Giving Our Children the Gift of Work

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In estate planning, we often talk about gifts and gifting, typically within the context of money, assets, and taxes. I’m a believer, however, that the most important gifts we can give our heirs are our values. Among these, the gift of work ranks as one of the most valuable.

I often share with my clients that I’m a second-generation estate planning attorney. My dad’s career path on the way to becoming an estate planning attorney, however, was unconventional, to say the least.

After graduating from law school and passing the bar exam, my dad went to work for a local firm in our hometown. It was much more common back then for an attorney to practice across multiple legal disciplines. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he wasn’t cut out to be a generalist. After only three years, he’d had enough of bankruptcy, divorce, and litigation.

So, he did the most logical thing one can imagine and opened up a hardware store! Phelps Building Materials was the hardware/building materials mega store before there was Home Depot. Dad not only made a go of it, but built this one-location enterprise into a profitable retail business.

Phelps Building Materials
Phelps Building Materials
For Dad, the store was an opportunity to teach his son the value of work at an early age. I was tasked with sorting the nuts, bolts, washers, and nails, sweeping, picking up the lumber yard, cleaning bathrooms, and, my favorite – emptying out the bottle cap catcher in the soda machines. I can still smell the sweet combination of the various soda flavors on the bottle caps.

During the summers, Dad would help me string a series of long extension cords from the store out to the corner of a busy intersection to sell sno-cones. I would plug in an old 1950s sno-cone machine, chop ice and sell sno-cones for $.25 each. I remember my best day was $15. That’s 60 sno-cones!

The store was a magical place for me. Both of my grandpa’s worked there. My cousins worked there. And I have fond memories of kind and loyal employees like Gladys and Tessie, who were amused by my energy and antics.

To this day, when I walk into an Ace, Lowe’s, or Home Depot, the smell takes me back 50 years. To me, it’s the smell of work.

Stephen Phelps at the piano
Stephen Phelps at the Piano

In the late ‘70s, Dad could see the writing on the wall as the large home improvement stores started popping up. He decided to liquidate the store and pursue his ultimate passion – music. Dad was an artist at heart. He was an accomplished and innovative pianist/organist, having performed in public and taught lessons from a young age.

He turned the building adjacent to the store into the Stephen E. Phelps Music Studio. He built out the studio to include an office, copy room and beautiful recital hall. He also added a small lesson room so that my sister and I could teach piano lessons after school. We charged $5 for a half-hour lesson. That’s $10 an hour in the ‘80s! Teaching piano gave me the ability to not only make good money during high school, but also provided supplemental income as I worked my way through college.

As fulfilling as the music studio was, it “never cleared a dime over expenses” (Dad’s exact words). After a 6-year run, Dad decided to close the studio. As the studio wound down, he returned to the practice of law and began taking on estate planning clients. Within a relatively short period of time, he was able to build an estate planning practice that supported the family.

Phelps Music Studio Open House
Phelps Music Studio Open House
Standage Allen & Phelps
Standage Allen & Phelps

As he did in every venture along the way, Dad provided opportunities for his children to work. Over the 30 years Dad practiced estate planning law, at least one of his ten children was working in his office. We answered phones, recorded deeds, typed up documents and handled other administrative tasks.

Whether it was sorting nuts and bolts, selling sno-cones, teaching piano, or typing letters, each of these activities was a priceless gift. Thank you, Dad, for the gift of work.

Picture of Kent Phelps

Kent Phelps

Attorney, CEO and cofounder of Trajan Estate

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