by David LaBelle
About a year ago, I met Dave Agard in a writing circle, made up mostly of military veterans.
From the first meeting, I enjoyed Dave’s thoughtful and often humorous way with words and his tender heart, a heart he guards with a sober outer shell.
A few months ago Dave shared a story he’d written about a man named Mike, one of his employees with a prison record and Chron’s disease. (Dave is co-owner and general manager of Progress Wire Products Company in Cleveland, Ohio.) His story moved me, as I am sure it did others in the “Circle.”
I asked Dave if I could share what he had written, then asked if he would connect me with Mike. (Dave’s story is at the end of this post.)
Mike Rochelle, 40, spent three years in prison for being an accessory to murder. He was hired by Dave Argard a year and a half later, and has worked for Dave just shy of 9 years. He talked openly about past mistakes, what it means to have someone believe in him and the gift of a second chance.
“Dave is probably the most reasonable man I have ever met, as far as a boss is concerned,” Mike assures. “He understands I have health problems, fine. He doesn’t have a problem with me as long as I take care of myself. If I get sick, I let him know what is going on. I get sick every now and then and have to go to the hospital. Other bosses, if I get sick, I get laid off. I come here and do my best.”
“He tries to help everybody,” he added. “It bothers me that some of my co-workers try to take advantage of that.”
Fifteen years ago, at the age of 25, Mike married Shannon, also 40, after she proposed to him.
Life is not easy since both suffer from medical conditions – he has Chron’s and she is blind, able to see only shadows. Shannon says she has a disease called neurofibromatosis where tumors press against the optic nerve, causing blindness. In spite of the blindness, she is a picture of thanksgiving and contentment. Even after fifteen years of marriage the couple seems giddy in love.
Though thankful for his job, Mike is driven to become a leader and hopes someday to lead the group of welders.
He rises early and rides his bicycle two miles from his home through the morning darkness to start work by 7 a.m.
“I am trying to become somebody more important here… move up in levels, take on more responsibility.”
“Now I am here and Dave is glad I am here,” he assures, his eyes widening behind his safety glasses at his welding work station.
“That’s it, that’s what I am trying to achieve now. One step at time. I don’t want to be a pawn on a chess board, he offers, work gloves still on. I want to actually move up and do something with myself. Here. This is the only work I know. This is my career. I have been doing this for 20 years. I am trying to the best I can right here.”
“Nobody wants to come to work and be a pawn on a chessboard the rest of their life,” Mike repeats.
When I asked Dave, a Vietnam veteran, husband and father, if he could tell me in a sentence why he gives ex-convicts like Mike or those with troubled pasts a second chance, offering them jobs when others shy away from helping, he paused for a long, silent minute, then answered, “I can’t. It’s just the way I am.”
Later he summed it up when he said, “As a young man, I made many poor choices. I was fortunate that the consequences of my actions were never as severe as they could have been or should have been. I see this as a blessing and like to help people who made poor choices and received life changing consequences.
Following is the piece Dave shared with the writing Circle:
Just Say His Name
Our office manager, Jeanne, gave me an application and said the guy in the lobby was willing to wait for an interview. The handwriting was barely legible chicken scratch. This is common today as handwriting is not important. I took a quick review of the application. His name was Mike Rochelle. I said his name then chuckled to myself. I noticed he worked at one of our competitors so he did have some kind of experience working with steel wire. I also noticed he had not worked anywhere in the past three years. We needed people so I thought I’d talk with him. Jeanne brought Mike back to my office. He walked big with shoulders back, erect, and a spring in his step. Bigger than his 5’-11” 135 lb body which looked to be just a couple pounds heavier than an Auschwitz prisoner. He had jet black hair, narrow face with sharp pointy features, dark brown eyes with no distinguishable pupils, and prison tattoos on his arms.
My method of interviewing is simple and safe. I ask open-ended questions…Tell me about all the places you have worked. Why did you leave the last place you worked? Tell me about your education and skills. What’s your interests? For the most part, people like to talk about themselves if someone asks …if someone will listen. Some of the things they won’t talk about are discovered when we get the results of the pre- employment drug test.
Mike talked. I don’t know if you call it a stutter or he just repeated words but he had an excited voice. And, most sentences ended in ya’ know. Example: ‘I,I did have a job at Asset Wire so I, so I know how to use most of the, most of the equipment. Ya know’. He hasn’t had a job in the past three years because he was in the ‘joint’ as he called it. Here is why. When he was twenty-one, he shared the downstairs of a two family house with two other guys and a girl. Mike described her as a ‘great big fat girl’. The owner of the house lived upstairs. An old alcoholic that had cash. One of the guys and the fat girl went upstairs when the old man was passed out drunk. They put a pillow on his head and she sat on the pillow till he was gone… along with his money. They left him up there to be discovered by a family member a couple days later. The coroner ruled he died of natural causes. He was cremated then disseminated. Three years later the fat girl found Jesus. He told her to confess. She did and implicated all who were in the house. Mike was charged with murder II. His public defender talked him into a plea deal. Man II. He was young and scared so he took the deal. Swears he did not participate and claims he was only guilty of not telling the cops about what happened. I don’t know.
Mike talked about his interests. He always wanted to be a soldier. When he was eighteen he signed up but was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Maybe that is why he looks like he needed a sandwich. Claimed he was a roman soldier in another life. Who knows.
He went on to say he would be a loyal, hard worker if given a chance. I did hire Mike and he has lived up to his promise. Over the past nine years, I got to know Mike much better. He only knows his last foster mother and has no brothers, sisters or relatives he knows of. He got some broken ribs in a prison fight because he would not submit. The only person in his life is his wife Shannon who is blind. He lost his driver’s license years ago so he rides his bike three miles to and from work every day. Periodically, his Crohn’s acts up and he’s in the hospital. I think he enjoys the stay as he gets some attention.
His only interest, other than work, is the Roman Military and their battles. He is a walking text book. He tells me how many men were killed in each battle and the names of the generals. He especially likes to tell me how the Roman army developed the strategy to defeat the mighty Phalanx. How they used the flexibility of the gladius against the long spears. Sticking the groin area not protected by armor then the enemy would bleed out. He would demonstrate the ‘sticking’ motion as if he was there fighting in the battle. Maybe he was.
Walking through the shop yesterday, doing my morning rounds, I stopped to say good morning to Mike. “Morning Mike. How’s my small crustacean friend this morning?” He gives me a big toothless grin. He loves this term of endearment. Something special. One of the few things that is just for him. Now, say his name out loud with me…Mike Rochelle. As you go about your life keep an eye out for sea shells – crustaceans. You’ll see them on bathroom wall paper, in glass jars in children’s rooms, and on the beach. When you see one, think of Mike Rochelle. As now, we are the keepers of his story.