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Friday, September 30, 2016

Mr. Willoughby Part Two - July 5, 1994 to 2002

My relationship with the man who would become by longest and most trusted mentor was complicated and not without its ups and downs. Don’s demeanor when I worked with him all those years ago was stern, and yet gentle. His presence could be intimidating, but then at a moment when you least expected it, he could surprise you with a humerous quip. He was a lot like Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’s diary (the first one) in that he has that stiff upper lip quality to him. It threw me off for a while after I started working with him, until I remembered that he is of the “silent generation” and came from very humble roots in British Columbia. I can well remember the first time I walked into his office to ask him a question. On his wall was a large framed soliloquy titled “Commitment” in large black letters. It went on to describe why commitment was so important to success – not in a cheesy, contrived way, but in a very real way. I knew instantly that this was a man I could identify with, who would understand and respect my work ethic.

A good way to illustrate his personality and the relationship that we had is for me to give examples of some of his funnier moments in the office:

  • People did not have their own computer at their desks because at that time they were too expensive. So the firm had a bank of about a dozen computers. The idea was that we did most of our work at our desks and then when we needed to do something on the computer, we would go use one of the computers. In practice, some of us would go straight to the computers and work there all day. Of course, when you have six accounting students sitting in an open concept space, you get to talking and pretty soon nobody is doing any work. This goofing off could go on for a while if the partners were too busy to come walking by the computer area. Anyway one day we are all talking when I notice Don come around the corner toward the computer area. He just stops and stands there listening while nobody except me notices him. After about a minute everybody turns around and looks at Don, who smiles his mischievous smile and says “I want some of the puppies from the litter when you are done. Okay?” before turning around and walking away.
  • One day I am standing in his office discussing his review notes on one of my files and at some point he starts frantically looking for one of the working papers that was I the file. He can’t find it, no matter how hard he looks and finally in frustration he exclaims “It’ a good thing my dick is attached, otherwise I’d lose it too!”.
  • We had a lunch room in the office and a lot of people liked to read books as they ate lunch. One of the guys was reading a book titled “The book of Questions”. Don walks in to get a cup of coffee and as he is walking out with it, he notices the title of the book, stops and with his usual mischievous smirk he says “The book of questions eh? You should get the book of answers!” before walking away.
5    Many nights when I would be working very late to finish a file, Don would come and chat with me at my desk. The chats would not be long, and there would not be a lot of personal information exchanged, but they would be long enough that I felt respected and that my efforts were acknowledged. As an aspie, I was fully aware of the fact that my behavior was quirky, but Don tried very hard to steer me in the right direction and help me, while respecting my dignity:
  • There was a time when my first wife Lea went to Hong Kong for 2 months after the death of her father and left me with very little money to pay the bills. She ran up a $2,000 American Express bill and it needed to be paid, as Amex did not allow cardholders to carry balances back then. I had no way to pay it. All this came to light when Don noticed that my shoes were worn right through and he summoned me to his office to tell me that I needed to buy a new pair. I explained that I couldn’t because of what was happening. Without skipping a beat, he told me to bring in the Amex bill and give it to him. He arranged for it to be paid and as far as I an recall, DID NOT take it off my pay. He also told me to buy a new pair of shoes and bring the bill to him. He reimbursed me for my new dress shoes. Although Doug Frew, the personnel partner did tell me about a note in my file to that effect, Don never did bring it up again.
  • Another time I had run out of black socks and decided to try getting away with a pair of my white socks. Don noticed and told me “You know, you really shouldn’t wear white socks with a suit. It just isn’t done.”. Embarrassed, I replied “Yeah I know Don.”, to which he said “Well if you know, why are you doing it?” as he smiled. I told him I had run out of black socks. But I made sure that I never ran out again.
  • Another time, I’m not sure how or why, I had a B.O problem.  I think it was the polyester dress shirts I was wearing. But Don gently let me know one day that I “wasn’t smelling too good”, and asked me if I drycleaned my suits regularly. Shortly after that conversation I went out and spent the last of my money on a good supply of cotton dress shirts and undershirts. I never went without an undershirt for the rest of my professional career and never wore cheap dress shirts again. Consequently though, I never had a B.O. problem again. It was an invaluable lesson that was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to me over the course of my career.
  •  At the company Christmas Party in 1996 after I had written the UFE (Uniform Final Examination) and failed, Lea was talking to Don and some of the other partners. I was in the smoking lounge enjoying a few smokes with the smokers contingent of the office, when Don approached and said: “come dance with your wife Chris”. I waived him off and he left after some mild persistence. Lea later told me that she had been telling Don and several of the partners about the fact that I’d been having nightmares about being fired for failing the exam. It was then that I realized that what he was really saying was “come dance with your wife Chris. Get her away from the other partners”.
  • Don counselled me in the difficult period following the end of my first marriage, and subsequent bankruptcy.
  • When he could see I was working extra hard he invited me and Lea out for dinner with his wife.
  • He and his wife attended Lea’s grand opening of her business in the house the two of us bought just about a year before we split.
I worked for Don for just over 7 years, which for an accounting student is an eternity, given that most students put in their three years and then quit to go into industry. I wanted to become partner there and felt that the best way to do that was to stay and work with Don. Don and I even discussed the prospect and he let me know that while I had a long way to go, he would help me get there. But it was not to be. Six months after Lea and I split, I met and started dating Kay. For some reason that was unclear to me at the time, Kay felt that my relationship with Don wasn’t healthy. She would often tell me that he was using me and would never make me partner, despite what he said. I now know that this was a ploy to isolate me from all the people who mattered to me at the time. But unfortunately for me, as an aspie in love I was highly impressionable. In time, I began to feel that what she was saying was true and I resolved myself to finding a different job in Vancouver.

I’ll never forget the look of hurt, betrayal and anger on Don’s face when I walked into his office to hand him my resignation letter. He was polite after that, but had all the distance of a person deeply betrayed. He never did find anyone else to take over his practice.

He and I didn’t really keep in touch much for the year that I was in Vancouver after that, but when things went bad with my next firm, he did agree to meet me over breakfast to discuss what was happening to me. He didn’t offer to hire me back though and I could tell that he was still very hurt. However, within a few months of that meeting I had left Collins Barrow and was moving to New Brunswick to start a job with a stamp auction house. About four months after I arrived there, I received my copy of “CA Magazine” in the mail. In there was an announcement that Don had been made an FCA, which is the highest honour a CA can receive from his or her professional body. It is not something that you apply for – you have to be nominated by your peers. This year, after some 35 years of service to the profession it was Don’s turn. I decided to call Don to congratulate him even though he and I hadn’t spoken in several months. He sounded surprised to hear from me and accepted my congratulations, although his tone suggested to me that he didn’t really believe I was being sincere and wondered why I was bothering to call. It was then that I realized the gravity of my mistake in how I handled my relationship with the man to whom I owed so much. 

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