Greetings from Washington, D.C.
You may have noticed that I have been off the radars for several weeks. That is because, on January 12, my father, Arnie Smolen, passed away just twelve days shy of his 91st birthday. He was a highly respected member of the American contemporary furniture trade and, most important to me, a loving husband to my mother, father to my brothers and me, and grandfather to four.
Arnie (that’s what he insisted that we call him) was a man who made dreams come true — his own, but also those of my brothers and me.
During the closing days of World War II, when he was just 18 years old, Arnie got the opportunity to learn to fly with the Army Air Corps. But either my grandmother’s fear for his safety or my grandfather’s need for him to work in the family’s furniture store — or both — kept him grounded.
His dream of learning to fly, to become an airline pilot never happened. For many years to follow, while raising a young family, Arnie toiled in the furniture store, serving customers and dealing with their often maddening complaints. He hated his work which became meaningless.
But in 1972, Arnie made an important decision. He closed the store, auctioned off the inventory, and took to the road as a manufacturer’s rep for top contemporary furniture brands including Directional. Thus, Arnie’s dream came true for, at last, he could call his own shots doing meaningful work.
Arnie was one of the-most knowledgeable reps in the contemporary furniture trade — a rep’s rep. But what he did best was to take great care of his customers in the trade, furniture retailers. Among his offerings were the bespoke contemporary cabinets, breakfronts and dining room buffets manufactured by the late Paul Evans and sold by Directional. Evans’ pieces were hand-signed and numbered like fine pieces of art. Today, they sell at auction for tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars. Back in the 1970s, Arnie got a call that one Paul Evans piece that he sold arrived at a retail customer’s home badly damaged. And I remember going on the service call with Arnie who asked me to “grab your mother’s iron” before we headed out. So, we arrive at the repair call, and Arnie used my mother’s iron to apply new perfectly brush-finished metal pieces to this impressive piece of furniture. Completing the repair, Arnie said to me: “Someday you may call on customers and, if you do, make sure that you treat them like family.”
Forty-five years later, that experience in the retail customer’s home — seeing my father on his knees with my mother’s clothes iron making the repairs — still informs how I live and work.
Arnie closed the family’s furniture store to unshackle my brothers and me from the heavy burden of running an inherited business. It allowed one of my brothers to become a globally recognized expert in agribusiness and the other to protect the public health of hundreds of thousands of people. Arnie liberated me to do the work of my dreams: ad industry executive, then successful executive recruiter and entrepreneur, and now podcaster and thought-leader guiding workers away from meaninglessness to meaningful work — work that is profound, protects the planet, helps people and communities, and is fun to do.
Nothing prepares one for the death of a beloved family member, even when that family member lived nearly 91 years. But I do know that Arnie Smolen made the world a better place, and his gift to me — to live my dreams — will, I hope, allow me to successfully direct millions of other Americans to do the work of their dreams, too.
Godspeed, Arnie. We shall never see your like, again.
Our best days lie ahead.
DAN SMOLEN is executive producer and host of the podcast, The Tightrope with Dan Smolen. Listen and subscribe to us by keywording “The Tightrope with Dan Smolen” on Apple Podcasts. Also, please rate us and offer suggestions for future guests and topics.
Photo credit: Dan Smolen