Watermelon Man: Why Values Matter

On a sultry August afternoon in 1964 my Dad, Bob Schramski, was mulling over his options to keep his small town Minnesota gas station open. He had recently learned that his major fuel supplier was significantly reducing his regular allotment and that he would have to find at least one more supply option. This issue was not confined to the availability, but also the expense of his fuel supply (at the time regular leaded gas with an octane rating of 92 was selling for 31.8 cents/gallon and premium, with an octane rating of 100, was selling for 33.9 cents/gallon – I know that dates me.). At the age of 12, I was working out front, learning how to provide service to customers on a not-so-busy afternoon.

From the east an open semi-truck, half filled with watermelons pulled into the station. The driver jumped out of the truck, asked for the owner, and my Dad came out to meet him. He asked Dad to allow him to sell his watermelons until he raised enough money to fill his truck with fuel, so he could make it back to his home in South Dakota. Dad always saw himself as an advocate for the “little guy” and said “yes” with no hesitation. And so the watermelon man parked his truck and began selling his watermelons.

It was a perfect afternoon to sell melons. It was warm and the cool watermelon was perfect. He even sliced some watermelons for the kids who had a few quarters. His trade was brisk and my Dad was pleased as several watermelon customers made impulse buys in our station or filled up their gas tank. One woman suggested that my Dad sell a few groceries as it would make it easier for her to make only one stop on the way home.

And then came a different reaction. The proprietor of a supermarket several street blocks away drove by and stopped to view the sale in progress. He approached the watermelon man and told him he would be arrested for violating a city ordinance that prohibited such open market sales of produce. My Dad, hearing the commotion, came outside to hear the end of the supermarket proprietors warning. He told the proprietor to “leave the poor guy alone” as he was “just passing through,” the two of them exchanged heated words, and the proprietor left, a few people actually clapped for my Dad and then the watermelon sales resumed. As the police officer finally arrived a couple of hours later, the watermelon man was just pulling out and headed west to the Dakotas. He had made a number of big sales (one person bought 10 watermelons for a big party), had made a good profit in cash, and had a free tank of gas courtesy of my Dad. Dad also made some new friends that day, including the police officer who eventually reported that the “offender” had left town before he arrived in response to the complaint.

A couple of days after the watermelon sale, my Dad was contacted by a representative from S & H Green Stamps (this really dates me) and helped us create a “double Green Stamp” on Tuesday and Friday night gas purchases. It was a hit and eventually led to my Dad and his partner, Emil, opening another station on the north side of town. The fuel problem? As my Dad’s business grew, it opened new sources of fuel who favored a growing business like Emil’s and his station.

Shortly, thereafter, a local dairy owner approached my Dad about selling dairy products in his station, after actually driving by the day of the watermelon sale and viewing the obvious business activity. Coincidentally, Dad hated the service part of the station (mounting tires and changing oil), so it was the perfect opportunity. He sold dairy products along with other groceries before there were any other local gas stations doing the same, with Dad and Emil enjoying the business more than ever before. No more grease!

Dad was also inspired by the event and a couple of others that involved “the little guys.” He eventually ran for City Council and was elected from the home district where he lived, in the same house where he was born. He called me the night he was elected in 1970 (I was away at college) so proud that everyone had that much faith in him.

Every decision we make holds unknown power. For some people, decisions like Dad made that August afternoon seemed almost matter-of-fact, because of his values and view of life. Dad didn’t make a decision to drop the atomic bomb, put a man on the moon, or reconfigure our health care system. He simply made a decision based on his values and harvested the consequences.