'd be very glad to join you."

Admittedly, I had some misgivings about leaving the glamour of the high-tech aerospace industry. Probing outer space was at the cutting edge of technology, and it had been exciting to be in the thick of it for over three years. By contrast, I knew the R. W. Beckett Corporation had just a few customers, employed only twelve people, and had barely survived some severe struggles over the years. But the prospect of working together with Dad was irresistible.

My father had begun the business twenty-five years earlier in the basement of his home. In 1937, on the heels of the Great Depression, Dad's only "capital" had been a firm determination to design and build a superior oil burner for residential and commercial heating systems. Shortly afterward World War II broke out, and critical commodities were diverted to the war effort. Burner production halted. To survive, the company went into the home insulation business.

The postwar years were excellent for Dad's oil burner business as homeowners switched in droves from coal to oil heating. In 1951 my father was able to fulfill a lifelong dream—to build his own manufacturing plant in an attractive rural setting just outside Elyria. Soon, however, competition from the natural gas industry severely impacted the business, and for several years Dad was discouraged with the long-term prospects for oil heating. But then, in the late fifties, he shook off the discouragement and, with dogged determination, designed a new, more competitive oil burner. Gradually sales began to pick up. Yet Dad knew when he asked me to join him in late 1963 that it would take his own best efforts—and mine—to rebuild a sturdy business. However, we welcomed the challenge and especially the opportunity to collaborate. I was excited to find myself loving Mondays even more in an oil burner factory than in aerospace!

Collapse of Camelot

Days before I started at Beckett, the nation was stunned by the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in a motorcade in Dallas. The unthinkable had happened, and overnight people around the globe witnessed a violent end to the notion that we were truly living in Camelot.

Camelot also collapsed for our small family in a succession of blows to our happy and secure life. First, our daughter contracted gastroenteritis, an intestinal illness that leads to severe dehydration. For many infants this condition is fatal. But mercifully, and with some outstanding medical help, Kirsten's life was spared. Soon after, however, Wendy's mother succumbed to a difficult and painful battle with cancer. A lovely and talented woman, Mrs. Hunt had suffered a fall at her summer cottage, causing a back injury which produced a malignant tumor that eventually proved fatal.

Despite the surrounding circumstances, Dad and I were delighted to be working together. I became an eager understudy, learning under his guiding and experienced hand. I envisioned future years in which I would draw all I could from his wisdom and expertise. Perhaps I would succeed him one day—but only when both he and I were ready.

That dream was shattered when I received a phone call on a cold Saturday morning from the local police. Stunned and speechless, I gasped for breath as I received the report that Dad had been found slumped over the steering wheel of his car, the victim of an apparent heart attack. How can this be? I thought, my mind in total turmoil. He was simply driving to work! We were supposed to be working together on that new project in an hour or so . . .

Dad was sixty-seven, seemingly in good health. He loved his work, and I believe, given the choice, he would have preferred to go as he did—"with his boots on." But for me, at age twenty-six, the news of his death was a staggering reality that I had no idea how to handle.

I later learned from others how much Dad had hoped I would succeed him, though he had never let on. So subtle had he been in that intention that I could have easily missed it and said no to his invitation to work with him. As it turned out, the year Dad and I worked side by side was the most remarkable of my budding career.

During this brief period, my view of him changed from that of stern disciplinarian to mentor and friend. He opened his heart and his expansive mind to me, teaching me in months what could have taken years in another work setting. Ten more years would have found me still in awe of the breadth and depth of his enormous capabilities, but a year together would have to suffice. His death was the most profound reminder yet that the future was uncertain, and that I would need resources well beyond myself to meet the challenges I would most certainly encounter.

I didn't have much in the way of faith to rely on back then. I was just beginning to understand the help the Bible could provide. Beyond that, my only tether to "divine assistance" was through the confidence of Wendy and my mother—a confidence that God was sovereign in all things, including the mystifying loss of my father.

But that wisp of faith, though faint, prompted me to reach out for the sustaining help I needed. I took some faltering steps in offering up prayers—without any clarity at all on whether or how those prayers might be answered. But thankfully there were answers.

Encouragement in the Crisis

The first matter I was able to resolve was the unsettling issue of whether to keep the company or sell it. Offers to purchase the Beckett Corporation were coming in from larger companies, and I felt I needed to take them seriously. If I kept the company and it stumbled, all that my parents had worked for, including my mother's financial well-being, could be sacrificed.

Mother took the initiative in putting this concern to rest. "John," she said, "I really am confident you can do it. And even if it doesn't work out, don't worry about me. We have lived with very little before, and we can do it again if we have to." With her stalwart support and a quiet inner sense that keeping the company in the family was the right thing to do, I decided to turn down the offers and do all I could to make the company succeed.

A second critical issue was resolved in an unsolicited assurance I received. The engineering director of our largest customer expressed that company's intent to continue buying oil burners from us. His company could easily have decided to purchase burners from any of several larger and more stable suppliers. Even now, it is hard to fathom what the impact would have been if we had lost this key account, which represented two-thirds of our business. It could well have been the end of the road for the Beckett Corporation.

A further answer to my hesitating but earnest prayers for help came in the form of a person, Bob Cook. Early on, I realized I needed a key executive to help sustain and strengthen the business. Bob amply filled those shoes and soon became our vice president. Together we have forged a tight relationship that has now spanned more than three decades.

I marveled as I realized that in contrast to the bleakness of the loss of Dad, in a matter of weeks we had seen such provision—such specific needs met. Surely we're out of the woods now, I remember thinking. In spite of all that has happened, we can put our full energies into building the business.

But amazingly, within a few months we were plunged into still another crisis.