Gather up, Kevin Perz told two of his workers. Time again to show some gratitude.
They knew this familiar ceremony and came smiling, joining their boss with his boyish enthusiasm in front of an oven in their Raytown warehouse. A big industrial oven.
You have to know just how important it is, and how hard it was to get in place, Perz said, to understand why they now — as they have done daily for seven years — raise their hands in salute to the mighty appliance.
“It’s our morning ritual,” he said.
Clearly, this 56-year-old company president has thanksgiving in his blood — exactly the kind of guy you’d expect when seeking out the source of what one of his former high school teachers said is becoming “a tidal wave of gratitude.”
Not that Perz had any such thing in mind. The husband and father of four was just tending to the family business at Dynamic Fastener, feeling blessed, and quietly reaching out over the past several years to thank teachers he remembered for catching him up during some of his critical high school years.
The tidal wave was Marilyn Mecham’s idea. The Facebook posts. The call out to media.
She was the third teacher Perz had looked up from his days at Parkway Central High School in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield in the late 1970s. She had been the hardest to find.
Perz wanted to send her a letter and a gift. After some persistent help at the school and some time working the phones, he placed a call in January to the former teacher to make sure he had the right address in Lincoln, Neb.
It took hardly a second to affirm. When he heard her voice on the line, Perz said, “Hello, Mrs. Mecham, ma’am.”
Instantly, Mecham was ripped back through time, she said. Back to her first school, her first job.
And she remembered that boy, Kevin, who loved her coed food class. That boy who, as Perz describes it, was awkward, gaining social confidence and finding his footing in Mecham’s comfortable classroom.
The “Mrs. Mecham, ma’am” he recited every time he addressed her was so over-the-top, Perz admits now.
“I was such an Eddie Haskell.”
Mecham didn’t wait for the letter to arrive to start sharing her joy. She was on Facebook “within minutes” after the phone call, marveling over this thanks delivered from her past.
“More people can do this,” Mecham said, recalling her swelling emotions. Think of people important to you. People who shaped you. Let them know.
“I’m going to do this,” she said. “Let’s create a tidal wave of gratitude.”
Perz’s letter arrived a few days later, thanking her all over again. And it came with a check for $10,000.
This is 1977, Perz’s senior year at Parkway Central, and it’s a bad day.
Perz’s woodshop project had just suffered a crippling flaw right at the end of the class — his nearly finished table horribly gashed in an accident with clamps.
But he’s left it behind and is freshly in his seat in his next hour’s class, calculus, and he is focusing — or trying to, anyway.
Because this is Mr. Putz’s class. He’s the first teacher who made Perz work hard at math — the first teacher he wanted to make proud. Perz is trying to look like a regular calm kid ready for another dose of high-end math.
Then Mr. Putz pauses and looks at him quizzically. He says, “Did you get in a fistfight?”
This is just a hint at the reasons that Perz, after several years of occasionally thinking about it, decided sometime in the 1990s to send his first letter and gift to a former teacher.
“That’s how in tune he was with his students,” Perz said.
When Perz looked him up, John Putz had switched from high school teaching and was a math professor at Alma College in Michigan. He was “Dr. Putz.”
Perz wanted to tell him how important it was that his teacher had geared him up for university work. Perz had taken the easy route through school, especially in math, which was a natural skill for him.
“Mr. Putz caught me just in time,” Perz said. “I bet I would not have gotten an engineering degree if he hadn’t gotten me.”
He thinks of his teacher when he walks through the warehouses — the Raytown one now just the original among seven Dynamic Fastener warehouses across the nation. His four children are also engineers, or soon will be when they finish their college careers.
This is where diligent work got him, and “Mr. Putz instilled that in me.”
Putz retired in December 2013 and still lives in Michigan. He remembered Kevin when his letter arrived.
Those years at Parkway with the top math students were a special time, he said. He even got his idea for his dissertation project from questions those students asked.
“I always tried to treat my students as fellow learners,” Putz said. And not just with math. Because Perz taught Putz how to play racquetball.
Putz was not just a math whiz but strong in computer science, so he had plenty of more lucrative career options at his disposal. But he always enjoyed teaching, and a run-in with a former student, or a letter like Perz’s, affirmed his life’s work.
The letter from Perz came in a package with a check and the latest Dynamic Fastener catalog displaying page after page of tools, machines, rivets, screws and other specialized hardware the company designs or purchases.
Here was a former student proud of his place in the world, telling Putz that his decision to be a teacher was profound.
“It was rewarding,” Putz said. “I’m really glad I chose it.”
Next on Perz’s list was Miss Fisher, his basic business class teacher in the ninth grade — an anxious time for a teen moving up from junior high.
He gained confidence in her class, Perz said. Felt respected in a grown-up way.
“She was the first teacher who did not treat me as a little kid,” he said. “She helped me become confident in who I could be.”
She wasn’t too hard to find. She is Almeda Phillips now, and she had spent all 21 of her teaching years at Parkway Central.
The letter Perz sent and a picture of his family hang in a frame in Phillips’ Florida home.
“Teachers don’t often see the impact they have on lives,” Phillips wrote to The Star in an email. “Hearing from Kevin about 30 years later was astonishing. Nothing has made me more proud than having Kevin say I made a difference in his life.”
She figures she has retold the story of his letter and gift “a thousand times” and is still amazed every time she tells it.
Perz was trying to reach Mecham at the same time, but that was taking longer.
Mecham did not stay at Parkway Central long but had returned with her husband to her native Nebraska, where she worked in a series of nonprofit service organizations.
She is now the executive director of Mentors, a nonprofit that supports many community- and education-oriented programs throughout the Midwest, including the urban school debate league organization Debate KC.
The number of Facebook posts and emails Mecham has received since that startling January day when she got the phone call probably exceed 500, she said.
Her online tale of her former student’s grace and generosity — which she then told to a local columnist at the Lincoln Journal Star — is resonating.
“The ripple effect is incredible,” she said.
She has connected with some of her past mentors and is still working on finding others.
She is hearing from people all the time “who tell me this has inspired them to find a teacher or someone who made an impact on their life.”
She is happy to continue the wave, but she knows where it started.
He’s the engineer carrying on his family business, the husband raising a family with his wife, with four children pursuing their own engineering careers, grateful for who and where he is.