Tom Petty, 1950-2017

The Curmudgeon has long liked Tom Petty but admittedly was never a huge fan. He owns a few of his albums and plays them once or twice a year – including, of course, last week.

He writes about Petty today because of the minor role one of the rocker’s songs played in a brief episode in The Curmudgeon’s professional life more than 30 years ago.

In the mid-1980s The Curmudgeon worked as a grant writer for the Philadelphia chapter of one of the country’s most beloved charitable organizations that will remain nameless for reasons you’ll understand momentarily. In addition to writing corporate and foundation grant proposals The Curmudgeon was assigned the job of assembling applications for funding to submit to the United Way. Actually, because the Philadelphia chapter of this most beloved charitable organization also encompassed the four suburban Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia, it dealt with not one but seven different United Way organizations and they all were important: collectively they were the single biggest source of funding, by far, for this most beloved charitable organization. This responsibility consisted of two parts: completing and submitting forms that showed that the most beloved charitable organization used the United Way money for the purposes the United Way intended when it gave it that money and then writing presentations that volunteers – never staff – would make to the folks at United Way explaining the good work the most beloved charitable organization had done with their money.

The first part of that responsibility was simple: send the forms down to the accounting department to be completed. When the accounting department returned those forms, The Curmudgeon then sat down with the number two fellow in that department for him to explain what they showed. That’s when a problem arose: they were a farce – a complete fabrication. The manner in which the most beloved charitable organization presented its spending had nothing to do with how it actually spent its money and everything to do with presenting that spending in a manner that funneled as much of the most beloved charitable organization’s spending as possible into budget categories that reflected the primary interests of the seven United Way organizations. Those United Ways had no interest in some aspects of the most beloved charitable organization’s various areas of endeavor, so the name of the game was to make it look as if the most beloved charitable organization was spending its money how the United Ways wanted it spent so they would keep the tap of money flowing to the most beloved charitable organization.

The night The Curmudgeon learned this he started working on his resume. He didn’t have enough money to quit on principle, but three months later he was gone.

Before he left, he spoke to his superior about the numbers and fixing them. They didn’t start out to be dishonest, The Curmudgeon was told. No, they were done as faithfully as possible using primitive spreadsheet software (remember Lotus 1-2-3?), but as the activities of the most beloved charitable organization changed the spreadsheets weren’t updated and became less and less accurate – or more or more intentionally misleading – with every passing year. Also with every passing year, the people who led that organization also made a conscious decision not to do anything about it and to let the information they provided to the United Way – the United Way! – be even more inaccurate and more misleading than it already was. When The Curmudgeon was asked to write a recap with recommendations at the end of the United Way season he suggested – among other things – that the most beloved charitable organization make a better effort to improve the accuracy of its cost reporting in time for next year’s applications.

(Don’t worry. Tom Petty’s coming soon.)

The Curmudgeon’s memo earned him a two-page reprimand in his personnel file. One of the accusations: pointing out a problem but not proposing a solution. Apparently, pointing out that the numbers were false and suggesting developing true ones was not considered a solution.

During the two weeks between when The Curmudgeon gave his notice and when he left the job he wrote a five-page rebuttal memo to his two-page reprimand letter for inclusion in his personnel file. He still has a copy of it somewhere.

It was a humdinger.

On his last day on the job, just as he was heading out the door, he deposited in his desk two 45 RPM records (remember 45s?) for someone to find at some point in the future: Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and Tom Petty’s – you see, he TOLD you this would come back to Tom Petty – “I Won’t Back Down.”

Rest in peace, Tom. You gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure for a lot of years – including those former most beloved charitable organization co-workers who called The Curmudgeon during the six months or so after he left, as word leaked out of his parting gift (along with a parody of the most beloved charitable organization’s internal newsletter that he left on copying machines on three floors and that apparently “went viral” at a time all that term suggested was coughing and sneezing).

There are two morals to this story: first, like Tom Petty sang, don’t back down; and second, if there’s a hurricane or a flood or a tsunami and your heart tells you to reach into your pocket and try to help, please don’t send that money to the most beloved charitable organization that’s almost everyone’s first choice for such gifts.

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