John Ratzenberger: My Carpentry Skills Played a Big Role in My Acting Success

Question Everything: What’s the one skill everyone needs?
AP Images; Illustration by Kirsten Salyer for TIME

We should be teaching our children the power of building things by hand

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Growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who actually had real-life-skills. Having a tool box handy wasn’t an anomaly; it was the norm—and kids were taught how to use theirs. This was especially true in the factory town of Bridgeport, Conn., where I was raised.

My father and grandfathers could make, repair and, on occasion, invent some quick-rigged thingamajig that could ease a boulder into a wheel barrel or saw off an out-of-reach tree limb without a ladder. My grandmother used her tools to raise a legendary vegetable garden that kept us, and half the neighborhood, fed through the winter with preserves and pickled veggies. Mom used her tools to keep our clothes patched, sewn and neat throughout our childhood while she worked as a safety inspector in a local factory. She was so safety conscious that on her first visit to the set of Cheers she walked around pointing out potential accidents waiting to happen. She was aware and capable.
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Most of the adults around me had an understanding of what needed to be done and possessed the skills to do it. If they didn’t know how to do a specific job, they knew someone within shouting distance who did.

The whole process of knowing how to make things, fix things and build things, fascinated me to the point that by the time I was 14 years old, I had decided that I wanted to learn how to build a house and everything in it. In fact, I built the first couch I ever owned for my first real apartment. It may not have won any beauty contests, but it sure was comfortable. I ultimately saw my childhood goal of building a house come to fruition, many times over, while working as a house-framer before I landed the role of “Cliff” on Cheers.

As the years pass, I am more and more grateful to those who taught me the skills I’ve used every day of my life to provide for my family. I’ve passed these skills onto my children, who will undoubtedly continue this legacy. I reserve a special thanks to Mr. William Banney, my middle school shop teacher, for helping me hone the rudimentary skills I picked up along the way. Under his wing, I learned the magic of T squares, block planes, nail sets, ball-peen hammers, chalk lines, draw knives and more. He helped me become capable to the point that after I graduated college, my carpentry skills fed and clothed me on my way to a career on stage, where I could finally put my English Lit knowledge to work.

Most people don’t realize just how big a role my carpentry skills played in my acting success. The “manual arts” made it possible for me to pay my bills while I chased my dream. They saved me countless dollars I would have paid someone else to fix things when they broke—from toasters to TVs, windows to washing machines, roofs to refrigerators. They helped me develop critical-thinking skills that I used to land my role as “Cliff.” And they continue to inspire me every single day to impress upon others how important it is to teach our children these same skills.

Skilled hands are responsible for the building and maintaining of our civilization, where the plumber and electrician are as important as the surgeon. As wise and gifted as the doctor is, there would be no surgery without the tools, power, light, heat and even hot water needed to wash away the germs. Look around you: Every made-man thing you see was manufactured by a skilled hand. And we’re running out of men and women with the skills to make them.

We take for granted that this great symphony of things we use every day will continue to exist. Why else would many school systems nationwide cancel the very shop and home economic courses that gave us the generation we crown as “the greatest”? For close to 30 years now we have been graduating students who go on to college without knowing how to read a ruler, use a screw driver or change a tire. We’ve raised an entire generation of narcissists with low self-esteem, posting countless “selfies” in a constant pursuit of validation.

You want children to experience self-esteem? Teach them the rudiments of creating something from scratch. Let them experience the pride they’ll have in knowing they made something real—not a code on a computer, but something they can hold in their hands and use. Develop their innate common sense by thinking through the obstacles intrinsic in building something. As we push our children to become better “thinkers,” don’t ignore the side of their brain that longs to “tinker.” It’s going to take some discipline and interest on your part. So put down your iPhone, turn off the TV and pick up a tool kit. Make something! You owe it your kid—and to yourself.

Whichever road your child decides to travel, the skills they possess will make them better at whatever profession they choose, because all lines of work require common sense. At the very least, they’ll be more curious and interested in things that truly matter. And considering that about half of our college grads are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree, you can be sure that kids with manual arts skills will also be able to provide for themselves. After all, there are millions of great-paying jobs available in construction, manufacturing and other trades.

Let’s step outside our families for a moment and think about the candidates running for office. America is a nation founded by farmers who brought bucket loads of common sense to their governing. What kind of common sense are today’s politicians bringing to the table? What are their skills beyond rhetoric? Can they problem-solve down to 1/16th of an inch? They are building the future of this country. Therefore, I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that before anyone is sworn into office in the U.S., they must first be required to assemble a coffee table from IKEA. If they can’t do that, how do they have the common sense to run a country?

God bless America—and every manual artist continuing to build the foundation of our great nation. See you in the tool aisle.

John Ratzenberger is an actor, director, chief advisor-industrialization for Elite Aviation Products and founder of the American Manufacturing Hall of Fame.

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