A Life Well-Lived: Erwin Ruppenthal (1958 – 2010)
There’s probably some unwritten rule that blogs are off-limits to memorials. If so, I’m happy to break it for our colleague Erwin (or Erv as he was known at home). He died early this week after a long struggle with brain cancer, at home, surrounded by his wife Heidi and sons Alex and Kurt. If we take a closer look at his life we can learn a lot about the value of work and about having a purpose in life greater than earning a paycheck.
Erwin taught me a number of lessons about work and I’ll tell you about some of them so that things he valued might live on in each of us, but first let me tell you a little about him. He came to NAG in early August 1990 to work in IT at our US office. What I’m told was that he was an earnest, hardworking German citizen in his early 30’s who most would describe as shy and self-effacing. It was nine years later that I encountered him on my first day as his boss.
He was a man of two countries and two cultures who embraced both. Following sports was a passion: American baseball, American football and European football featured prominently. In his office you could find emblems of the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs along with a Bayern Munich FC flag. I read in his obituary that he almost never missed a Naperville Central high school football game over many years. If you knew him, none of this loyalty and dedication would surprise you because he brought the same qualities to work every day,
I’ve worked with few people who could equal his dedication to his work, our mission as a company and the customers we serve. His loyalty to serving our customers showed in the countless problems he solved late at night and early in the morning from home while monitoring our helpdesk inbox or remote web site. He had no hesitation in coming to me if he felt we weren’t being fair to a customer or living up to our promises. He confirmed in me that our first principle had to be to do the right thing by a customer and trust that they would return the same for us.
He taught me some powerful management lessons though I doubt he ever spent a day in business school. Early on, I would see something we were doing that needed change, blindingly obvious (at least to me). Erwin would sit patiently as I explained, asking questions and listening. At first I thought he was just humoring his boss so I’d go back a week later and repeat the process and come away with the same impression. At some point later I would notice that a change had been made with no fanfare. Erwin would take my idea, however half-baked, improve it and implement it. Therein I learned the value of patience, trust and that overused cliché, empowerment. With Erwin, I mostly needed to plant a seed and get out of the way.
Erwin didn’t spend money frivolously in his personal life, as far as I could tell, but when he did advocate spending it at work, he pursued quality, durability and things which made for better customer service. We have (still) a truly ancient UNIX server that serves as an archive of customer data. Through two office moves and occasional disk failures Erwin kept it going reliably. His care for such things could be summed up by a short story of the first of those moves. The move was from one building to another in an office park in suburban Chicago separated by perhaps two football fields of lawn and street. It was late on a cold, moonlit Friday night in early January 2002. The movers had finished earlier in the evening and all of the staff had gone home. All that was left to do was to power down the servers, move them across the street and re-start them. They were already ancient and Erwin wasn’t about to trust them to the movers so he and I methodically shut everything down and loaded it all on a 4-wheel cart. A few minutes later we were pushing the cart gently down the middle of the deserted street when I jokingly wondered what would happen if a police car came by. He had prepared for everything but that. Even in the small things, he planned carefully and followed through. That server is still running.
I could tell you more but these things tell us the enduring values Erwin brought to work: loyalty to people and a purpose bigger than himself, patience, persistence and reliability. He was more than a co-worker for everyone he touched. He was a true colleague and a trusted friend. Erwin may be gone but his memory and his values live on in each of us.