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April 6, 2020

In and Out of the Furnace (Testimony of John Beckett)

John D. Beckett • Biographies
This is chapter one from the book, Mastering Monday, by John Beckett, a business owner in Ohio who was featured on ABC News for operating his business on Christian principles. John is also author of Loving Monday.

I was born into business. My dad was a talented engineer who decided to begin a manufacturing company in the late 1930s, literally in the basement of our home in Ohio. The business and I were born at about the same time - so this was indeed a productive period in Dad's life!

Though I was only a youngster, I remember the company's earliest large challenge - survival! World War II had severely restricted the supply of components needed to build our product - oil burners for use in residential and commercial heating. To keep the company going, Dad shifted to a completely different line of business, insulating homes in our area.

I was just six years old, but Dad took me along to installations and let me "help" the insulating crews who worked out of our specially equipped trucks. I can still feel the itch from the glass rock wool we fed into a giant hopper to be pumped out into the walls and ceilings of homes being insulated. No thanks to my help, my father kept his small workforce intact and, after the war, resumed burner production.

Toward the end of high school I wrestled with the choice of where to attend college. I was convinced my decision would be closely linked with what would become my career. For some reason, I was torn between business and going into the ministry. My heart wanted to follow my dad into engineering. Acceptance to MIT, the nation's premier engineering school and my first choice for college, would have opened the door to pursue that dream. But part of me was drawn toward ministry - simply because it seemed somehow "more worthy." So I also applied to Kenyon College, a liberal arts school that included an Episcopal seminary. I hoped my decision would be settled through the acceptance process.

When the first letter of acceptance arrived from Kenyon, I was mildly pleased - but not overjoyed. But when acceptance came from MIT weeks later (what seemed like an eternity) I practically did cartwheels. If I hadn't grown up a proper Episcopalian, I probably would have. The nod from MIT (and my enthusiastic response to it) seemed clear evidence that I could indeed follow my heart into the sciences and engineering.

Later, toward the end of college, the struggle between marketplace and ministry resurfaced. Should I jump right into an engineering job, or take a stint as a military chaplain? I counseled with Dr. Ferris, the esteemed rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, who wisely advised against going into any direct form of ministry unless I knew beyond doubt I was called to do so. Days later, I received a job offer from an aerospace firm - a timely signpost toward my future vocation.

So began an uninterrupted career in business, yet one that ultimately did carry with it a dimension of "ministry." Though my "guidance" during those years was shaped mostly by circumstances, I now recognize that God was indeed steering my choices. Still, he had much more in store for me regarding my spiritual growth.

The first installment toward that growth came through a budding relationship with a very special young lady named Wendy Hunt. We met when I was partway through college. The setting? A small store in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada, where Wendy was working a summer job to earn money to attend the University of Toronto. Before long, I met her parents. Much to my surprise, I discovered that both Wendy and her family were people of strong faith - with spiritual depth that was new to me. They spoke of a personal relationship with Christ. How different, I thought, from what I'd experienced to that point.

Impressed as I was with the Hunt family, I found it a struggle to align their wholehearted faith with my more "rational" approach. So I waited, and watched. In reality, spiritual pursuits were not my highest priority. Wendy and I were married after she finished college, and together we settled into our idyllic little "Camelot" in northern Ohio. I began work with the Romec Division of Lear, Inc., where I helped design guidance systems for missiles and aircraft. Our first child was born a year later, and life, for the most part, was wonderful. Even so, I sensed a missing element. God still seemed distant, impersonal.

The End of Camelot

A year after Kirsten was born, my father approached me with an invitation that truly surprised me, because he had never even hinted at it before. He wanted me to join him in his small manufacturing business. If I said "yes" to his offer, it would mean leaving the cutting edge of aerospace for the low-tech world of heating homes. But the prospect of being able to work with my father really excited me and that won out in the end. So I wrapped up my engineering projects with Lear and joined Dad at the R.W. Beckett Corporation.

Working together with my father was better than I could have ever imagined - he the mentor, I the understudy. For the entire first year he openly shared his knowledge and expertise, and I fully expected to continue learning from him for the foreseeable future. But it was not to be.

On a chilly Saturday morning in February, 1965 I received a call from our local police department. Dad, age 67, had been found slumped over the steering wheel of his car, the victim of an apparent heart attack. From the reported location, I knew he must have been on his way into work. My first response was disbelief. Only hours before, he had seemed so healthy, engaged in his work, attentive to his family. We had so many dreams that were unfulfilled. Yet the crushing reality hit me full force - Dad was now gone. Absent my mentor and closest friend, and only in my mid-twenties, I suddenly felt the overwhelming weight of having to lead the company he had founded and nurtured through its first 27 years.

The Inferno

Dad's death was not the only tragedy that struck that year. Just a few months later, an emergency call came to my home in the middle of the night from our village fire department - announcing that the Beckett factory was on fire! I shook off what seemed a "bad dream" to realize it was anything but. The exact words from the caller are deeply etched in my memory:

"Flames are leaping 20 feet above the building - you'd better get out here!"

Reprinted with permission by Intervarsity Press and John Beckett. To purchase Mastering Monday, visit Faith and Work Resources.com by clicking the link to the right of this page.

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