What do you call someone who is happy on a Monday? Retired.
Or so the joke goes.
While sure to get a chuckle out of many, for Harry Lemme, the joke is simply not true.
“If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, do something else,” said the 72-year-old R.K. Black service technician, repeating words he heard the late Bob Black who founded the company say many years ago.
Harry, as a testament to Bob’s words of wisdom, will be celebrating 50 years with R.K. Black on May 25.
While repairing copiers, printers, fax machines and other office equipment was not a career to which he aspired as a young adult, it was the occupation for which he was geared growing up and early as an adult.
A Country Boy Sent Across the Pond
In 1963, a year out of high school, and armed with the knowledge and skills of a “shade-tree” mechanic, following the suggestion of a friend, Harry enlisted in the United States Army.
“I wanted to become a mechanic in the service, but (the U.S. Army) convinced me the things I would learn there was stuff I already knew,” he said. The army instead wanted him to learn teletype machine and radio repair.
After going through basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and teletype school in Ft. Gordon, Ga., his first foray into electronics, an area he knew little to nothing about, Harry found himself on a plane bound to Italy — a place that would be another new world to him.
Landing in Milan, he made his way from the airport to the train station. But before boarding the train to his post, he stopped at the men’s restroom. Stepping inside, he found a woman collecting change from the men as they left. They were paying her for keeping the facilities clean.
But the sight of a woman in the men’s restroom, “I wasn’t used to that,” said Harry, adding that apparently neither were the other American GIs with whom his was travelling, judging by how close they stood to the urinals.
The U.S. Army assigned Harry to a base in northeastern Italy, about 40 miles west of Venice, near Vicenza. At Camp Ederle, he worked with a unit tasked with intercepting communications in the Eastern Block countries as these were the days of the Cold War.
While Harry knew he was there to keep the teletypewriters and radio equipment in working order, the cultural differences and language barrier had him wondering why he was in Italy.
But that all ended when one day when he went to town with his roommate.
“I found out we could have fun,“ said Harry, recounting the food, people, weather and other facets of Italian life. Before long, life off base was so much fun, he and his friends decided to rent an apartment on the beach where they would relax in the summers, and during the winters, as they were only an hour from the mountains, they would hit the ski slopes.
“It was a very nice place and they were great people,” said Harry, recalling his time in Italy. But as all good things do, his time there came to an end. After three years and three months in Mediterranean paradise, he headed home and got out of the service.
Home to Oklahoma and to R.K. Black, Inc.
Returning to Oklahoma, Harry began seeking for a job. After one month looking for work and no success, he decided to go to a job-recruiting agency for help, a move that landed him a few interviews and later two offers. One came from Halliburton and the other from R.K. Black. He accepted the latter.
“I decided I would work for R.K. Black until I had money enough to return to Italy,” he said, explaining though that circumstances worked out that returning to Italy just wasn’t feasible. “It was a pipedream.”
Armed with his mechanical and electronics know-how, Harry joined the then six-man strong service team and began his training as a technician repairing 3M thermofaxes and photocopiers. A week or two later, R.K. Black moved from its Linwood Boulevard shop to a location on 39th and May which offered 1,500 sq. ft. of space — a big upgrade from the former building, according to Harry.
“We considered that a huge building,” he said, saying the old office could fit inside the new building’s warehouse — the old service department alone being a cozy 12 ft. x 12 ft. space.
Harry recalled a later time well into his career at R.K. Black, when Chris Black, then a teenager and now the owner and president of R.K. Black, played porter for his tool bag and assisted Harry who was back at work after a surgery.
“I can’t stand sitting around so I came back to work and he came and carried a tool kit for me for about a month,” he said. “We had machines back then that were getting bigger and I wasn’t allowed to theoretically lift anything over 25 pounds for six weeks. So he carried my tool kit, helped push and pull machines around, carry boxes.”
Chuckling, Harry talked about how in those days, the technicians were driving VW bugs as their service vehicles and Chris, then having just turned 16 already stood about 6 ft. 2 in. tall, would ride with him. “You should have seen him crawl out of the bug.”
“We’d go out on thermofax calls and things like that. He’d clean it up and fix them while I was doing that at another place — next door or something like that,” said Harry. “But he was pretty handy. He never backed up from work. But we rode around in that bug.”
A Champion in the Field
Harry continued his work as a service technician until March of 1979 when he became a service manager, a role held hold until 1983.
“I didn’t like the paperwork, keeping numbers and after four-and-a-half years and high blood pressure and putting on weight and doing 12 hours a day, I decided it was time to give it up.”
Following the wisdom of Bob Black, of only doing what one enjoys doing, Harry approached Chris, whom by then Bob had made second in command, and asked if he could pick up his tool bag again and return to the field.
“Chris was kind enough to let me do it,” said Harry. So Harry picked up the tool kit and went back into the field and has been there ever since.
“You try to take care of the client first, no matter what else,” else being costs and service statistics and such, Harry explained. “That is not as important as walking in that door and taking care of the client first and the rest of it you work out in the end. That’s my basic philosophy.”
Since then time, R.K. Black has undergone many changes and has grown a lot. No longer a 3M dealer, R.K. Black is a dealer for lots of other brands like Ricoh, Sharp, Kyocera and Canon and has increased its service offerings to include document shredding services, IT services, surveillance, phone systems and much more.
And now instead of being one of seven technicians, Harry is one of 17 in Oklahoma City.
Fifty years later, he has not returned to Italy as he had planned, but he has made a few trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean and Minnesota, awarded to the top one percent of service technicians in a 3M’s Grand Masters national competitions.
“I’m still at the same company, still doing basically the same job and enjoying getting up in the mornings and going to do that job,” said Harry, when asked about his former dreams of returning to the Italy.
“Of course there was marriage and two kids along the way, and you know, life kicked in, but as the kids grow up, your focus changes a lot as first of all, you’ve got to have money for food and stuff. Then for the kids to do all the things they want to do.”
Family, Softball and Taekwondo
What life denied him in his desire to return to Italy, it gave him through his children, two daughters now grown, his grandchildren and two great passions — softball and taekwondo.
Along the way as he and his wife raised their daughters and the oldest began playing softball, Harry became involved in the softball scene in Newcastle his roles increasing to now, 31 years later, he’s operating the Newcastle softball complex, maintaining the grounds, running the adult league, scheduling games and is president over the association.
“The kids all grew out of it. My daughter played adult ball and I coached her team and I did it for many years and but softball days are just about over with,” said Harry saying the interest in the game is waning.
Then eight years ago, Harry would drive to Norman watch his grandkids train in taekwondo and liked what he saw. One night during a belt ceremony when the boys got their new belts, their instructor, made an offer to the audience.
“’Anybody that wants to join tonight, a one-time deal. First month, $25, and we’ll throw in the uniform for you,’” Harry recounted the man saying. “My daughter came over to me and said “Hey dad! We’re gonna do this. So why don’t you come and do it with us?”
“I said ‘No.’ She said, ‘Well, come on! And I said ‘Okay.’”
“So here it is eight years later — a little over eight years — and I’m still doing it and nobody else is,” he said with a laugh, explaining how his daughter and two grandsons quit, though one continued his training with Harry until both had earned their black belts.
Since then Harry has competed in Las Vegas, north Texas and the world tournament in Little Rock (a trip this June to be his eighth) and still makes the 40-mile trek from Newcastle to Edmond every Monday and Wednesday. This month he’ll be competing in Texas.
“We’ll see how that goes. I am still old and slow, so maybe there will be some others that are old and slow,” he said. Last year only two in his age group competed. “This year I see a couple guys from Texas are eligible so there may be four of us.”
Asked if he has won any tournaments, he said he’s taken first, second and third in a couple, “but nothing spectacular. I am the state champ of Oklahoma simply because I am the only ‘over 60’ that competes in Oklahoma. Not that I am better than the other competitors, but I’ve been around longer. So it’s a challenge. But it also keeps me moving.”
No Desire to Retire
Why has he has stayed working at R.K. Black as a service technician? Harry answered, “I enjoy repairing things and the challenge of constantly doing it. I am challenged each day,” he said, saying the work keeps him learning and his mind sharp.
“Then there’s the people, I’m not a great people person, but I enjoy helping people and I think I do that by the job I do. That’s it. It’s like I feel like I’ve been married to R.K. black for 50 years. We’ve had our rough places and we’ve had our high places but it’s always been good over all.”
Harry said when people ask him about retiring he tells them he has no desire.
“If I had something else I really wanted to do that would take up my time, I’d consider it. Either I am busy here, or I am busy at Tae Kwon Do or I am busy at the ball field.”
Why doesn’t he golf or fish? Well, as he said, he doesn’t enjoy doing them.
“I am not into playing golf, I tried that and found out how bad you can be and I don’t have the patience to fish. Now, some people can spend the whole day out fishing and really enjoy themselves. I can’t.
“You’ve got to be doing what you enjoy doing,” said Harry, saying he’s spent some weekends thinking about service calls coming up on Monday morning and preparing, finding out whether he needed to download a print driver or not, or looking up how to disassemble or reassemble a machine.
“I remember many years ago, I would wake up in the middle of the night with the answer to a hard problem I had run in to,” he said. “It all becomes a part of your life. And as Mr. Black always said, if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, try to find you something else that you’ll enjoy more. That’s important.”
About R.K. Black, Inc.
R.K. Black, Inc. is an Oklahoma City-based, family-owned leading provider of office technology solutions to small and medium-sized businesses in and around central Oklahoma. We specialize in everything business technology from copier, fax, printer and scanner technology to document management, onsite paper shredding services, VoIP phone systems and managed IT support to video surveillance solutions.
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