It took a little arm-twisting, but I’m finally posting a piece about–well–me, written by “Captain Ahab”, aka Rich Stevick. Not because it wasn’t good, because as regular readers of the Pinecraft Pauper know, a Captain Ahab piece is going to be good reading.
More on account of me being a bit bashful, I suppose. This blog is called “Amish America” and I try to keep the focus on the Amish bit. I should say that though Captain Ahab’s interrogation methods were persistent, the good Captain is no Pirate. I was under no threat to walk the plank at any point during the questioning which led to what you’ll find below.
To the contrary, questioning was enhanced by a fine dinner fed to me in the cozy Captain Ahab North residence late one evening on the tail end of a long journey to Amish Land, Pennsylvania. So if anything my answers were offered in good cheer and on a full belly (you catch more flies with honey, or is it ice cream-and-pineapple sundae?).
If you read the Pauper, you may have already seen this piece, which has just run in that esteemed publication. They’ve kindly allowed it to be reprinted here (Thank you Sherry–and Rich):
A Captain Ahab Personality Sketch of author, Erik Wesner
Among the many interviews that the Pinecraft Pauper published last year, readers met a variety of people: Ed Bender, 89 year-old auto mechanic; John Schmid, Christian musician and prison minister; Gary Blosser, founder of the Amish Mennonite Conference Line; Levi Troyer, restaurant owner; Barbara Zook, artist; Michael Fisher, 16 year-old nature writer, and other assorted characters. What these folks have in common are connections to Pinecraft or the Pinecraft Pauper.
Erik Wesner, the subject of this story, is an exception. Even at the ripe age of thirty-two, he has never crossed the street at the corner of Beneva and Bahia Vista, watched the shuffle skirmishes at Pinecraft Park, or eaten a piece of Yoder’s fresh strawberry pie. In fact, he usually passes the long winter months hunkered down in frigid Krakow, Poland, the land of his sturdy friendschaft. And although he is now a writer, he has yet to pen a single sentence for our paper. But Erik shares a trait that is common to many of our readers and writers: He has an insatiable, wide-ranging curiosity. And since he lets little grass grow—or snow blow—under his boots when he is around, it took a bit of tracking and an invitation to dinner to get him to sit down and talk a while.
When Erik first heard about this upstart Pauper paper, he was wintering in Poland, teaching English to Polish university students and writing his first book. As a writer, he wanted to know about the Pauper’s creation, birth, and growth. After reading a small piece that I had written about the birth of the paper, Erik got up to speed in record time. He learned about founding editor, Daniel Fisher, and Daniel’s vision to provide a creative outlet on a wide range of topics for writers and readers. Erik was especially intrigued because the paper combined three of his interests, among many, that had captured his attention—Amish life and culture, start-up businesses, and writing. Although he soon learned that Daniel’s ultimate goal was not to compete with USA Today, Erik was impressed with Daniel’s vision that had inspired this new creation for the people of Pinecraft.
Erik’s own interests and vision recently gave birth to his own creation, the widely reviewed book, Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive. His personal success story, however, began much earlier than his book’s appearance. While still a student in 1998, he took a job that many of us would probably assign close to the bottom of our occupational wish list—an itinerant book salesman for a company in Nashville, Tennessee. Erik had never pictured himself knocking on doors and ringing doorbells for a living, and at first, the prospect with its demanding reality seemed daunting and at times discouraging. “I soon learned that I had about one minute to establish my credibility and be allowed to continue, so I knew that I had to come across well.”
Since Erik had always been an apt learner, he quickly absorbed in those early days a lot about human nature and dealing with the natural resistance many of us feel when facing a stranger—and salesman–at our front doors. “Our company had very good training, and I was also determined to treat the customer like I would like to be treated.” These things served him well as he launched his selling career. With his innate knack for relating to people, business success came early, and each sale provided him a sense of accomplishment. His belief in his product also contributed to his achievement. Understandably, his supervisors were pleased to see both his success and his increasing sales.
For five summers, Erik drove the avenues, back roads, and lanes of the Midwest, selling a mix of children’s, school, and religious books. Because of his Golden Rule philosophy, Erik refused to pressure his prospects in order to close the sale. “My practice was to present my product the best I could and then leave the room to let the couple talk it over. I chose to give up the power and go with whatever they decided,” he recalls.
A turning point for Erik came when he happened into the Arthur, Illinois, area in search of new prospects. It was there that Erik “discovered” the Amish. Over the years he had sold a modest number of religious books for his company, but it dawned on him that Amish parents and readers might have a special interest in their line of books, such as their Family Bible Library. However, he wondered how plain folk would react to some stranger showing up on their front porches, trying to sell them something.
Soon afterward, he had a confirmation that his Golden-rule approach to potential customers appealed to plain people as well. After failing to “close the deal” with an Daviess County, Indiana, Amish father, Erik accepted the refusal as final. But as he was packing up to leave, the man remarked, “If you continue to use this kind of approach with our people, you will do well.” His words were prophetic. Erik’s sales, which had already been strong, took off with his new Amish clientele. He continued his “uff ta dich” approach, persevered in his hard work, and eventually became one of the most productive sales person in the company’s history, both nationally and internationally. He realized that he had a product that appealed to the Amish, and through his respectful and humble approach, he was just the person to fill this niche.
Besides finding a profitable clientele, Erik found a growing respect for the Amish as he observed first hand their lifestyle, character, and work ethic. Their priorities of God, family, and community captured his attention. He also realized his belief that most Amish farmed for a living was simply not true. Available productive farm land had long disappeared, and the growing Amish population required alternative ways to make their living. He observed small businesses and cottage industries springing up everywhere. And Erik was especially captivated by their successes.
He began studying the reasons for Amish business success. He was not surprised to learn that after five years, Amish start-up businesses were succeeding at a far higher rate than mainstream start-ups. Erik knew that, whatever the reason, he wanted to document the Amish micro-business landscape and determine the components that led to such achievements.
In 2006 Erik chose sixty Amish entrepreneurs, mostly from Holmes and Lancaster Counties, to interview about their histories, goals, operations, practices, challenges, and rewards. Last March, the fruit of his labors, Success Made Simple, landed in bookstores, prompting a multitude of requests for interviews, appearances, and book signings. Erik remembers with pleasure the evening in Berlin, Ohio, when nearly 100 local Amish showed up to meet this young upstart and hear what he had learned. After being grilled by five panelists, Erik knew that he had passed his “trial by fire.” Since then, he has been on a roll, as they say, with Kim Są Amisze?, (Who are the Amish?), the first book on the Amish to be written in Polish, already at the publishers. He is now working on a third book on other things he has learned in the five thousand Amish home visits (yes, you read correctly, 5,000) he has made over the years. In passing, I must say that I believe Erik has his finger on the everyday pulse and currents of Amish life better than anybody else I know.
So what does the future hold for Erik? As a Catholic Christian, he realizes, of course, that only the Lord knows for sure. When I asked him if the rumors were true about a “special friend” in Poland, he admitted as much but insisted he has no important news to announce. “Iza (short for Izabela) still has to finish her university studies, so we have nothing planned at this point.” Meanwhile, their relationship becomes long distance when Erik returns to the U.S. to pursue business interests and renew family ties in North Carolina. “I’ve loved Poland ever since my childhood visits to my grandparents. And I do my best writing when I go back to Poland. I wrote most of Success in little cafes in Krakow, Poland.” Who knows? Wearing an uszatka on a cold day may stimulate his brain while it keeps his head warm. Or maybe it is just being near Iza that inspires him to do his best work.
One thing is for sure. When Erik finally discovers Pinecraft, he will find out what else he has been missing. Perhaps he will do a book signing at Troyers. Maybe he will offer a “How to Write and Get Published” seminar sponsored by the Pinecraft Pauper. Perhaps he will winter or even honeymoon in sunny Florida instead of freezing in Poland. When I told Erik the Lancaster County Amish young men traditionally propose marriage when the strawberries are in bloom, he claimed that strawberries might bloom at different times in Poland. If he comes to Pinecraft, he most certainly will discover friends and acquaintances from his days on the road, first as Mr. Bookseller, and later as Mr. Bookwriter. And, knowing Erik, he will form new friendships while having breakfast at Troyers or pie at Yoders. Maybe he will even write an article or two for the Pauper. Whatever the case, we hope he will visit soon.
Rich Stevick, aka Captain Ahab