Abandoning the calf path

Hi, fellow traveler. Can you spare a few minutes along the way to consider a poem written by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)? I think you’ll appreciate it.

The Calf Path

One day, through the primeval wood,
a calf walked home (as good calves should),
but made a trail all bent askew,
a crooked trail, as all calves do.

That trail was taken up next day
by a dog that passed that way.
And then a wise bellwether sheep
pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
and drew the flock behind him, too,
as good bellwethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
and dodged and turned, and bent about,
and uttered words of righteous wrath
because ‘twas such a crooked path.
But still they followed (do not laugh)
the first migrations of the calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout [disorderly retreat of defeated troops]
trailed that zigzag calf about.
And o’er his crooked journey went
the traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
by one calf near two centuries dead.

A moral lesson this might teach
(were I ordained and called to preach),
for men are prone to go it blind
along the calf paths of the mind.

They work away from sun to sun
to do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track
and out and in and forth and back.
And still their devious course pursue
to keep the path that others do.

But how the wise old wood gods laugh
Who saw that first primeval calf.

“Be bold”

Shortly after I changed careers from crisis intervention counseling to the newspaper biz, Editorial Director Joe Vanden Plas hired me as a columnist for a chain of six suburban Milwaukee papers. He soon expanded my role to staff writer and then departments editor, and we forged a great working collaboration.

Then, in an unusual twist of events, I was promoted by Marty Kane, the publisher, to work as his administrator (associate publisher) – and suddenly Joe and most of the rest of the staff reported to me. Luckily, by then we were all fast friends, and there was no mutiny, only pats on the back of encouragement.

A few months later, Marty presented The Calf Path to me as a parting gift when I officially took over his role. He was leaving to become a certified financial planner and wanted to give me the keys to his kingdom with a bit of final wisdom. The illustrated print was framed and wrapped in brown paper. “This is the best advice I can give you, kiddo,” he said, handing it over with a grin. “Basically, it says to be bold. It doesn’t matter how your competitor is doing or even what they are doing. Forge your own path and you’ll get where you’re supposed to be in the shortest distance.”

Within a week of Marty’s exodus from the newspapers, the newspaper group was sold, without warning, to another corporate entity. I learned about the sale while reading the morning edition of The Milwaukee Journal and actually choked on a swallow of coffee as the realization hit me that the futures of every person on my staff were suddenly (and publicly) up for grabs. That told me that I was no longer on a self-directed or even trustworthy path.

An executive recruiter called my office within the hour (headhunters read newspapers, too) and I was lucky – I fully appreciate and admit to being lucky. Within a week, I moved my family to the suburban Chicago marketplace to assume a management position with a group of 16 privately held newspapers, working for a family-owned enterprise.

With “be bold” still echoing in my head, I considered all options after landing on my feet. And, realizing that new managers are given the most rope and should make the most changes during the honeymoon phase, I almost immediately invited Joe Vanden Plas to come aboard as editorial director of the group. (Later, after I relocated again to move to Madison to publish IB, I again convinced Joe to join me. But that’s another story for another time.)

The moral of this story

Marty Kane left a well-worn path to pursue another career, and he has carved an admirable reputation for himself in another state, where his dream and vision led his family. That’s great, and kudos to him, but he became my mentor when his words “be bold” allowed me to also imagine a different path for myself in the midst of uncertainty.

And, of course, the print hangs in the hallway of IB, reminding me daily of that message – to keep my own counsel about our path and not be unduly influenced by pre-existing products or expectations.

Today, for whatever reason, I feel compelled to offer the poem to whoever most needs to borrow the message – you know who you are, even though I don’t. I only know you’re looking for a nod to set off down your own path, and I’m on the sidelines, head-bobbing up and down, wishing you safe passage.

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