MEN OF VALUE INTERVIEW : STEVE FRIEDLANDER by James Riordan
Steve Friedlander mastered the very technical and complicated world of integrated digital telephone service just at the right time, as the digital revolution took off. He worked as an independent agent for Ameritech customizing and streamlining digital phone services for a wide range of customers. He knew what they needed and he had an extraordinary knack for figuring out the best and least expensive way to give it to them. When SBC bought the service out they did what most major corporations do in such a situation – they took all the accounts that Steve’s ingenuity and personal service had won for the company and made them house accounts which basically ended up costing him 1,8 million dollars in guaranteed commissions. That’s right, 1.8 million dollars! Most people would never recover from that kind of loss and would end up collapsing into their bitterness. Not Steve Friedlander. He just moves on to the next enterprise and figures out how to make that work as well.
It is this kind of thinking that makes Steve a Man of Value. He credits his value system to his Jewish faith. “I’m strong in my faith. I’m Jewish and when things got tough for me, not just financially, but physically as well, I would go to temple six days a week. I did that for four years. I felt like I needed something and I think that was a good thing for me. I not only made some new friends who I still am friends with, but I think going and volunteering and helping out really gave me a sense of what’s important. Someone once gave me a good bit of advice to practice when you’re stressed out. We Jews have a lot of names for our God. One of them is Hashem. Whenever I feel like I’m stressed out or that something is wrong, I think of myself as being wrapped in the arms of Hashem. Then, suddenly, I’m totally relaxed. I know He’s watching me. I know He’s there taking care of me. Whatever is going to happen may still happen, but I become mentally and physically better able to handle it.”
While Steve credits his faith for teaching the values he lives by he credits his military service for his ability to live those values out in his life. “Joining the military was, I’d have to say, the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I was starting to get in trouble now and then. Once I started driving I started hanging out with some of the gangs in high school, which is unusual for a Jewish kid because Jewish kids aren’t usually in those kind of gangs. They were in social clubs where they were mingling with the girls but I was drag racing and stuff like that. I had some friends who’d go to the horse racetrack and I’d get in the car and go with them to the racetrack at night. I started hanging with some of the gangs over on Bryn Mawr and Broadway on the east Rogers Park area. When I graduated high school, I was the only one of my friends who went into the military. The rest all went to college to have fun and do all their thing and I joined the service. I graduated in ’66 and Vietnam was raging. I joined because I felt that was the right thing to do. I had made the varsity football team as a Freshman and my mother wouldn’t let me play because she was afraid I’d get hurt, but she let me enlist to go to Vietnam.
Friedlander’s first choice had been the Navy. “My favorite WWII movies were the sub-marine movies, like Run Silent, Run Deep, you know those kind of movies. I was hoping to get in the submarines, the Navy told me they didn’t take people over six feet then. They just didn’t have the headroom. Now days they can because the nuclear subs have more space, but they only had two nuclear subs when I was trying to get in. It’s funny because I realize now that a lot of my fascination with submarines then was based on movies, television shows and science fiction. Whenever I thought of a submarine, it was like the SeaView from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea with the big window in front. Real submarines are totally enclosed. You can’t see all the fish down below.”
After realizing he couldn’t get be assigned submarine duty, Friedlander told his mother, “’I’m going to join the army and follow my father and my uncle’s footsteps.’ She said, ‘You’ll have to wait until you’re 18.’ I graduated three months after I turned 17 so I said, ‘I’m not waiting nine months. I want to go mow. What am I going to do?’ She said, ‘No army, no marines. You can pick the navy or the air force and I’ll sign.’ I went back to talk to the Air Force and wound up working on mechanical/electronics for the Top Secret Minuteman ICBM Missile which gave me the foundation for my career.”
Friedlander’s stint in the Air Force also enabled him to fulfill the dream of buying his father a new car. “I had a really fast muscle car back when I went into service. I figured I was going to Vietnam, what do I need that car for now. So I went over to Mr. Norm’s because it was a dodge and I got a lot of money for the car because it was in mint condition. I drag raced it almost every weekend, but I took care of it. I got enough money to buy my father a 1967 Monaco. It was dark blue with a black vinyl top. I still can picture the car. I called him and said, ‘You got to come with me because I have to sell my car and I’m only 17 and you got to sign papers.’ When we got there I’m like, ‘Oh, by the way, what’s this? I picked it out for him because I was afraid if I just gave him the cash he wouldn’t get it. He was like a kid and it made me feel so good to be able to do that for him.”
Friedlander is a strong believer in the military. “We have what we call three percenters. Back in the Revolutionary War only 3% of this country was willing to fight for the freedoms of the United States. Out of the 13 colonies only 3% fought. Now, today, there’s only maybe 1% of this country that has ever served in the military. Imagine what would happen if no one was willing to do that. We’ve been lucky enough to have an all volunteer Military, unlike Israel where at 18, or whatever, the age is, you have to serve your term. I have another friend of mine who has three kids. He said that if he ever thought that one of them wanted to join the military he would go in the middle of the night and cut off their big toe. He said, ‘I got no problem with the military but not my kids.’ What if everyone had that attitude?”
Like many men of faith, Steve Friedlander is grateful for the blessings he has and feels that being thankful is something lacking in our society. “Imagine how lucky it is to be born in this country. There’s seven or eight billion people on this planet right now and only three hundred million of them live in the United States. That’s less than five percent. Not only that, but imagine all the eggs that pass through a woman and your egg was the one that got fertilized. My mother had three miscarriages and was told not to have children. Then she had three healthy children in a row. We are lucky to even have been born and then we have the privilege of being born in this country. The odds are astronomical. They are beyond what you can ever imagine. “
I asked Steve if he could remember a time when his values cost him something and, like most men with real values, he had such an experience. “I was consulting for this big company and the COB called me aside one day and told me he wanted to find a reason to fire one of their guys. Now, I already knew that this guy he wanted to fire was probably the best employee they had. I told the COB that the guy he wanted to fire was the one guy he really needed to run the plant and he said, ‘I don’t care. Get dirt on him.’ So, I kind of looked around and followed up on different things to see if there was anything that the guy was doing wrong. Was he stealing, was he having affairs, but the guy wasn’t doing anything wrong he was a class act. So, a week later I’m supposed to bring in my dirt on the guy and all the big executives are in the meeting including my boss who* says, ‘Okay I want a report on all the dirt.’ I said, ‘Sir, can I please just ask you what it is you’re trying to do?’ He said, ‘Look, we have one country club in this town. His wife doesn’t fit in with the other women so the only way to get her out is to fire him and then they’ll move out of town because there’s no other jobs around here.’ So because his wife didn’t fit in with the women at the fancy country club they wanted to fire him. So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got bad news for you.’ He said, ‘Oh good,’ thinking I had found something wrong with the guy. Then I said, ‘No, I’ve got bad news for you. There is no dirt on this guy. He is the oil that keeps your machine alive.’ Now, I’m getting the evil eye from my boss and all the rest of the other consultants because they were all senior to me and they’re all giving me a look like, ‘Steve, this is what we’re getting paid to do.’ I just couldn’t do it. It was wrong. They told me right there I should find another job. Then they escorted me to my apartment and made sure I packed and left town.”
“This kind of thing will happen to you if you live by a certain code,” Friedlander continued. “When the day comes and they put you in the ground all you get to take with you is your reputation. You can’t take your money and you can’t take all your toys. I’d like to be buried with my Harley but somebody will steal it later on unless I’m encased in cement.”
Like many others, Steve Friedlander is very worried about the direction America has been going. “I think we’re past the point of no return. I don’t think we can come back. I honestly think we just can’t. I think we’ve gone so far overboard. I think we’re coming to the peak of the Second Amendment. For the next twenty years the government will be trying to disarm the people. I’m a Jew and when I think of how Germany did it in the early days of the Nazis, I am resolved as a Jew, that I will never be disarmed. They will have to find what I have. and take me down. I have a bullet proof vest that can handle anything just short of a .50 caliber. It’s a Class 4 vest. They don’t make them any stronger. It’s like 3/4 inch solid steel. Don’t get me wrong. I pray it will never come to that, but it seems to me we are going in that direction. It’s all politics. Look at the word politics. ‘Poli’ means many and ‘tics’ means blood suckers. Politics is many blood suckers. That’s what it is to me.”
When the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence,” Friedlander continues, all fifty-five of them put themselves at risk and a lot of them were killed or made bank-rupt over signing that document. Some were hung. From that time to the two hundred and some years until now, this world has had the most dramatic change because of the technology and the industrial revolution of the United States. If the United States had never been born as a country of freedom the world would not have advance. Without capitalism this world would still be throwing sticks and stones at each other. We might have better stones and better sticks but we sure wouldn’t have what we have today. We would have never have landed on the moon, we wouldn’t have electric cars. We wouldn’t have anything that we have today. There was a sudden leap forward throughout the entire world from the time the United States was founded.
Yes, Steve Friedlander has strong opinions because he has strong beliefs. That’s what makes him a man of value.