By Donella Meadows
–February 5, 1987–
I wonder if Karl Quist has ever had anything written about him in the papers before. I hope he won’t be too embarrassed when he reads this.
If you’re thinking that’s a lead-in to some dramatic story about an unsung hero, please reduce your expectations. Karl is an unsung hero, but not one bit dramatic. He’s a completely ordinary kind of guy, the sort who’s so steady and reliable you never quite notice how much depends on him. You probably know someone like Karl. You may be someone like Karl, and if you are, this column is for you.
Karl Quist is a big, jolly “Scandihoovian” with a booming voice and a high-school education and a missing thumb from a power-saw accident. He is a quietly religious man. He doesn’t push his faith on anyone, but if you ask, he’ll tell you in a simple, straightforward way how The Man Upstairs takes care of him and helps him through his trials.
For 23 years Karl was a custodian in the public schools of Mt. Prospect, Illinois. I attended one of those schools, and I remember him as a gentle, capable person in whose presence a child feels safe and cared for. At that time he was married and raising a son. He retired in 1971 when his wife became very ill. She died a year later. In 1981 he moved to Harrison, Arkansas, where he lives now.
On the job or off, Karl is a fixer of broken things. His garage in Mt. Prospect had about 50 reconditioned electric motors ranged along shelves, salvaged from defunct appliances, ready to use wherever needed. He brought just the 6 or 7 best ones with him to Arkansas. In the Mt. Prospect schools he kept the copy machines in repair and the buildings warm and the snow shoveled. In his spare time he built a loom and a motor-driven pottery wheel for the craft classes. In his workshop in Arkansas Karl still fixes machines of all kinds, and now he has time to design ingenious bird feeders and to carve funny wooden dogs.
He did the best fixing job of his life about twelve years ago, when one of the schoolteachers brought him a painting she had made for her daughter and asked him to help frame it. I happen to be that daughter and the painting now hangs on my dining-room wall. Karl not only fixed the frame, he fixed my Mom’s loneliness too. They were married when he was 64 and she was 59, and they’re still living happily ever after.
Karl not only has an eye out for things to fix, he also has a mind that’s always figuring out how to make things better. Once it occurred to him that a large drill bit would go through wood straighter and easier if it were pointed at the end instead of flat. So he sharpened up the ends of his bits. It worked. Now he sees drill bits like that for sale in catalogs and realizes he might have gotten a patent. But he’s not the kind of guy who invents things in order to patent them.
Once Karl was working as a wood lathe operator at a company that made furniture legs. He got a bright idea about how to save one operation that slowed him down. He went home and fixed up a “little doohickey out of a coat hanger, a knob from a dresser, a piece of tin and a few bolts”. The next morning he fixed it onto his lathe. It doubled his output. Then his lathe disappeared. It had been shipped back to the factory with his gizmo on it, and from then on every new lathe arrived with a copy of his invention. He never got a bonus or a promotion.
There are lots more stories about Karl’s useful life, but you get the idea. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have for a neighbor or an employee. The kind who has both the big heart and the competence to help you out of any pickle. The kind who is never in the news, but who literally keeps the world working.
People like Karl don’t care about publicity or glory. But when our country puts out so much effort celebrating Olympic athletes and freedom statues, it seems to me we should say at least one quiet thank-you to the folks who keep the machines oiled, the floors clean, the nation productive, and the neighborhoods friendly. So this is a small public thank-you, a celebration of the Karl Quists of the world.
Karl doesn’t need much of a celebration to be happy. Last December he invited some friends, all senior citizens, to help him observe his 76th birthday at the kid’s Party Caboose attached to the McDonald’s in downtown Harrison. They wore silly hats and signed their names on a school tablet with crayons (“please write on the line”, the instructions said). They gave him toys for presents and played games and had breakfast followed by cake and ice cream. The guests are still talking about it. McDonald’s probably is too.
Karl, in his plain, steady way, just thinks it was a fine birthday. May The Man Upstairs grant many more, Karl, to you and your kind.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987