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Mark Bennett Opinion

June 3, 2012

MARK BENNETT: City would be a unique place if everyone greeted others as Fred Poore did

Humans think they can figure out anything.

It’s funny. We analyze and academically research the skills of extraordinary people, who simply taught themselves.

One of America’s greatest musicians, flatpick guitarist Doc Watson, died last week at age 89. Blind since infancy, Watson learned to play on a mail-order guitar he bought through working at his dad’s North Carolina sawmill. Decades later, Watson has thousands — perhaps millions — of pupils worldwide, who practice hour upon hour, longing to replicate his clean, melodic style.

Music technicians and scholars can study Watson endlessly, but in a nutshell, his virtuosity was, in his own words, “just country pickin’.”

The secret to success? Open the heart and play. Again. And again. And again.

A few years ago, I was asked to participate in a “Networking and Etiquette Workshop” at Indiana State University, conducted by the school’s career center. That worthwhile project aimed to teach students skills needed in social settings, such as formal dining and public seminars and meetings. Frankly, though I was recruited as one of several community members serving as random adults the students might encounter in real-world settings, the etiquette instructions enlightened me, too. (I now know it’s better to leave soup in the bottom of the bowl, than to pick it up and drink the last of it.)

A portion of that workshop included how to “correctly shake hands” and “approach people you do not know.” Both abilities are valuable — important enough for the University of Alabama to conduct a study of handshakes and their impact.

Those researchers at ’Bama and the students at ISU should have met Fred Poore.

Like Doc Watson’s guitar playing, Fred Poore greeted people naturally. He did so daily, all around downtown Terre Haute, open-hearted. Again. And again. And again, until his death on May 21 after being injured in a fire at the Garfield Towers apartments, where he lived. Fred was 61 years old, but his spirit was youthful and genuine. As Tribune-Star reporter Lisa Trigg wrote last Sunday, folks who knew Fred described him as autistic, but he lived self-sufficiently, held a job at McDonald’s, rode the city buses, and walked at an energetic pace through downtown.

His trademark, though, was his handshake and an incredible knack for remembering names.

I first met Fred on a bone-chilling January morning more than three years ago. Every Saturday at 8 a.m. at Coffee Grounds, a group of 20 to 30 guys from various churches gather there for Christian fellowship, and a friend asked me to join in. Sitting in groups of four or five around the coffeehouse’s wooden tables, we’d been talking for about 45 minutes, when Fred ambled in the door. Without hesitation, he walked up to each table and shook the hand of every man, before eventually sitting down to listen to the discussion. The regulars got a personal greeting, along with the handshake — “Hi, Tim,” “Hi, Larry,” “Hi, Jim,” “Hi, Steve.” He knew almost every name.

I was instantly amazed. It took me months to memorize barely half of those guys’ names.

Newcomers that morning, such as myself, had to identify ourselves for Fred, but we still got that earnest handshake. The next time Fred crossed our paths, he remembered us.

Business etiquette instructors often say the best handshake is one that is forgotten — a firm grip, but not bone-crunching, quick and not lingering. Yet, I can honestly say I will never forget the image of Fred reaching out to shake my hand and saying, “Hi, Mark.” Why? Because his greetings were completely sincere. He had no agenda. He made everyone he met — everyone, from every walk of life — feel special by knowing their name and shaking their hand.

College workshops and business seminars could guide students and young executives to copy his routine, and they would indeed become more convincing in future opportunities to “network.” As they shake hands and identify themselves, they’ll learn to repeat the other person’s name — increasing the chances of locking it into their memory.

Fred, though, didn’t just memorize names. He remembered the person on the other end of his handshake.

Since his passing, several of Fred’s many friends have suggested that we all could learn a lesson from his good-hearted nature. “He was a reminder of pure, innocent love, every day,” Donetta West, a waitress at Cackleberries restaurant — one of Fred’s favorite places — said in Lisa’s story last Sunday.

Terre Haute should act on those suggestions. Downtown has developed plenty of fun events and activities, all year long, celebrating various forms of music, foods and traditions. Why not add a Fred Poore Day? It could serve as a 24-hour reminder of the importance, and rarity, of friendliness and sincerity, full of handshakes and hellos.

This town should not forget Fred. After all, he worked hard to remember all of us. Again. And again. And again.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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