Life in the Box: Worth Doing
How many times have you heard, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” My first job out of college was as a commercial producer for the ABC affiliate in Peoria. Our saying was, “Good enough… isn’t.”
We pushed ourselves to make our projects polished and “a little bit better” than the other local stations. And, in order to do this, we were encouraged to under-report our overtime, despite the fact that our salaries were pathetically low. We weren’t doing it for the salary; we wanted to prove ourselves.
And, through our efforts, our television salespeople were able to drum up business, the station was able to report gains to the stockholders, and our clients were happy with the effectiveness of their advertising. We got samples for our “reels” and new jobs within two-to-three years.
Fast-forward twenty years. I was doing a story on the coffee shop in Iowa City described in the made-for-television movie, Bill. Background: Bill Sactor, a middle-aged mentally handicapped man was rescued from horrible conditions in a mental institution and put to work in a college classroom, making coffee for students and instructors at the University of Iowa’s School of Social Work. In the 1981 movie, he was played by Mickey Rooney. Bill died in 1983.
So, in the 1990s, my story was based on the release of a book by Bill Sactor’s mentor, Tom Walz. Walz had just released a book about Bill, called The Unlikely Celebrity, and there was a window of opportunity to meet filmmaker Barry Morrow and watch the film, Bill, as part of a little film festival.
Tom Walz is a character and a storyteller. He was head of the social work department, and somewhat controversial. He made a big impression on me, though. He said something I’d never heard before, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”
Put in his context, here are some low-functioning people who need a lot of things we all need. They need to have social connections, have a sense of purpose, and feel needed. He gave them a corner of a classroom and a Mr. Coffee machine. He trained them to make coffee and serve it to others. When it expanded, it did so out of Walz’s pocketbook.
It was by no means perfect. There were spills, disappointments, misunderstandings, fights with the University (and probably the Health Department.) It was not self-sufficient financially and always in need of volunteers. But, in talking with Tom and spending time in that coffee shop, I discovered that “good enough … is.”
So, here we are in “Life in the Box,” 2015. Television critique will be part of this column. Critique is an art of describing from a distance. I’ve been around the block a few times as a critic. As part of a team of producers, I was elbow-to-elbow with half-a-dozen passionate critics, every week for 16 years. And, over time, I’ve discovered that one person’s favorite show can be another’s example of failure. Television is personal in that way.
My approach will be to critique through story-telling. Life is too great to stuff everything into one little box. But there is a whole lot in that box that’s worth experiencing and knowing. I’ll be looking for more than just the polishing-up; I’ll be looking to see if it was, indeed, worth doing.
Nancy Heather Brown has had the unique experience of producing, writing, and editing nonfiction television as part of a broadcasting career that spans four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process. She’s harvested these jewels in the Midwest, namely Iowa and Illinois. A little slide show of her career, prepared for a reunion with Illinois State University television students, is available on YouTube, and some videos from her favorite series, “Living in Iowa,” are posted online at Iowa Public Television.