At the malt and hamburger shop in the student union building of Baylor University is an employee named Jackie Birdwell. Well into his middle aged years (he guards his age carefully), Jackie has become a legend at this institution. Short and stocky, with closely cropped hair and a picket fence smile, Jackie’s work days for the past 35 years have followed the same routine. He rises from his one-room apartment at a local boarding house and walks a few blocks to “The Bear” where he quietly goes to work filling food orders for university students and faculty. Unassuming and down to business, Jackie takes pride in his reliability. The shop’s regulars call him by name, and in most cases, he responds in kind.
Jackie summarizes his life simply, “I’ve been here a real long time,” he says. “Sometimes things don’t go my way. Sometimes I have bad days and sometimes I have good days, but it’s just one of those things. I like my job, I’ve met a lot of people, and they come back to see me.”
Often Jackie’s work will be interrupted when he sees one of his favorites. He’ll stop what he’s doing, go around the counter to give the person a big hug, then with his hand on the person’s shoulder, he’ll say with great kindness, “I’ve been missing you.” Reared with his only brother at a children’s home in the 1950’s and 60’s, placed in special education classes through those years, Jackie will never be accused of being academically over-stimulated. Yet what he may lack in intellect, he more than makes up in spirit. His emotional pitch says, “When you’re in my presence, it’s safe. I’m safe.”
Through the years Jackie has been honored in many ways. Prominent student groups have given him memberships in their organizations. The football team has adopted him as their number one fan, and he has befriended many of the high profile young men. The Methodist Home where he was reared has honored him as an outstanding alumnus, the youngest ever so honored. The Texas Association for Retarded Citizens gave him the title of “Statewide Employee of the Year.” The school’s student congress cited him for distinguished service to the university. And to top it all off, he sings in the choir at the church where he has belonged for decades.
Jackie’s magical way with people has virtually nothing to do with articulate words or a polished manner. In fact, if he tried to speak eloquently, he’d be much less believable. Jackie touches people at an emotional level that leaves them feeling warm and accepted. With his simple, unpretentious nature he projects a calm, pleasant demeanor that causes people to come back for more.
I have often thought about what it is that causes me to be attracted to others. Some people exude goodness while others seem to be hard to reach or perhaps there is an unattractive element that keeps me at arm’s length. Regardless of position, I find that it is the simple things that make me want to either draw close or find distance. Think about your own attractions toward others. For instance, when you hear a public speaker, even if he or she has great information to absorb, you are assessing that person’s approachability. Would I like to have a casual lunch with this person? Is this someone who would listen if I had something intimate to share? Could I trust this person? We naturally seek out people based on the way we assume we would feel if we spent large periods of time with them, and the ingredients that appeal to us the most are the simple ones: kindness, a pleasant demeanor, humor, friendliness, patience.
Would you aspire to be a Jackie Birdwell? Most of us are surrounded by people who have a knack for making life more complicated than it really needs to be. Pushed by schedule demands, budget needs, service and family activities, a high percentage of people are burdened with a life that is more stressful than necessary. Needed in the midst of all this busyness is the ability to slow down, just like Jackie, to pat someone on the back and say, “I’m glad to see you today.”
Surely you have entertained the hope that your life could mean something, that others were blessed because of your presence. When you master the art of simplicity in relationships, you can smile and know that you have succeeded.