Monday, March 20, 2006


(This'n here I writ awhile back 'cuz I read this "how to get rich like me" book and thought I wanted to look the guy over who writ it. I mean Karl, not the ghost writer. He put some fancy words in that old billionaire's mouth, all right, but not enough so as you wouldn't think he's on the level. So I writ this here. Passed it around. Karl reads it and tells me, "come on up to my office." I reply, "I ain't got no car." Karl says, "well, I'll give you a call when I'm in town, then." So now we'll see if he's a straight shooter or just another "bald faced liar" like one of my neighbors says. Tucson is Karl's home town. People remember him.)

A song I was humming the other day:

There ain't no Great Socie-TEE, such as applies to you and ME,
When all that you can ever BE is just a lousy jani-TOR,
Unless your uncle owns a STORE, so watch the rats go
'cross the FLOOR, And sing a song about being POOR. Blow your harmonica, son. (Frank Zappa, "Trouble Every Day," 1968)

I was humming this song while cleaning toilets. It so happens I'm lately a "lousy jani-TOR" at a business college. The kids come dressed in suits for their business projects. They study how to make fortunes. I wish they'd be more careful where they throw their trash and how they poop -- but that's janitor talk. The college is named after Karl Eller, who bequeathed ten million dollars on the University of Arizona for it.

On my first day at the job, I noticed the halls of Eller Business College were festooned with banners bearing slogans by Karl Eller himself. The slogans turned out to be chapters from his new book, and there are boxes of them all over the place. Some of the professors have put copies on their office shelves.

I found INTEGRITY IS ALL YOU'VE GOT and Seven Other Lessons of the Entrepreneurial Life (copyright 2005, Karl Eller, McGraw-Hill publishing) in a staff lunchroom.

I've never read a "Be $ucce$$ful Like Me" book. Having fallen from high estate to janitor-hood (which isn't too bad, really), maybe I should. So, over a period of days, come lunchtime (one espresso, with my precarious budget), I read INTEGRITY IS ALL YOU'VE GOT.

Yup, I've tried entrepeneuring. Still want to. One can get awfully cynical about it, grumbling from the mud beneath the bottom rung of the ladder of Success. That said, it's still a darned good read.

Karl grew up next door to the University of Arizona, across from where the mammoth football stadium now stands. He was fatherless and his mom was poor, like a churchmouse. He struggled every step of the way, from selling dime Cokes to students all the way to getting his and beautiful wife Stevie's pic snapped with a beaming President George "Dubya" Bush, right at the top of that ladder.

In between those events, he took a decades-long financial bull ride, horns-first -- one that few rodeo cowboys might survive. Lots of grit, a little luck, and he turned a nothing billboard company into a multimedia gold mine. He was bucked off into failure, cheated by a dishonest self-professed "SOB." Then he rode a chain of convenience stores to the top in glory. Then he was disgraced by his own mistakes and accumulated a heart-stopping 100 million bucks of personal debt to boot. Then he jumped back on the bull again, going back to the business he knew and loved, to the tune of a billion bucks or so. Somewhere in there, he became a motion-picture magnate. Finally, he's tippy-toe on that top rung where only silver-spooners usually squat. A long way up for your basic American dreamer and a long way down.

The writing is very personable. It's warm and friendly, intelligent and candid. Not many pages in, he makes you sorta want to look into his favorite career, the billboard business, for yourself. I wound up really liking this guy, Karl Eller. I'd say "Hi." I'd like to shake his hand.

In comparison: a rebellious professor at Eller biz college posted a list of how-to-succeed rules by Bill Gates on his office door. I paused with my vacuum sweeper to read 'em. "Life is not fair -- get used to it," sez Bill.

As the story goes that Bill stole the ideas that made him wealthy from early business partners, this must be his way of dealing with Life's alleged unfairness: steal. Not so Karl. On the contrary, Karl advises straight shooting all the way, if you want to stay in business. I wouldn't care to meet Bill Gates, and neither would the mass of wags who've been posting bitter Bill Gates jokes on the internet for a decade now ("Gates declares he owns half of everything," goes one). He deserved that anti-trust suit, and probably more. But Karl? Howdy, neighbor. Siddown!

Karl Eller comes across as a great guy in a financial wilderness, and that's the point.

History alone judges who the great leaders are -- the ones who turn Life on edge with freedom movements and landmark discoveries -- but in between the great leaders, we have the great guys, the ones who backslap at barbecues and whisper words of hope to those who have none. They seldom know whether their words made a difference, but they try anyway. The great guys seldom even know why they succeed when they do, so they search for reasons like integrity and perseverance, as if such qualities mean a damn in a world where Bill Gates can make billions on stolen technology. Still, you have to give it to them because they try to pass along whatever worked for them. Usually, what worked for them is luck and the fact that they they believed in themselves enough to keep trying. They believe in the trying, and in the fun of the challenge. Karl Eller is that kind of great guy. His book is worth the read, if for no other reason than to see a great guy win, after all. (And are there dark questions to be asked, between the lines? Sure there are. But read and determine for yourself.)

This friendly book by a self-described "kindly old tycoon" is indeed inspiring, take it from a janitor! In fact, I've learned something from the chapter that says Creativity is Seeing What Others Don't.

Creativity is Seeing What Others Don't

Funny thing. I saw something Karl apparently didn't, just a few pages into his own book. Unfortunately, I can't do anything about it. But Karl can. I'd bet the holes in all my donuts it's a multi-big billboard winner. I can put it in seven little words, Mister. Drop by your college and I'll whisper 'em to you.

And don't forget to flush.

(Tom Dark is a freelance editor, music producer, and janitor.)