My Favorite Boss Died

The spring semester of 1986 was a miserable one for me. I caught mono just before the Super Bowl and it dragged me down for the next four months.

After school finished in June, I had but a B average. I got C grades in Intermediate Algebra and English Literature.

I was weak and tired and looking for work.

It was hard to find and the search was humiliating.

After a few days, I got smart and went to the CA Employment Development Department. They sent me to a landscaping crew in Rocklin.

The work was brutal. The temperatures rose each day to close to 100 degrees. I was swinging a pick and a shovel all day and just wanted to die.

It only paid $4 an hour. I hated it! Most people quit but I’m a stubborn sort.

I’d go home each evening and eat dinner and collapse into bed.

The fourth day of work was different. We went to the home of a construction magnate — Doug Hanzlick.

Doug immediately picked up that I was from Australia. He had impeccable people skills. I felt like a million bucks just being around him.

Doug introduced me to his daughter Becky and we chatted way more than my bosses liked. I felt like a billion bucks just being around her.

Finally, I loved my job.

That day, my attitude to landscaping completely changed. Until then, I was bemoaning my fate. In Australia a year before, I had a contract cleaning a shopping center for about $15 an hour and I could take breaks whenever I wanted and read lots of books.

This new job didn’t pay nearly as well but I fell in love with it the very day I fell in love with the Hanzlick family.

I’m not very good at real life. I never became adept at landscaping. At times, I was truly horrific, such as when I took a crash course in pruning on a row of azaleas beside Doug’s home. I made countless other messes but had the good will of the family and I worked around their home until moving to Los Angeles in August 1988.

Those years working for the Hanzlicks were my final times in the sun of good health. In February of 1988, I was struck down with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which severely cut into my gardening hours and eventually ended my ability to work or study for six years (until 1994, when I made a partial recovery).

I’ve now spent a majority of my life sick. Some days, I like to reminisce about what it was like to lead a normal life. In these moments, I remember swinging a pick and a shovel in the Sacramento sun for twelve hours on end and feeling pride in my muscles and my masculinity. I loved slumming it in the construction world with the tough guys, but I only got to that place because I was embraced by the Hanzlick family for more than two years.

According to the family blog: “Doug Hanzlick was diagnosed with cancer on January 14th, 2011. He had been having severe back pain and was admitted to the hospital that evening. The cancer was rare and aggressive. He passed away in the early morning of February 3rd. His wife Sharon and his daughters were all with him during his final hours. He was comfortable and in a peaceful sleep. During his stay at the hospital, Doug impressed the nurses and the doctors with his impeccable manners, positive attitude and his kindness towards all who entered his room. This did not surprise his family as he lived every day like this. Always kind, always polite. He continues to inspire not only his family but his friends to listen a little longer, shake that hand a little firmer and hold on to that hug a little tighter.”

My boss on the landscaping crew once told me, “If you could learn to treat people like Doug does, you could have anything you wanted.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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