Tom Kane was my father. He passed away from lung cancer on June 3 after a brief, but honestly beautiful, final few weeks. Even as we sat and talked for hours in the hospital, something he hadn’t been able to do for the last decade and a half, he was driven to explain to me what happened to R&K. I encouraged my Pop to talk instead about good times, like the two state high school basketball championships he played in. We talked about family memories, about fishing on the lakes of Michigan, about politics, about geometry, the ancient Greeks, the nature of God. But something was driving him to explain R&K, maybe to confess.
Pop was a proud graduate of Notre Dame, class of 1960, and a math whiz who earned a Master’s degree in economics just to prove to the Dean he could do it with straight A’s. He was patient, arrogant, friendly, generous, honorable, brilliant, defensive, strong, and inspiring. Very inspiring.
Pop was also an accidental entrepreneur. He started his career at Michigan Bell, but his aspirations and innovative style were a poor fit for that prosperous dinosaur. He found success as a consultant for Price Waterhouse, and really enjoyed advising companies, especially one in Marshall, Michigan that made glass backboards for the NBA and NCAA. It was such a neat company, Ronan & Kunzl. A glass company. Six months after his consulting report, the CEO shrugged his shoulders and said R&K had been a family firm, not his, and he’d implemented none of Pop’s ideas. He sighed, then asked Pop if he would be interested in taking over. Opportunity knocks!
The first memory I have of my father is when he cooked breakfast for me. Greasy pink eggs, toast and bacon. My folks divorced when I was two years old, so this was a breakfast at Grampa and Gramma Kane’s house in Lansing, where Pop was living. He had his food, his coffee, a newspaper in his hands, and a cigarette in his lips. All I had was the food and the comics. So I said, “Pop, I can’t wait to be big like you and have a real newspaper, coffee, and a cigarette.” I was probably five. He looked at me and chuckled, and said in his gruff baritone, “Why wait?” He tapped a cigarette from the pack he kept in his pocket, and lit it up for me. “Now don’t be a sissy and hold the smoke in your mouth. Breathe it in deep, all way into your lungs. Got it?” Big smile on my face. I nodded, held it just so, and breathed in deep. Next thing I knew, I had fallen onto the floor and was hacking. I had tears in my eyes when I stared up at him. “Want some coffee?” Pop asked, and laughed. So that’s why I don’t drink coffee.
Within a year of becoming R&K’s president, Pop had met and married a belle in Marshall (and I got a long-coveted brother in the deal). By no means did I grow up wealthy, especially since I lived in my Mom and (step) Dad’s humble home in Columbus. But I enjoyed a confidence from the way Pop talked to us. He planned to hand the reins of R&K to Troy and I someday, and so he asked for our advice on business decisions when everyone else was asking us our favorite color or animal. Not to mention, having a multi- million dollar company as symbolic wind in your sails is a pretty cool feeling.
Under his leadership, R&K became a leading supplier of glass basketball backboards. The company also made swinging and sliding glass doors, and innovated some of the earliest designs that incorporated motion sensors instead of step-mats. I asked when I was ten if a doorbell button could be hooked up to trigger a sliding door, and that next week Pop and a few company engineers showed me a working “Tim-o-matic” door. Not realizing they were humoring me, I was irked that I hadn’t been paid any royalties by the end of summer. Another time, Pop brought home a basketball from an industry conference with signatures from most of the Boston Celtic champions from the 1960s, including John Havlicek. I remember this because one hot summer day, our regular ball deflated, so Troy and I grabbed the Celtics ball from the fireplace mantel to finish our game. I’m pretty sure I won. Pop was astonished when he got home that evening to find all the signatures had worn off, but reacted with his characteristic calm, chuckling at what fools his boys were.
Like father, like son, I needed to cut my own way in the world. I joined the military instead of taking the easy road to the family business. He was very proud, and wrote a note I opened on the flight to Colorado Springs on July 1, 1986. That was the first day of basic cadet training at the Air Force Academy. The note read, “You are an Eagle, and whenever you get tired of flying, I will be your Rock.”
When I was stationed overseas in 1992, I was shocked to get a phone call from him: Ronan and Kunzl was failing. Talk about impotence. I was in Seoul, waiting to fight the North Koreans, and couldn’t do anything to help as the family nest egg fell apart, as the lives of three dozen families who worked at R&K were financially shattered.
I will never know all the details, or what obstacles the company faced, or which of Pop’s decisions were right or wrong. He wanted to explain, but I didn’t think he had to. He was a wonderful father. Troy told him last week that Pop is the best man he’s ever known. He didn’t owe us anything. In my book, he had 19 good years as an entrepreneur, and one bad year. That’s a pretty good shooting percentage.
Scholars of entrepreneurship often speak of America’s unique culture of failure-tolerance, something celebrated in the high tech communities of California where I once worked. We forget, though, that there is a human cost to failure, that despite the culture, many entrepreneurs cannot forgive themselves.
Pop didn’t die thinking that he was a failure, just that he’d failed, that he felt bad about it. He wanted us to learn. He said he was so lucky to be part of the greatest family, and to live in the greatest country the world has ever seen. My three sisters were with him when he passed. Marcella had been beside him constantly for over a week. I spoke to him on the phone that day and teased him that we’d already had a big emotional goodbye talk, so what was he waiting around for? He laughed. “Go Eagle,” he said in a whisper.
One day, I think it was in 1980, my father was in his backyard garden digging away, while Troy and I were passing a football nearby. He was upset about something at the company, but after a while asked us to come over for a lecture/pep talk. He said, "You boys are going to grow up and have people tell you can't do things. It's impossible. Well, don't listen to them. Anything is possible if you dream it." Only later did we appreciate the meaning of his words. But at that age, words like "anything" and "dream" are more potent than he realized. So he scooted us away and we ran up the hill to the side of the house (where the big tree is), and I said to Troy, "You know what this means, don't you?"
My brother shook his head vigorously, eyes wide. "It means we can fly!" he said.
"Exactly," I said. So we climbed the tree and jumped out and crashed into the grass. We kept trying for the next 20 minutes, but we never took off like Superman. By the time we went in for supper, bruised and dirty, we were ashamed that we just didn't have enough faith in our own dreams.
Looking back, I think I learned this from Pop: Flying high is heroic, but crashing isn’t a tragedy. We should save our tears for the people who never try to fly.
So here’s a toast to Pop.
And here’s a toast to all the failed entrepreneurs like him.