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Profiles In Badassery: Bernie Flowers

My apologies for getting this up late today, but I had to substitute teach and I forgot my laptop this morning when I left the apartment. That pretty much killed any productivity out of the day, especially when I had errands to run once I was finished. I couldn't let this PIB slip by though.

Last week we lost All-American Bernie Flowers at the age of 81. Not only was he one of the best players in our history, he always served as the perfect ambassador to Purdue football. he was at nearly every team reunion, always smiling and willing to meet with other players as well as new recruits. I never knew him personally, but reader Mike Gulbranson contacted me this week because he personally knew MR. Flowers and was greatly affected by the way that he represented Purdue University. What follows is the e-mail from Mike, as I will let him describe this diehard badass Boilermaker as one who knew him:

My time with Bernie Flowers was strange, hillarious, and inspiring. After spending the end of the '90's and the early 00's (97-01 Industrial Design and Advertising and PR) at Purdue, my Purdue career took an unexpected turn.... Purdue kindly asked me to leave and not come back for a while. So I had to make a living. I worked at Ace Hardware in Lafayette and West Lafayette a few years back. I was promoted to manager shortly after opening the doors on the new Lafayette store. I was charged with establishing a customer base and a profitable store. I was going to put my best foot forward. A few months later, I met a certifiably crazy person.

Sure, I've helped literally thousands of older folks find what they need, and sometimes teach them something "modern" along the way. Most times I've taken a lesson away from the transaction. However, the last time I tried upselling AA batteries, I learned something special. I tried selling this gentleman and his bride the "name-brand" batteries instead of the lower-priced "house-brand" batteries. Oh, was I in a world of hurt...

Apparently, I was not as good of a "salesman" as I thought. I almost thought I was going to have to fight an older guy. Mr. Flowers cut through my lines of "salesmanship" faster than anyone had ever in my 15 years of selling hardware. He came right at me with everything to sell ME on the lower priced batteries. He was intimidating. This is where you would insert the battle of "wits." So, in utter defeat, I was maybe a little "snippy" with him, this gentleman out of nowhere says " Hey, do you follow Purdue football?" I answered his the question, obviously, "Boiler Up!" So after a few moments of awquard silence, I purchased MY package of batteries, behind him and his bride. On the other side of the checkout aisle, he says "My name is Bernie Flowers, thanks for your help!" I shook his hand as well as his wife's. I of course thanked him and made sure they felt welcome. Afterwards, I thought, "Well, that was wierd."

I had no clue who Bernie Flowers was. And I didn't for a year or so after that. In the time following that initial transaction before I knew who he was, we had many visits. He would ALWAYS come into the store with a HUGE smile and the greatest personality ever. My employees would always "come alive" when he was around. They appreciated his smile, and ability to make them laugh. I was lucky that he would ask for me when I was working.

I got the feeling from him that he was not crazy like I first thought, but rather, experienced in life. He didn't care who you were or who you knew. He had a way of putting the blinders on against superficiality. Our conversations moved from "salesman-customer" to human. We would talk about a lot of things over our conversations. We only went into any sort of serious "depth" of conversation regarding family, life's unfortunate circumstances, how people should be treated, and how you never give up.

I had told him of my schooling situation what he told me gave me something that I won't ever forget. I told him, "Well, Purdue asked me to "not come back." He simply said, "Who's fault is that?" That was the first time someone ever put it that way. Yeah, I knew it was my fault, but no one had even come close to asking me that. I told him the answer, "Of course, It's my fault." But once I thought for a few seconds, while helping him find what he needed that day, I realized he was right. And without a hitch, he said to "Get back at it. You came here (to Lafayette) for a degree from across the river." Well, across the river meant West Lafayette and Purdue.

After a few years of putting my now wife through Purdue, I've finally been able to be back in school. Yeah, right now I'm finishing up two degrees at Ivy Tech, but this fall I will be back in West Lafayette. Every time I go to class I think of what a kick in the butt that was. When you least expect it, someone who you least expect, says something that changes your life. Whether or not he was an All-American football player, or a total stranger, or a guy who could see right through you, Bernie Flowers loved being a great person. He is someone who has "paid it forward" so many times in his life we all need to realize how we can do the same. We've all been blessed, and cursed. But we always need to remember the fact that how we treat people really affects everyone.

Bernie understood human respect, happiness, and joy.

-Mike Gulbranson