THE POWER OF “THANK YOU”


Richard DeBernadis founded El Tour de Tucson, a nationally known bicycle race, nearly 200 km around Tucson.  There are 3 shorter races, too, and a kids race.  Every November, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, El Tour takes place, rain or shine, often with wind.  One year it snowed.  And 5000 people showed up.  I was there one year with a starting temperature about 0 C., And 10,000 others were with me.

The Perimeter Bicycling Association of America (PBAA), which encourages riding around things, like cities or mountains, sponsors several events a year.  When I rode, I did all of them, including the Cochise County Classic, where I did the second longest ride (270 km) one year, in 8 hours and 20 minutes.  I was sixth.  Twenty of us rode.  It was an incredible experience.

The Tour of the Tucson Mountains is a late April event. One year, when I rode as Bike Patrol, Richard saw me before the race and asked if I could direct traffic at a “T” intersection, showing people where to park, to free him up.  Richard is a lot more important than I, so I directed traffic that year and the following year.  After my last bike accident, I gave up riding.  I left the cycling community.

But each year, for 2 hours one day in late April, I get up at 3:30 a.m., drive to Marana, and direct traffic.  As the cars come by, sooner or later Richard shows up, and for a brief second, his arm comes out the window, he shakes my hand, and says four words:  “Thank you so much.”

That action and those words are why I still volunteer, although now the race has been cancelled.  I directed traffic for eight years.  Richard thanked me every year, for two measly hours doing something anybody can do (although I was pretty good at it!)

For nearly a decade, I volunteered in the public schools.  I did so, because I strongly  believe in public education.  My parents were  both educators in public schools, and I believe strongly in Horace Mann’s six principles.

I stopped volunteering, primarily because I wasn’t busy enough, and I found, quite by accident, that I could have more influence if I became a substitute teacher.  Perhaps that is because when you charge for your services, it appears (I can’t prove it, but it sure does appear) that your services are more valuable.  I got thanked more as a well-off practicing physician than I did as a doctor on a Navy ship, one of those “government doctors,” who took care of 600 people, who got their care for free, often alone in a three quarters of a million square nautical miles of ocean.  And yes, those numbers are correct.

It was interesting.  The one teacher who really didn’t need me, for he was so good with students, always made it a point to thank me for coming and how helpful I was.  Others were different:  in one class, I volunteered during lunch, so the teacher could eat in the teacher’s lounge, have some privacy, and still offer tutoring.  She never once thanked me.  In another school, I got thanked once in a year by a teacher, for whom my presence on the day I came allowed him to do other things while I answered questions the students had.  Another teacher thanked me three times that year.  People are busy, but the busiest teacher was the one who thanked me each time I came.  I don’t think that is a coincidence.

I volunteered because I love teaching, and I am really good at math.  Indeed, I could offer areas where math is used outside the classroom, where many teachers could not. Being older, I had a little other wisdom to impart as well, about how to take tests, what to study, and what to ask.  Being thanked is one of those things in life that can’t be asked for, like love.  It has to be spontaneous, or it is meaningless.  Some people don’t particularly care whether or not they are thanked; I do.  I dress informally, and I am informal about what people call me.  But I am exceedingly formal when it comes to manners and grammar.

Thanking people, especially when they are thanked for specific actions, are very powerful.  Richard knew that.  I learned it when I was a child.  So did my only cousin, who married a Swiss ambassador and lived all over the world .  “Please and thank you go a long way in any language,” she once told me.

Indeed, specific comments at the right time are incredibly powerful.  I was one of three people to send a sympathy card to a prominent nurse, whose husband died in a flash flood in the Rincon Mountains in 1978.  I must have shown surprise on my face, because her next comment was that she thought that people were afraid of death.

When I send sympathy cards, I always try to add something specific about the person.  When David Goldblatt, the editor of A Wise Owl, on this blog and the best thing I ever wrote, thanks to him, died, I wrote his widow and told her how much David meant to me and the specifics of our relationship, things she did not know.  She later wrote me and said of all the people who wrote her, and David was one of the most well-known neurologists in the country, those words from me meant the most to her.

I have kept every thank you note a patient every wrote me, and some of them are now 40 years old.  I seldom look at them, but I am not about to throw them out.  They mean something, during those days when I am hammered by my detractors or wonder why I even bother.  In my case, one harsh criticism can ruin a day….or a week. But one really good thank you note can make my day.  It has to be from the heart, and it can’t be forced.  I’ve known people who overuse them.  But I’ve learned the power of the right words at the right time, and if I can learn this, so can others.

Richard DeBernardis knows that I came back because he thanked me.  I was sure to tell the PBAA how much his words meant to me.  I’m sure he knew they did, but my making sure he knew probably made his day.  He made mine.

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