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Over Coffee

Loving What You Do Makes Every Day Count
Oct 30, 2008 - 10:14:30 AM

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My conversation with Bob Johns started with a quick email in which he offered a suggestion to my “decaf dilemma.” In last week’s Over Coffee column I wrote that except for the first thing in the morning, I wanted to start drinking decaf but couldn’t find a blend I liked.
Penny Fletcher Photo Bob Johns and some of his music students relax during their recent visit to Luna & Dean Guitar Factory in Tampa. To his left are Kaden, Coralee and Phil and to his right with student Sudalie are Luna’s founders, Vanessa and Yvonne de Villers.

Bob’s suggestion came in a green and yellow bag. It’s called Pilon and it’s sold in most grocery stores for about the same price as the more widely-known brands.
I knew Bob 10 or 15 years ago in what now seems like another lifetime to both of us when we used to run into each other at chamber coffees and other “corporate” events. He was in banking and I was a full time 9-to-5er, so I was surprised (and pleased) that he remembered me and took the time to offer his help. Reading his mail, one line immediately jumped out at me. It was about how happy he was since he had changed careers.

From banker to teacher? I was surprised, so with my usual reporter’s curiosity about someone who makes a paradigm shift, I wrote him back asking questions, and before I knew it, we had agreed to meet.

Sitting in the Sun Point McDonald’s, Bob told me how – and why – he had done a 360-degree turn. I knew right away it would be something others would enjoy hearing about, especially with so many workplace changes, cutbacks and layoffs going around.

How different it was to listen to someone who took the initiative to passionately pursue something he loves- even though it meant taking a 50- percent pay cut.
“In this country people are defined by what they do,” Bob began. “Like ‘I’m a plumber’ or a welder, or whatever the case may be. That makes it very difficult, especially in today’s economy, to put on the brakes and examine yourself and come up with ideas about what else we could do for a living. But I was blessed with a wonderful wife. I’d see her working long hours and still bringing work home with her, yet she was always happy. She loves what she does and I realized I wanted that too.”

So Bob, who had started his working career at 8-years-old delivering The Observer News for six cents a paper and later, after college, had been in banking for more than 20 years, decided to take life by the horns and take a jump backwards- into his future.

“Music was my first love,” he said, explaining how he had trained in music during his high school and college years. “I started playing the trumpet in fourth grade right here at Ruskin Elementary School. I’ve always loved music. When I was rethinking my life, it dawned on me. My wife, (Pamela, who teaches at Apollo Beach Elementary School) was happy with what she was doing with her life. Her days had meaning. All at once I realized that was the most important thing and I wanted it too.”

Once he began teaching, things got even better. “I found I wasn’t just a music teacher, I was teaching life. The music is just an avenue to get kids thinking. After all, what is education supposed to be anyway? This is a profession where you can really change your world. In the corporate world, we always talked about that, but now I can really accomplish it.”

A huge investment, changing careers took his pay back to what he had been earning 10 years before. “Sure there were adjustments. But loving each day makes up for all of them,” he said.

He is glad he is at a Title 20 school. This means many of the children are from families that are disadvantaged in some way, so he works with many who are poor or from single-parent families.

“It is so important to give them a reason to want to come to school, whether it’s to play the guitar or paint. We must give them hope and our principal, Donna Marra, supports that,” he added. “So many people have helped us that never get in the newspapers. The Community Foundation of (Greater) Sun City Center helps us a lot. They donated enough to double the amount of drums in our drumming program, enabling us to turn a negative (banging on things like kids naturally do) into a positive.”

Other groups have also helped.

Little Kids Rock (from New Jersey, found at went to Tampa and donated 28 guitars to his program because they respected the fact that Bob went to a 20-hour training session on his own time.

“Then in September, we took the kids to Luna & Dean Guitar Factory in Tampa and David Cook, winner of this year’s American Idol competition, was playing while we were there. They (Luna) make the guitars for American Idol and ZZ Top. The kids were really into it and isn’t the whole idea really to get them to come to school ready to use their brain so we can teach them how to figure things out? Education should be tapping into their creative thinking. I’ve stood on a chair and played an electric guitar (in the classroom). How many students do you think were paying attention right then? You know, little people know right away if you’re for real or just punching a clock.”

Having raised three biological children, two stepchildren and now raising a 10-year-old granddaughter, I know that last statement is true.
These days people can’t take a “paycheck cut” lightly, with the cost of everything going up every day. Still, Bob’s philosophy of loving what you do being more important than gathering up material possessions you don’t have time to use makes good sense.

I enjoyed talking about finding a way to do what you love to do most, because I’ve been there myself and found that time is the most precious commodity there is. No amount of money can make up for getting up day after day without hope.
In the 1970s, raising my “first family,” I did a lot of jobs; managed a convenience store; did office work of all kinds; worked a manual switchboard; booked reservations and conventions and did the night audit for a major hotel; and drove a refrigerated box-truck (honest!); but all the while, I wrote, because I loved it.
Back then, a single head of household couldn’t raise a family on what I had been making as a reporter in New Jersey “back in the day.”

So I know first-hand you can be mopping a floor or stocking a cooler and still have hope; still do what you love part of the time, even if you do it for free. And then sometimes, like Bob said, an opportunity arises; you think it through and if you find it could be possible to work at what you love, you just close your eyes and take that leap without wondering if the landing will be smooth.

I’m glad Bob chose to mail me about my decaf. Our talk reminded me of what’s really important in life. But then, down deep inside, that’s something we all already know.

* Perhaps you have something you’d like to share. Or maybe you’d rather tell the community about your favorite charity or cause: or sound off about something you think needs change. That’s what “Over Coffee” is about. It really doesn’t matter whether we actually drink any coffee or not (although I probably will). It’s what you have to say that’s important. E-mail me any time and suggest a meeting place. No matter what’s going on, I’m usually available to share just one more cup.

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