By Steve Feldman—I hate obituaries. I find them to be boring. Then again, they’re not designed to be riveting. They’re simply obligatory summations of one’s life from beginning to end. Less about the legacy they left. Is that how you would want to be memorialized?
I’m going to go out on a limb here: Steve Joss would not. For those of you who hadn’t heard, Steve, longtime owner of The Vertical Connection in Columbia, Md., passed away two weeks ago at the age of 72. He died of lung cancer—not kidney cancer. That’s because a 25-year- old named Jes Smothers had donated a kidney to Steve, which prolonged his life until earlier this month. More on that later.
Steve was a friend, and if I know him the way I think I do, he would want these words to be a tribute to who he was, how he lived his life, the impact he had on people and the example he set for us all. Let’s call it a life well lived.
First and foremost, his wife Kathy.
They had the storybook marriage—49 years, 11 months and a week. For those scoring at home, that’s three weeks shy of 50 years. Kathy was his best friend and he would always tell me how I needed to find my “Kathy.” His son, Adam, would say at his funeral how he couldn’t go more than an hour without communicating with her. Together they survived her breast cancer 20 years ago, and I know that only served to make their marriage stronger. In a world where divorce claims half of all marriages and another 25% would probably be better off pulling the plug, he showed the world what marriage was meant to be.
His kids, Adam and Lauren.
His relationship with them was a blueprint I would want to steal from him when I eventually had children—although I really didn’t steal it; he handed it to me on a silver platter. When I first met Steve in the late ’90s, I was fascinated by the fact his 20-something-year-old kids would choose to spend New Year’s Eve with their parents rather than their friends. He taught us all the definition of family. (By the way, my son and his girlfriend chose to spend last New Year’s Eve with me—funny how a Florida trip will do that. Steve would have been proud.)
Back then, I remember how he couldn’t stop talking about Lauren’s high- profile job at Eli Lilly. So proud how much they valued her. Adam, too. Even when the two of them started working side by side at The Vertical Connection and Adam, as a gen xer, would frustrate the hell out of him with his generation’s way of doing business. They would butt heads but, in the end, Steve would quietly admit to me how well Adam was running the business.
Talk to Adam and Lauren, and they will tell you that The Vertical Connection was his third child. Then they will admit the business was really his first child. I don’t know how many customers Steve had over the years, but if just one was dissatisfied it would have killed him. He taught this industry that good customer service is everything.
Steve had MS. Steve had back surgery. Steve had cancer. Steve was on dialysis three days a week until he got that kidney. Through it all, he never complained. Not once. In fact, Steve would never complain—unless the restaurant messed up his order or his food was cold. But only then. “I don’t mean to complain, but…” Steve taught us that complaining gets you nowhere and you may as well make lemonade out of lemons.
Perseverance in the face of adversity.
I mentioned that Steve had MS. You’ll never meet anyone who kicked that disease’s ass like Steve. When walking got too tough, he got a scooter. When stairs were too tough, he built an extension onto the house so the bedroom could be moved downstairs. He taught us how it’s never about the problem, it’s only about the solution.
I challenge anyone who ever asked Steve how he was doing to remember a time when his answer was anything but “great.” Business was always great. Kathy was always great. The kids were always great. The new restaurant he tried last night was great. He always felt great, especially after that kidney gave him a new lease on life.
Steve liked to offer advice—solicited or not. He always wanted to help. About 20 years ago, when I was with Floor Covering Weekly, Steve approached me about writing a column. He felt he could offer insight to his fellow retailers. I agreed, and we called it “From the Front Lines,” or something like that. He co-authored it with his best friend, Ron Katz, who formerly ran Harry Katz Carpet One on Long Island. Ron was the politically correct one; Steve wanted to tell it like it was. He felt retailers needed to know the real story. Steve also was appointed to the board of Howard Community College. He liked nothing more than mentoring young kids.
A personal note: Who knew that a column in FCNews three years ago would forever change the lives of three people. The column was about Steve, and the purpose was threefold: to show the world that money does not necessarily buy you health; griping gets you nowhere; and in times of adversity you have two choices—feel sorry for yourself or cling to hope. The column resulted in an email from Jes Smothers wanting to donate his kidney. As it turned out, Jes and Steve were not a match. But Jes’ willingness to donate a kidney allowed Steve to receive one from the kidney bank. And Jes’ kidney? A 12-year-old boy’s life was saved and is now living a life he otherwise would not be.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter that Steve was born in Queens, or he drag raced on the road near Kennedy Airport, or that he lived in Maryland. What matters is the legacy he left, the impact he had on others and how he made the world a better place. He touched many people in ways in which he will never be forgotten. That’s how you live forever.