By Dale Hemmila
“Common sense is not so common.”
The 18th century French philosopher Voltaire may have been the first person credited with this quote, but if he had a 21st century disciple, it would surely be John Ratzenberger.
Ratzenberger, better known as the bar stool philosopher and know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin on the sitcom Cheers, recently spoke about common sense, or maybe the lack thereof these days, as well as the importance of encouraging young people to consider a career in the trades while speaking at Port Huron’s Town Hall lecture series at McMorran Place.
Ratzenberger’s message that there is a critical need for people who wish to pursue the trades as a career is one that many in the Blue Water Area are currently promoting, as well.
The Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County and the Community Foundation of St. Clair County earlier this year announced a new donor-advised fund that will support, through the creation of scholarships, the educational endeavors of students in the Blue Water Area who are interested in pursuing a skilled trade.
Both the EDA and the Community Foundation noted, in their joint announcement, that the region has a high demand for skilled workers and that the Kusch Family Fund intends to provide assistance to deserving students who wish to pursue such a career.
When not acting these days, Ratzenberger is working to bring back common sense and, in particular, trade curriculum in schools.
He attacks the lack of shop classes with, well, his own common sense and his sense of humor.
While best known for his role on Cheers, it hardly gets a mention in his presentation except for noting that his mailman costume now resides in the Smithsonian Institution.
“With Archie Bunker’s chair,” he said.
Instead of TV talk, he related the lack of common sense, problem solving and the disappearance of people with trade skills to his own childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut, what he called a “hard scrabble factory town,” comparing its shipyards and factories to those located around the Great Lakes and particularly Port Huron.
“I hear there’s a lake here,” he laughed.
In his childhood, “everybody had a skill,” mostly learned as part of growing up.
He noted that back then, kids fixed their bikes when they broke, built tree houses, soap box derby racers, and bird houses.
“We thought we were playing,” he said. “But as kids, left to our own devices, we were really problem solving.”
That, he claimed, is not the state of childhood these days.
He noted, “helicopter parents” do too much hovering over their children and childhood. That’s why he said kids go out to play wearing as much protective equipment as a hockey goaltender. And he laughs at participation trophies and more.
“Kindergarten graduation,” he said with a laugh. “That’s crazy. That’s really just for parents. All the kids want is a cookie and a nap.”
He explained that, in his opinion, children would do much better with less overbearing supervision and more opportunities to problem solve and learn on their own.
He cited the skills he learned in school, and outside of classes, helped him become a union carpenter and have served him well.
“By my mid-20s I could build a house and everything in it,” he said.
His carpentry skills helped build the stage at Woodstock in the 1960s, though he decries that generation becoming parents as part of the problem of eroding skill training.
He proudly pointed to his own children, who he taught to use tools, as an example of the importance of teaching children problem solving. He is particularly proud of his son, a plumber, who “can go anywhere in the world and work.”
And tools and common sense, according to Ratzenberger, go hand in hand.
“You gain common sense, when you work with your hands,” he said. “Common sense is what we learn when we work with tools.”
So in between acting gigs, he is trying to bring attention to an issue he noticed decades earlier.
“Thirty years ago, they took away shop classes and home ec classes away from schools,” he said. “That affects all of us.
“Someone has to build things and maintain them. If we don’t do that, we slip into becoming a third world country. The solution to this is to reinstate shop classes.”
He points out that the country now has a severe shortage of younger repair and maintenance tradespeople, citing the average age of people employed in those types of jobs as being 60 years old. It is something he sees the need to rectify.
To that end, Ratzenberger has set himself on a mission. Along with speaking engagements, guest magazine articles, and his own website beating the drum for more trades education, Ratzenberger was appointed last year to the Presidential Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion.
“In May, we presented our recommendations to the president,” he said. “And last week, it was announced that a billion dollars has been committed to reinstate shop classes in schools.”
Meanwhile, Ratzenberger continues to make the case for the need for skilled workers.
“The fate of western civilization begins with people who can measure steel to the thousandth of an inch, or put a bolt to a nut,” he explained.
“It doesn’t start with actors or sports celebrities. If they don’t show up some day, yeah we’d be sad, but what happens if the all the truck drivers didn’t show up.”
And with a laugh he stated: “If all the actors disappeared, so what? Imagine if you took away all the plumbing, what would you do during the Super Bowl?”
As for common sense and the use of tools, he made a finer point about politicians who run for office.
“Before anyone elected can take office,” he chuckled, “they should have to assemble a coffee table from IKEA.”
For more information about the Kusch Family Fund at the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, contact the foundation at 810-984-4731 or check out their website at www.stclairfoundation.org.
The next Port Huron Town Hall speaker is Caroline Goulding, a former resident of the Blue Water Area, who is now a world-renowned violinist. She will speak at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, December 10 at the McMorran Place Theatre. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the McMorran Box office at 810-985-6166. You can also visit the McMorran Place website at www.McMorran.com.
A special evening edition of the Port Huron Town Hall Lecture Series – which is separate from the traditional Monday morning series – will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, December 19, when journalist/author/philanthroper Mitch Albom will speak. Tickets are $40 and include a copy of Albom’s latest book, The Next Person You Meet in Heaven. Attendees will have an opportunity to have their book autographed that evening. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact the McMorran Box office at 810-985-6166. You can also visit the McMorran Place website at www.McMorran.com.