Mike Stoltz, my friend and co-worker, died of blood cancer yesterday.
Stoltzie was uniquely gifted. He was a natural mechanic, one of those guys who somehow always understood how all the pieces should fit together. Faced with a unique or unusual repair on a machine, he would walk around the machine, muttering,patting the machine with his hand, "discussing" with himself what it would take to figure out and fix the problem. We often joked in the shop that Stoltzie could walk up to a machine and "lay hands on it" and, like some sort of mechanical faith healer, immediately know what ailed the machine.
Beyond his rare talents as a mechanic, he had a work ethic second to none. He worked ungodly hours, averaging 10- to 12 hours a day through the "off" season and often tallying 16 or more hours per day during the busy season. To our knowledge, he never turned down a customer's request to fix a machine, no matter what day or what time. More than once he walked away from a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon to fix an ailing baler or a malfunctioning combine. He considered his customers friends, and vowed never to disappoint a friend in need.
Stoltzie was diagnosed with blood cancer in late 2008. He spent last year gamely enduring blood transfusion after blood transfusion, along with agonizing treatments. He often drifted through our shop, checking to see if we were taking care of "his guys" properly. They weren't customers; they were "his guys".
Before he became ill, Stoltzie and I often talked about the future. We both were working our fannies off, putting in as many hours as possible to make as much money as possible, saving for retirement. We agreed it was tough, but that the payoff after we reached retirement would be worth it. He was six years older than me, and our joking plan was that he would retire before me, buy a boat and figure out all the good fishing holes. Then when I retired, I'd buy my own fishing boat and he'd show me how to enjoy retirement.
Last summer on one of his visits, he cornered me. "Hey, Buddy," he said. (Everybody was "Buddy" to Stoltzie. It saved having to remember names.) "Remember how you and me always talked about working hard now, so we could slow down and enjoy life after we retired?" I nodded. "I'll tell you what," he said. "Don't wait. If you have to choose between fixing a combine on a Sunday afternoon and spending time with your family, apologize to the customer and spend time with your family. I'm kinda thinking now that there's more to life than working." He paused, then pointed at me. "And don't wait till you retire to buy that fishing boat."
I thought about Stoltzie a lot this evening, as I tinkered with the fishing boat I bought shortly after that conversation. Work is good, work is important, but there's more to life than work.