The Parting Strip
Sunday, July 26, 2020
Posted by: Brian O'Leary
Coming out of business school, I started my publishing career in magazines. Time Inc., then the largest periodical publisher in the country, decided (for the first and only time) to recruit M.B.A. candidates to work in its production department. Having focused on operations while in business school, I was eager to apply and happy when I was hired.
My first day on the job, I learned I was going to work for Bob Hughes, operations manager for Time magazine. My role was "assistant operations manager" for Time International. I had no idea what I was doing, something that Bob knew long before I did. Fortunately, he loved teaching people how things worked.
On my third day, Bob walked into my office, threw current-issue copies of Time and Newsweek (then competitors) on my desk, and said "I want you to tell me how these magazines were put together. I'll be back in a half hour." He was gone before I could ask any questions.
I panicked in the way that new employees do, poring over the two magazines in parallel, making notes and hoping I was on the right track. After 30 minutes, Bob walked back in, plunked himself in front of me, asking "What do you know?" I made a valiant effort to describe how the two magazines had been put together, with Bob nodding as I spoke. I finished after maybe ten minutes and looked at Bob, who said. "Nice try, but wrong."
He then reached across my desk - he was the kind of guy who could reach across your desk - grabbed the copy of Time and pulled it apart at the staples. I gasped, as I'd never torn apart a magazine in my life. I'd been collecting copies of Time, Rolling Stone, and Readers Digest for years. He stopped for a second, broke out a huge grin, and said, "Relax. We'll make more."
Bob spent 30 minutes showing me how, even after a magazine is made, there are clues that show how it was printed and bound. Although he was looking backwards, his lessons were clear: "These are the decisions we make every week when we create a magazine." He finished and asked "Got it?" When I said yes (though I would have questions for many more months, just not at that moment), he popped up and walked out, probably to teach somebody else a different lesson.
Everyone who works in a company has a first boss, and the results range widely. I was already inclined to work in operations, but for me, Bob turned out to be the ideal person to work for. He wanted us to care as much as he did about the world around us, but he trusted us to make mistakes "above the waterline". If we knew what we were doing, we were expected to do it. If we didn't, we were expected to ask. No question was bad, although the same question many times might be.
Bob had served, I think as a Navy photographer, aboard the Intrepid, an aircraft carrier now parked on the west side of Manhattan. He'd also managed railroad operations before joining Newsweek and then Time. Sometimes his metaphors were nautical, sometimes they were railroads, and many were about the different ways magazines came together. But they were all specific, and most of them stuck with me.
My first summer in New York, he invited me to his house in New Rochelle, to meet his wife and daughter and spend a day outside of the summer heat in Manhattan. As someone who lived by and on the water, Bob was shocked to learn that I had never sailed, remedying that in a whirlwind expedition that afternoon off a dock on Long Island Sound. He could not abide the notion of a staff member without nautical experience, so he remedied it.
That same day, Bob walked me through the ways double-hung windows with sash weights worked. He was in the middle of replacing a broken sash cord, made of the kind of rope you might see on a clothesline (another story, if you haven't seen clotheslines). Bob was switching the cord to chain link, less likely to break, and along the way he taught me the components of a window, starting with the parting strip, a small piece of wood that keeps the two windows in their respective tracks.
In many ways, it was the same lesson he'd taught me that first week on the job: You can look at things and learn how they are put together, and that's a place to start. Knowing how things work was a good way to start thinking about ways to make them work better. When I wound up buying my own house years later, Bob was the first person I called for a refresher course on how to remove and replace a parting strip.
If you've had a chance to work with me in my time at BISG, you know that Bob Hughes' teaching is still influencing me, almost four decades later. Sadly, he passed just last week, at an early enough age that it makes us feel sad and a bit older, ourselves. I heard the news about Bob from former colleagues at Time Inc. They have their own stories to tell, I am sure.
Here, I've captured just a sample of the many stories I've told over the years, centered on the things I learned from Bob Hughes. He wasn't perfect, and he would not have claimed to be. But he had a big and ongoing influence on me, and I think on others, that I know will live on.
I imagine many who read this could tell a similar story about someone in their lives. Speaking as someone who did not look for Bob Hughes when I might have, I ask that you give some thought to finding your mentor, boss, colleague, or friend. Tell them how they have changed your life for the good. In these difficult times, those connections are our glue and sustenance.