Does anyone even remember the olden days when kids everywhere had newspaper routes? Many boomers will remember, and in the case of Rick D. Niece of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the memory lives on through a simple gift from one of his customers. Niece, the retired president of University of the Ozarks, tells the story in this excerpt from his new book, the final book in his three-part series, Side-Yard Superhero: Life Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher (Fanfare for a Hometown Series). It’s about the warmth of a new morning.
At age nine, I took over Billy Neal’s paper route and kept it until I began college. The last Saturday I collected the weekly payment from my customers was a difficult one. I was leaving for college the following Monday, and knew this was the time for me to say and hear difficult goodbyes.
I collected a number of wonderful gifts and a lot of advice that last day of my paper route. But of all the gifts I received, none equaled the heartfelt practicality of what Mrs. Harshbarger gave me. The Harshbargers lived atop Harshbarger Hill, the steepest incline in my small hometown. Six days a week, standing upright and pumping my legs hard, I pedaled up the hill to deliver their paper.
Mr. Harshbarger was sweeping off the front porch as I approached. After counting the coins he owed, he motioned toward the door and said Mrs. Harshbarger wanted to talk to me.
When I entered the house, Mrs. Harshbarger was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea in front of her. She greeted me with, “You are late today Rickie.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I apologized for courtesy.
She paused for a drink of tea. “I have a gift for you,” she said, then sipped again before continuing. “When Mr. Harshbarger and I were married, mother wanted to give me something. She told me that when she was a little girl, she disliked getting out of bed early in the morning. She didn’t like early morning because the first thing she felt was the cold floor on her bare feet. ‘Terrible way to start a day,’ mother always said. So her mother taught her how to make a rug from rags. Mother made herself a small rug out of rags and laid the rug on the floor beside her bed. Every morning, for the rest of her life, the rag rug was the first thing to touch her feet.”
Mrs. Harshbarger reached below the table and handed me a brown grocery sack she’d been cradling on her lap.
“Rickie, I’ve made you something. Wherever you go, wherever your life takes you, I want your feet to touch the warmth of a new morning, like my feet have for so many years. I’m giving you the start of a warm day.” I thanked her and kissed her warm, wrinkled cheek.
The first day on campus, I unpacked the rag rug Mrs. Harshbarger made for me. I laid it beside my bed on the sterile, linoleum-covered dormitory floor. Every day of my undergraduate life, that rug was my warmth of a new morning. I cherish the feeling as much today as I did those many years ago.