I would like to tell you about Ernie Imhoff and the lessons he offered with the life he lived. I’ll start with this one: You can be the boss and still be a friend.
A lot of people, maybe most, will disagree with that, and for good reason: Friendships complicate the boss/employee relationship with potential conflicts. It’s not for everyone — and, in the gig economy, who has time?
But, in a conventional workplace over the years, Ernie proved that it’s possible to balance the requirements of being a boss with the honor of being a trusted friend. Every workplace — assuming we again have workplaces after the pandemic — should have an Ernie, a wise mentor and empathetic listener, the boss who cares as much about the person you become as the employee you are.
Ernie Imhoff died the other day at age 84. I knew him for 45 years, back to my first day on the job as a reporter for the bygone Evening Sun. He was one of my editors for 20 years, until the company that owned the Sunpapers decided that Maryland no longer needed an afternoon paper. All through those years, and many thereafter, Ernie was a cheerleader for reporters and columnists who produced solid news stories and wrote with flair. But, more than that, he was a father figure to many, brotherly to some, and to all a mensch. He had a sixth sense for the pain in others. He was a good listener and would have made a wonderful therapist. He pulled a lot of people out of emotional free falls and drunken collapse, comforted many of us at times of trouble and grief.
Another Ernie lesson: If you’re not encouraging someone, you’re not doing your job as a human being.
In one of his lectures years ago, the late psychotherapist Robert Moore looked out at his audience and asked, “How many of you have admired a younger man in the last two weeks, and told him so? How many of you were admired by older men when you were young? … If you are a young man and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.”
Moore spoke to an audience of men at the time, but the same goes for women. Encouragement is a power we all have but too often hold back. We get busy. We get caught up in our work and dilemmas and doubts, and we forget to look around and pull up others who might be unsure of the choices they’ve made. Ernie understood that most of us don’t know how to ask for help; he had an instinct for knowing when someone needed a buck-up and a laugh, and he was good at that.
I think the way Ernie supported and motivated others — to write well or to climb mountains — might have been his greatest gift. I was one of scores of people who received his encouraging words, and we constitute a grateful diaspora of Ernie fans.
Another Ernie lesson: Enthusiasm in all things.
For many years, Ernie had a boyish look about him — and the boyish enthusiasm to go with it. He loved newspapers, books and music, especially opera. He loved history and mysteries. He loved hiking and running. He loved the outdoors, from Druid Hill Park in Baltimore to the mountaintops of New England. Ernie became attached to the World War II Liberty ship, the S.S. John Brown, and so admired those who restored it and turned it into a museum that he wrote a book about their efforts.
I asked Peter Imhoff, one of his three children, what Ernie was like as a father. “Forever etched in my memory will be images of dad pursuing his passions,” he said. “Playing Scott Joplin on the piano while wearing a barbershop quartet hat, listening to a Verdi opera while air conducting, crossing the finish line of the Maryland Marathon by the old Memorial Stadium or eating a triumphant tin of sardines atop Old Rag Mountain. He also made sure we were right there with him on many of his adventures, making the passions contagious and encouraging our own.”
One day in early January 2020, before the pandemic, I drove Ernie to the John Brown at its berth in Canton. He wanted to visit one last time before the ship headed to another port for maintenance. By then, Ernie needed a walker to get around, but he somehow managed to climb the 30-plus steps to have a cup of coffee in the galley. It was enthusiasm that got him up there.
Last lesson: Keep thinking, keep creating, and keep in touch.
Even as his health issues mounted, Ernie stayed on top of things and kept writing letters to old friends and colleagues. During the pandemic, he wrote a poem about how we could best deal with the coronavirus: “Mask on the face/ Six feet of grace/ Hands in the soap/ Add water and hope.”
An editor in his bones, Ernie offered this suggestion about coverage of the pandemic: “I think the coronavirus media message is often, ‘What can you, the reader or listener, do for yourself in this pandemic?’ Rather, the better angle would be, ‘Here’s what you can do for others.’”
He thought we needed to encourage unity and sacrifice to beat the virus, and that was so Ernie, so Ernie to the end.