In this episode, I talk with Paul Ott. Paul shares his values of smiling at everyone he meets and telling a good joke to break the ice. Paul doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, is quick to lighten the mood, and never met a stranger. He cares deeply about community, bringing his neighbors to his home to enjoy, Jane, his wife of 37 years, fine home-cooked meals, or stopping at their elderly neighbor’s homes to bring in their mail, start a fire, or put away groceries. He even once saved one of their lives. His favorite daily conversations are with his post office mailman and package delivery men. Paul is someone we can all learn from about mastering everyday pleasantries.
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Having been raised in rural Missouri, Paul Ott is a product of small town values where neighbors knew one another and help was always readily available. Over the years, he retained what he was taught and learned. Common sense was a virtue and serves mightily, particularly in every day interactions and the workplace.
After graduate school from the University of Missouri, he began a dual career with the Department of Justice for 27 years, which led to work in 5 different states at various levels of responsibility, and with the U.S. Army for 37 years, both active and as a reservist.
His greatest accomplishments are to be happily married and to have raised two sons who are making a far greater contribution to their communities and work places than he could have dreamed possible.
If you’d like to give to Paul’s favorite charity, please give to the Wounded Warrior Project.
My blog post about Mastering Everyday Pleasantries.
“Imagine there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to used during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course? Each of us has such a bank, it’s name is time. Every morning, it credits you 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off at a lost, whatever of this you failed to invest to a good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no over draft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no drawing against “tomorrow”. You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and health. The clock is running. Make the most of today.” ― Marc Levy, If Only It Were True
JK: Welcome to the You Are A Philanthropist podcast. Today we’re talking with Paul. Paul is a father of two boys. He’s retired 37 years from the army, where he was a sergeant major. He was drafted in 1971 during the Vietnam era and was 17 years in the reserves. He had a long career with the Federal Bureau of Prison and went after that as a federal investigator. Recently, he’s been the field supervisor with the U.S. Census. He’s the type of person that I would say hasn’t met a stranger.
JK: Paul, thank you for joining us today.
PO: Thanks for having me.
JK: Paul, I’m really excited to have you as my guest. You’re someone I’ve been thinking about having on here because I’ve spent a lot of time with you, and you are the type of person who will chit-chat with anyone. Is that true about you?
PO: Well, probably as a fault, maybe you’re right, but I do enjoy talking to people. Everyone has a story, and sometimes you come across a gem that you’ll remember forever. So it’s always an adventure.
JK: That’s so nice of you to say. I have written an article on my blog called Mastering Everyday Pleasantries, and this is something that I think that we can all be doing every day. And as our last guest, Melissa Prendergast, said, we can wake up in the morning and decide to be a philanthropist. And for me, that means going about our everyday lives, whether or not we’re involved with a non-profit or not, and just deciding I’m going to be nice to the grocery clerk; I’m going to be nice to people I meet in my– people I meet throughout my day. Paul, is that something that you identify with?
PO: I believe so. I think it’s a lot easier to be pleasant to people than not. And particularly when you walk by someone totally ignoring them as if they’re a non-person, you never realize what they’re seeing on their side, which is really the world passing them by, and it really diminishes their worth. And they may have quite a bit of wealth. We never know. So it’s strangers often that stop and save people’s lives and help people out of jams and come up and give something to them that was totally unexpected. I just saw one of those things this morning where a neighborhood banded together, and they got this huge gift for the UPS guy because all through the snow and everything else, he made it to everybody’s house every day with their packages and always without thanks because they come, they go, and you never see him anyway. So there are a lot of people in the world that do a lot of good things, and you don’t have to be recognized for it because you’ve got your own view of how you made that– how it made you feel, so.
JK: Yeah. So when I think about strangers helping people, I think of how Mr. Rogers says that look for the helpers, and my children and I, when we pass fire trucks and policemen and they have their lights on, it’s very exciting. We do say a prayer for those workers to help people.
PO: Oh, well, I trust those prayers are answered.
JK: Yes. Yes. And I’m curious. Where did all this begin for you? How did you become the person who just chitchats with everybody?
PO: Well, I’m older. Back when I was young, neighbors talked to neighbors. Nobody in our town at least had air conditioners or you didn’t roll up your windows when you drove down the street, and in the evening, we didn’t have stoops to sit on, but there was a front porch and you would see neighbors going by and you would wave to them. And that was just the way that era was. We would walk out to the mailbox. We wouldn’t just drive up to it, flip down the window, grab the mail, and then go into a locked garage, so. And our parents send us out to play. They said, “Go find somebody. Get that energy out of the house.” So I think it was just an era of small-town Midwestern upbringing that you talked to the neighbors, because those are the people that’s going to help you out of a jam when you’re in it, even if you don’t know you’re in the jam, so.
JK: So where did you grow up?
PO: Mid-Missouri, 50 miles east of Kansas City. A couple years ago we had our 50th high school reunion, which was very interesting. But Jane and I took our son Redmand with us, and the first thing he said was he’s never seen so many cornfields in his life, because all the country roads are lined with cornfields, and that’s literally all you see from the air or anywhere else. But very rural. Everybody walked to school because our district didn’t have buses, and some of the kids would even drive tractors into school. And pickups in the parking lot were large in number and poor service. Always a rifle and a rack in the back window. But that was a different day and time, so. Small town growing up, you knew everyone, and if you did something bad, that story would get home before you did, so.
JK: Oh, I bet that was a good and a bad thing, huh?
PO: Well, it was a thing we all knew, and I have even heard your father say to my boys, “Hey, look, if I ever see you doing something that’s not right, your folks are going to know about it.” There are no secrets and you don’t hide anything. So pretty much, I think, our philosophy with those kind of things resemble your father’s, so.
JK: Thank you so much for saying that about my dad. He was in a former episode, John Fisher, and he talked about his career in public education, and Sherie [Schoch], who was also a previous guest, mentioned his influence on her volunteer work. So it really warms my heart that he was influential in your life as well and in your boy’s life.
PO: Oh, yes, yes, definitely so. And I frankly don’t know how your dad does it, but it’s certainly an admiration, because someone needs to step up and show guidance and interest, and the world could be a lot fuller place if a lot more people did it in their own way, so.
JK: Yeah. So that’s why I want to talk with you today, because I’ve heard many stories in the time that I’ve known you about how you help your neighbors in any way you can. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do for your neighbors?
PO: Well, I guess you just have to define neighbor, because neighbor is anyone outside of your house, and that’s my typical greeting here. We’ve lived up here about 16 years, and I think before we came, no one ever got together or anything, and we started having parties and open houses and stopping by yards and when people were outside, and now whenever we pass one another, it’s, “Hey, neighbor,” and that’s pretty much everyone’s greeting to one another.
JK: Oh, that’s wonderful.
PO: But in our neighborhood, there were a few people, a few older women who were living alone, and things just couldn’t get done. For a while they did, but after that– and so pitching in and giving a hand– doing whatever you can for someone who either is not able or– you find it much easier taking the mail in, helping with firewood, or mowing the grass. Just things around the house that are easy for someone like me to do, but could present a challenge to someone else.
JK: That’s wonderful. And one of our former guests, Jessica Brand, also mentioned that, similar to what you were saying, gathering around the dinner table creates a connection, and no matter how diverse of an opinion or mindsets people are, there’s something about gathering around food that really brings people together. Do you agree?
PO: Yes. Everyone’s got to eat and everyone seems to love to eat, so that would be a very common gathering spot. The only thing is my youngest, Redmond, would always say, “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full.” But talk, you know? So we did that a lot. Going to church on Sunday mornings. It was like a 35- or 40-minute ride down Long Tavern Road. And you’ve been on that road 10,000 times yourself. But all the way down to Milford and all the way back, it was conversation, and a lot of it was, “All right, what’s the capital of Idaho? What’s the state flower of Mississippi?” We would teach him pieces of information that we have, and all four of us would join in on that. And it’s amazing, the geography my boys know versus other people. I find it truly amazing. But we have really instilled in them that travel is an education unto itself.
JK: Oh, I love that. And you bring up such a good point about how raising your children in ways that help them understand more about the world is a really important way to add to our world also. Would you agree with that?
PO: Yes. I tell you what. Whatever you do, whatever investments you make into your children, it’s going to come back hundredfold, not necessarily to Jane and I, but to society. I think both our boys have integrated themselves within their communities. It was amazing that when our youngest graduated recently from this very rigorous law enforcement school, as we walked through the hallways in Quantico, Virginia, to literally every single person we passed knew and responds to Redmond, “Hey, Red, how are you doing this?” So I think they make themselves known in a very positive way, always with that smile.
JK: That’s wonderful.
PO: I read this thing a while back – and this might be an old story for a lot of people – but the interesting thing was when Bear Bryant passed on, and everyone knows he was the forever longest, best-ever coach of Alabama football, but when he passed on, he had a piece of paper in his pocket, and it was just a short story, and it said that every day of your life, you wake up and you look at your bank statement and you find that you’ve got $86,400 and you can do anything with this money that you want. You can take it and give it to friends. You can burn it. You can buy every luxury, every house that you ever wanted. You can do anything with it. There’s only two rules. At the end of the day, there’s no carryover and at any time, it could stop. And so next morning, you wake up, you look in your bank account, there’s a fresh $86,400. Now, if you were to calculate your time, when you wake up in the morning, you’ve got 24 hours to live. That’s 86,400 seconds. How you spend that time? Very, very valuable. You can give it away, you can kill it, you can spend it on strangers. You can spend it on loved ones. You can make calls, write letters, get educated. You can do anything with that time that you want, but you have no control when that time will stop. So based on that, you’ve really got to optimize your time and your energies to ways that are memorable both to yourself and those around you. So anyway, I always thought that was very, very fascinating. So it–
JK: I never heard that before. That’s a wonderful story. And honestly, that’s a story that’s going to stick with me. That’s such a wonderful imagery.
PO: Oh, thank you. I appreciated it myself. And people talk about, “Well, I’ve got a few hours to kill,” and I’m going, “Why would you kill time?” It’s such a gift. You’ve got to spend time. And that kind of goes back to my career with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Everyone had time, that’s for sure. And how I saw the inmates spend their time was very remarkable. Some made good use of it, and then others plotted and planned and schemed as to how they were eventually going to come right back to where they began. And that’s where I say everybody’s got a story. I enjoyed my career of that with the prison service. It was challenging every day and there were never a boring day. And if you talk and listen to everyone, everyone does have a story and they’ve got a perspective that I could’ve never dreamed of, but–
JK: So I wasn’t planning on going this direction, but I’m actually curious about what are some of the most memorable connections that you’ve had and stories and people that you’ve met in your time of just chatting with everybody.
PO: Oh, wow. One of them, and it’s one of– it goes back to being, I guess, a neighbor. Every day, every morning– now, I’m retired, so I’ve got to stay active. And in the winter, there’s not as much of do outside, so I take this walk, and it’s a loop around the neighborhood, which is four miles because it’s a very rural area. And, one day, it was freezing rain, and it was just kind of a nasty day. And I said, “Well, I don’t want to really walk, but I’ve got to do something,” so I decided just to walk down to the mailbox and check the mail. Well, I get down at the end of the lane, and I said, “Well, that’s two-tenths done. There’s only 3.8 miles left,” so I went ahead and walked around the block. And coming back along, I saw my neighbor, and I realized that her groceries were on the sidewalk. So she had gotten home. She had put her groceries out then realized she had to go back to the bank. So I went ahead, and she leaves her door open. So I put all the groceries away, and then I noticed she didn’t have any firewood, so I thought, “Well, good grief.”
PO: So I walked on home, I got my gator out, I went up, and I filled it up with firewood, and I was going to take it back down and start a fire because the house was getting cold. As I got down to the end of the lane, I looked up, and there was her car upside down. She had come too fast. Maybe the road was a little icy or something, I don’t know, but the car had done a 180- degree flip so that it was now facing back the way it had come, but upside down in a rain-swollen ditch. Rushing over, I realize that she is inside and the seat belt is restricting her breathing. So race back home, get a razor, come back down, cut the seat belt, stay with her after calling 911. And it was just one of those, this would have never happened had I decided not to walk and decided not to go up and take care of her groceries and do things like that. If she had remained where she was, I don’t think it’d been a pleasant ending. So–
JK: Oh, my gosh. Paul, I didn’t know that. Now you’re making me tear up. That’s amazing.
PO” Well, I think it’s the Navajo who say, “If you ever save someone’s life, you now own their souls.” [inaudible] “Your soul belongs to me. And I’m going to let you do anything with it you want because I’m not your momma.”
JK: Well, that’s one thing I know about you is you’ve got a great sense of humor. And I know that must — for people who aren’t used to just talking to strangers, that must really break the ice in many ways as well.
PO: I really think it helped your parents, years ago, get out of their little shell. They had never met anybody like me and stayed long enough to talk to them. But, fortunately, our children are, too. And you and your brother have integrated themselves so closely into our family that we literally do everything together, which is a very good thing. And even though we’ve moved quite some distance away, we have weekly contact. Lifelong friends.
JK: And now that you mention that you have grown up in Missouri and now live in Pennsylvania, I’m curious if there’s also a cultural difference you see between those two states.
PO: Well, I think so, because in-route we also lived in Texas and Kentucky and New Jersey. And Texas was unbelievable. Everyone is opened-armed all the time. You can’t meet somebody without a hug or getting invited to their church or getting a recipe. And that’s the way they were. We love Texas. Kentucky, pretty much the same way, people were just very gregarious and open with everything. New Jersey was different. People in New Jersey were more standoffish. And yet we probably met a couple that we became closer to than anyone else ever. And who would have thought we could travel all of our lives to many states and then end up in New Jersey and find two very, very, very special people, which we did? And so I think carrying something from everywhere you’ve been with you and sharing it with people, and it gets honed and sharpened and you were able to go ahead and take those experiences and integrate them into the new ones and everyone can benefit from it. So I think that it’s not being friendly and helpful. And your personality isn’t a matter of geography. It’s a matter of self. And if you can go anywhere with a smile, it becomes you, not where you are, so.
JK: A smile really opens the door, doesn’t it?
PO: Yeah, it’s easier to smile. Jane was saying about a friend of ours today that you never saw Mr. Ridley without a smile. It was permanently creased into his face. And that was the most memorable thing about him.
JK: Yes. I remember many, many times ago meeting Art Ridley, who just passed.
PO: Last night. But he was one of those special people, too. You always walked away from him thinking that you were the most important person in his life and he was only talking to you. And he could do that with people that he met and make them think that when he came into the room, he came there only to see you. So it’s a lesson to be learned. If you can assimilate something like that, you’re far better for it. And it’s amazing what other people can carry away from that.
JK: I know he was a Rotarian for many years and did a lot of philanthropic work with Rotary International as well.
PO: Yes. Yes. It seemed like he was always more interested in pushing for these ideas that the US Naval Academy somehow was better than the United States Military Academy at West Point. And so that was the annual Army-Navy game. It was always a focal point of conversation, which is good. Both teams were always winners. And 363 days of the year, they were allies, but one day they weren’t, so.
JK: So tell me about how your career in the military may be influenced any way you see life these days?
PO: Well, I was trained as a medic. And at the time, it became one of those jobs that you felt was probably the most important. And although I never served on the battlefield, they taught you first do no harm. And that’s a pretty good quote to live your life by, anyway. You don’t want to be tracked. But the military always taught that teamwork was where it was at, that you had your buddies back, your buddy had your back, and you worked together in concert with one another in order to attain the mission. And you came in contact with literally everyone. I was enlisted, and it was kind of a phenomena that most enlisted soldiers did not have college educations. And now it’s become the norm that most do, so it’s very interesting. But you meet so many people. And the funny thing is, once you meet them, you know you’re going to run into them again – somewhere, someplace, somehow – and you can always pick up right from where you left off. So the military [is for good?]. It was always an honor to serve because you were working for the greater good.
PO: And in our family, I found out my father had joined the army 11 months before Pearl Harbor, so it was very interesting that he never talked about his experiences. But here he was serving and then, of course, Pearl Harbor happened and, suddenly, for the next five years, he had no choice. You may have joined voluntarily, but nobody was allowed to leave after that, so. And today, I think people are far more encouraged to talk about their experiences because many things are now recognized that weren’t recognized before, the PTSD, and being cherished as one of those people working for the freedom of our country. The folks serving during the Vietnam era were not so appreciated, so.
JK: Paul, thank you for your service. And you bring up such a good point that reminds me of my very first guest, Tanya Gauthier, who is a traumatic brain injury survivor as well as a West Point graduate and who started a nonprofit called TBIncredible that exactly helps people who have had traumatic brain injury because she believes, as she says– Traumatic Brain Injury Incredible is how she got her name for TBIncredible.
PO: Wow. Yeah. And unfortunately, that’s one of those injuries that leaves no outward scars, and yet the damage has certainly been inflicted and is there. And that’s the worst part sometimes is that you look very normal from the outside, and yet there’s a lot of needs.
JK: And I think that’s such a good point about why it’s so important to just smile at everybody because you don’t know the battles people are going through.
PO: True. Walking a mile in their shoes is unbelievable. You have no idea what it takes for some people to put one foot in front of the other. And just because they seem able in many other ways, you have no idea of some of the obstacles that they must overcome just to get out of bed in the morning.
JK: Who are some of the people in your life, either figures you haven’t met or people in your personal life, that had a great impact on who you are?
PO: I’d have to say I was pretty much– I wasn’t raised by my uncle, but we spent every waking moment growing up working on his farm. He was an old bachelor farmer but probably the kindest person I’ve ever met. And we would get up on cold winter days, and there’d be snow on the ground. The wind is blowing. The sleet’s in your face. Everything’s frozen to the ground. The water troughs need to be cleared so the animals can drink. I’d say, “Uncle Herb, it’s so cold out here,” and he would always say, “No, it’s just a little less warm than I like it. What’s impossible for the next man just takes me a little longer.” And the glass was always half full. He was never one to complain, and he was always the one to find a way to get everything done. He had a very, very positive influence, work ethic that never stopped, and kindness and gentleness, one of those that is truly a good neighbor. No matter what was going on, he would drop it if a neighbor was in need. I guess the other person that really had a very big impact, I think, on my life – and I know she’s listening, but I’ll say it – it’s my wife. We’re talking about someone who is always positive and always sees the bright side and doesn’t gossip and has nothing negative to say. And it takes a while to pound some of those ideas into my head, but once you spend 37, 38 years being married, it finally starts to seep in. Being married to the right person always is a very, very positive influence, so.
JK: It’s so wonderful to hear. And so tell me just off the top of your head why do you think optimism is important in this idea of giving back to people.
PO: I guess there’s two ways of looking at things. Things are not always black and white. There are various shades of gray. And they always talk about how many muscles it takes in your face to frown versus smile, and that number is phenomenally different from one another. But it takes energy to hate. It takes energy to ignore somebody. It’s much harder to be the bad person than it is a good person, to always say hello to somebody, to make eye contact, even if it’s going to be the bum on the street that you don’t want to give money to because you don’t know what they’ll do with it, but it doesn’t stop you from saying hello to them. And they may not be happy that you’re not contributing to whatever fund they’re starting, but you can recognize them as a person. A while back, there was a TV show where they took a husband and a mother, and they dressed them up like bums. They were just really unrecognizable. And they had their two or three children go from one place to another, and they had to walk past them. And here they are, leaning on a grocery cart or sitting in the gutter, and the kids just totally blocked them out, did not respond to them in any way. And then, when the kids got to where they were going, they brought the couple in, and it was such an eye-opener. Here it is your own parents and you don’t recognize them because you chose not to. So I tell you again, it’s one of those things that like Jane would say, “Why can’t we all just get along?” It’ll be much easier.” But back to the original thought, I think it is just easier to be more gregarious and happy and look on the bright side, everything comes back to you. There is full circle, no matter what it is or how you do it.
JK: And it’s very rewarding, isn’t it? to put more good into the world than it is to take it out?
PO: I believe so. And if you do it often enough, you don’t even know you’re doing it, and it becomes a lifestyle. And that’s what you want to create is that persona that people see you as the helper, not the one taking and detracting from the good. It’s like the old pay it forward. And there’s thousands of stories about the way people do that and how it makes a person feel that you’ve contributed to them whether you’re in a line at Dunkin Donuts and you pay for the people behind you or you grab a cart and then someone comes in and you say, “Here, take this one and I can get another one.” You do it, you don’t think about it, it creates no drain of your strength or energy or anything else. And everyone’s got enough time during the day to get everything done. You don’t have to crowd your car into a lane or cut somebody off or anything like that. It’s one of those interesting things if you ever visit Hawaii in Honolulu, you cut somebody off and you look back and they give you the old, “Hang loose. It’s okay.” And nobody’s honking their horn, and you’re going, “Oh, I didn’t expect that.”
JK: And I’m curious. I know you did– and I think it was your wife to blame that you got involved with the US Census Bureau.
PO: Oh, yeah. I’ve been retired five or six, seven years. And I really didn’t know if I could still contribute to the workforce. And s we got this little card in the mail that says, “You too can work with the census.” So she sent it in, and pretty soon, I got a phone call and was hired. And I was a field supervisor with 17 enumerators. And I love these people, got to know every single one of them almost immediately. And it was amazing the walks of life that came forward, their abilities. And one was 86 years old. And this was the fourth census she had worked. So census happens every 10 years. So this woman, very small, petite woman, and yet on these hot days, here she is trucking house to house to house to get people to provide the census information. And you learn that, wow, you can contribute and still have quality and all. So that was enjoyable. I really did appreciate that, so.
JK: I’m curious what you would say to our listeners about how they can get started with everyday pleasantries?
PO: Well number one, you really got to know your neighbors. If there’s a house next door and you don’t see these people and you go down and you’re bringing back your trash cans from the curb if you get that kind of a service, walk back out. And pull your neighbors’ up, too. And don’t do it with the expectation of getting, “Thanks,” or anything else. If you see the UPS guy or the FedEx guy, come say, “Here, I’ve got a cold bottle of water. How are you doing today? How’s family and all?” I know both the FedEx and the UPS guy. And literally, they’re flying down the roads because they’ve got such schedules. And yet, during my walks, they’ll pull to a stop. And they’ll ask how I’m doing and, “How’s your wife today,” and things like that. They’re tremendously good people. Our mail carrier stops every day. And we have 10 minutes of just everything talk. But don’t be afraid to talk to folks. And when you come home, don’t just sit there and plop on the couch. There are still things you can do. There’s a lot to life out there. And boy, if you rest, you’ll rust.
JK: I haven’t heard that before like that.
PO: Yeah. Well, you got to keep moving, I’ll tell you what. It keeps you going. So there’s always a reason to do what you do. It doesn’t have to be an agenda. But if you do it just to keep yourself active or give yourself a reason to smile to yourself, you can do that. I like to share stories I’ve heard either the joke of the day or a new story I saw in the morning or something I read in the newspaper. And a lot of times, people find it very interesting. It’s bits of history and philosophies. There’s always something to say. Of course, you don’t want to talk during someone’s backswing, so.
JK: Well, Paul, it’s been great talking to you today. I really learned a whole lot. And I know it’s something that– I know it comes very natural to you. And I love how you said it’s a habit at this point. But I do think it– as you explained, it’s something very attainable and that you can just decide, “I’m going to smile for myself, for others. I’m going to chit-chat. I am going to bring in the mail for somebody.” I love that it’s so attainable.
PO: Yes. And like I said, if you do it enough, you don’t have to think beforehand. It’s not a plan. It’s a reflex. So you just do it out of- – because that’s what you do, so.
JK: Thank you, Paul. Thank you for being my guest today.
PO: Well, thanks for being a terrific host.
JK: Thank you, Paul
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