Wednesday, August 31, 2011

From Joanne Kaufman Teichman: My Father, Henry Kaufman, and the Saga of Kaufman Seeds, Ashdown, Arkansas

Today I am thinking about my Father, 'Daddy' to me. He was brilliant and complicated, forward and at times a real prude. Thankfully, he left it to my Mother to raise my sister and I.

As an only child growing up in Germany, Henry Kaufman learned in 1914 at the age of 8 that the Kaiser had declared war. 10 days later his father was called into the fight called WWI and never came back. My father went to a top German high school and learned more foreign languages than I can recall (just wish I had gotten more of his genetic material.) With Adolph Hitler's rise, he took a job in Italy in the cotton business, and 5 years later, just 6 hours before Mussolini ordered all German Jews in Italy be deported back to Germany, he and his mother boarded a ship headed to the US, on their way to Dallas where he would buy cotton for foreign interests. A series of contacts led him to settle in Ashdown, Arkansas where he first was a cotton buyer, but as cotton declined, went into the seed business and established Kaufman Seeds in 1943.

I remember growing up watching how hard Daddy worked and how happy he was to work so hard. I loved spending time at the office with "the girls", secretaries and bookkeepers (they did much more, believe me!) Virginia and Ruth, Doris and Dorothy and Rags, all the best people you could meet in your life. They were my cheerleaders and I, theirs! In high school I loved working part time (and getting paid for it), typing and mimeographing (that's today's laser printing!), and enjoying the scheduled coffee breaks which usually included my mother's tea cake. There was a hum in the office and continual ringing of the telephones where all the business was conducted. I later learned that every operator (remember those?) who connected a call was sent a dime by my father for a cup of coffee, and years later, a lady in Hope, Arkansas (Operator #8) said she still had all the dimes Mr. Kaufman had sent her.

The daily routine for our household was structured around Daddy, who came home for lunch (with the exception of weekly Wednesdays spent at the Rotary Club luncheon), followed up by a 20 minute nap before heading back to the office. Daddy was perpetually wound tight over business: the price of seed, a late truck, a bad shipment, just about anything would stress him and would cause a stomach ache (thank goodness for him, Mother was a registered nurse), but I never really saw him lose his temper until the time when he came home for lunch which was my favorite that day-- fried chicken. 10 minutes into lunch, he stood up, picked up the large platter of chicken and dramatically dropped it on the floor shattering it into the biggest mess. We were left to call his employees to find out what disaster had happened that day and if I recall, it was that one of his trucks had been in an accident.

Actually, we should have looked in his pocket. Daddy always carried a white handkerchief, even after Kleenex was in vogue, since he would always tie a knot at the corner if he needed to remember something or solve a problem. Would imagine that it was totally knotted up that day!

I can usually decide whether a person is an optimist or a pessimist, and that determination is failing me when it comes to Daddy. He was the eternal optimist when it came to life and business, but when anything started to go South, it was all "gloom and doom" and it was hard to get him back on track.

Kaufman Seeds had several warehouses and I especially loved visiting Warehouse #1 to see Lee Ollie Gulley and Son Walton. I adored Lee Ollie who was key to growing the business, and who once stood up in the midst of an all white audience honoring my parents to say that "Mr. Kaufman was the most honest and fair man he met and was color blind when he gave me the chance to work with him early on." (By early on, he meant 1944, having been my father's first employee and at a time when there was strict segregation). There was a warehouse conveyor belt to get the seed on the trucks and Daddy would put Laura and I on it and just as we got to the top screaming because we thought we would fall, he would turn it off and 'save' us. My memories of burlap sacks and seed and scales and lots of dust is really very wonderful; in college I requested a sack to make a costume for a fraternity Jungle Party. Not many benefits to having a Seed Man as your father, but this was one.

Daddy's ethics and honesty are legendary, and to an extreme could drive Mother over the edge, like the time he wanted to declare a $20 souvenir in customs. He was deeply involved in the community, serving on Ashdown's City Council for 19 years, the Rotary Club, the Bank Board, supporting the Library, and serving as President of the Arkansas Seed Dealer's Association. The last is implanted in my mind, as I attended a meeting with him once and was floored by the reverence shown by his business competitors and clients.

Mother tried for a lifetime to get Daddy to find a hobby and it was futile. Looking back at his boyhood in Germany where he had many friends and loved to sail, I guess landlocked Ashdown, Arkansas was not offering much potential in this area. He loved his family and we loved him, but business was his life and his life was business. The closest he came to a hobby was playing the piano and his accordion for us, and later for his grandchildren, and both were by ear, any tune you would want. Again, no genes passed on to me!

But when I could get him to myself, there was a flip side to Daddy, a lover of great restaurants and jazz music and above all, a lover of people, as he would pick up a conversation with just about anyone around him (Daddy was the flag bearer for 'Never met a stranger') and give them one of Kaufman Seeds' 28 year calendars which was his calling card (my personal one goes through 2020 and is handy in telling me that my anniversary in 2020 falls on a Monday). His visit to Northwestern University where I studied for my Masters degree was especially sweet. I had bid on a private reception and concert with Dave Brubeck, and another night we dined at a revolving restaurant atop the John Hancock building, where he pulled out a folded, well-worn $100 bill from his wallet and said that's what it was meant for, dinner with his daughter. Brubeck's 'Take Five' remains one of my favorite pieces of music and always makes me think of him.

One day in 1965, the mail was shocking! Not to me, but to Daddy who hid the Life magazine with the embryo on the cover from Laura & I. Such a prude he was, I was already in high school!

But at the same time, ahead of his time was my Father. He was very cosmopolitan for a small town, and friends used to drop by his office for stock market news (he was a consistent reader of the Wall Street Journal and London Economist). He installed the first air conditioned warehouse in the US for seed, and exported to Korea which kicked off the beginning of his international business which included Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. My vocabulary expanded to Hairy Vetch, Singletary Peas, Carpetgrass and Dallisgrass (no relationship to Dallas), Lespedeza, Tall Fescue and Pensacola Bahiagrass. Daddy even had international visitors from Brazil come and tour his warehouses. He was so well known in the seed world that the infamous story which I know to be true is that someone wrote him a letter and addressed it to: The Seed Man USA. No city, no state. And he got the letter. Pinky swear!

It was a blessing in the 70's that he hired John Hearn, whose family would remain close friends for life, to learn the business and become his right hand man. In 1990, with declining health, Daddy sold the business to John (as neither Laura nor I expressed an interest) and eventually moved to Dallas with Mother, though not before spending time in his office every day until he couldn't anymore. My father passed away in 1997, followed by my mother in 2006.

Over the years, the business has thrived under John's leadership.

Until now, when John, who has undergone successful treatment for cancer, can no longer run Kaufman Seeds.

Today is Kaufman Seeds last day after 68 years of business, and not only am I thinking of John Hearn & his family, and the Kaufman Seeds family, but I am thinking of my father, my hero. He came as an immigrant through Ellis Island, and established a business from nothing and provided for his family and from my point of view, inspired and encouraged me when I started my business career. All the while, his honesty and ethics permeated every act and aspect of his life. He loved us and he loved his work. And I loved making him proud with my forays into business.

If I could, I would pick up the phone to tell Mother the news. As for Daddy, I would not be able to make that call.