Using the Tools God Gave Him

TV’s Mike Rowe idolized his grandfather. There was one problem—he could never be like him. Or could he?

By Mike Rowe, San Francisco, California

As appeared in

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d make a living hosting and narrating TV shows. My plan was to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, a man who worked with his hands, not his voice. A man who avoided the spotlight.

I grew up outside Baltimore, Maryland. We were just a few miles from the city, but it felt like a whole different world. Our family’s land bordered 60 acres of woods, so there was nobody else around.

We lived next to my grandparents in an old farmhouse on eight acres with a barn, horses, a bridge and a babbling brook. Everything I needed for an idyllic boyhood.

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My grandfather Carl Knobel—I called him Pop—left school after eighth grade to go to work. He was a master electrician by trade but he could do pretty much anything. Build a house without a blueprint. Dig a well. Install a furnace.

I once saw him take apart a broken watch and put all the tiny pieces back together so that it ran perfectly again. I never once saw him read the instructions to anything. He just knew how stuff worked.

Pop had a huge hand in building an addition to our church, the wing where my Sunday school classes were held, my Boy Scout troop met and the congregation had potlucks and Bible studies. Not that he ever talked about it. Pop was a humble guy, a man of few words.

Dad was the one who showed me the plaque at church with my grandfather’s name on it. “That’s to honor him for all the work he did,” Dad said proudly. “Who else do you know with a plaque?” Dad was a public-school teacher but on weekends, he and Pop tackled one project after another.

I tagged along, trying to help out. Mostly, I just slowed things down. We used a woodstove, and on cold winter mornings we’d go out on the Massey Ferguson tractor in search of firewood. Mom would hand us a lunch box with a large thermos of coffee. “Try not to kill yourselves,” she said. “Dinner’s at six.”

We drove the tractor through the lower pasture into the woods. First we had to find the right tree. “Hardwood puts up a fight but it burns the best,” Dad said. Then the bigger challenge: taking the tree down properly so nobody got hurt and it landed exactly where you wanted.

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How to make the notch in the trunk, where to put the pulleys and winches—regardless of the challenge, Pop had it all figured out.

I remember one Saturday when I was 12 and the toilet in our house backed up in a rather spectacular fashion. The problem went well beyond a plunger. “Don’t worry,” Dad said. “Pop’s on his way over.”

We helped Pop dig a trench that led to the septic tank. Soon the lawn was covered with mounds of dirt and pieces of old pipe. Pop laid down new pipes and fittings and sealed them together.

By the end of the day, the trench was filled in, the lawn was neat again and the toilet was back to normal. I had blisters and a sunburn. I didn’t smell good. Still, it was one of my favorite days ever.

To me, Pop was a magician, and his talents a great mystery. As his would-be apprentice, I mimicked his every move. I took the shop class offered in school, and applied myself. But the bookshelf I made turned out lopsided, the metal box I welded didn’t close tightly.

My grandfather’s “mechanical gene” seemed to have skipped me, and my shortcomings made me grow insecure and resentful.

One Saturday I was helping Dad and Pop build a patio on our house. I can’t remember what I messed up that day—probably didn’t get the cement mixed right or the bricks laid in straight, but it felt like the final confirmation that I could never be like Pop.

I just didn’t have it, that gift he had for fixing things. I was not the would-be apprentice. I was the apprentice who would never be the master of any trade.

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I put down my tools, flopped on the ground and let out a long sigh. Pop stopped what he was doing and sat down beside me, waiting for me to stop feeling sorry for myself.

“I can’t do anything right,” I said ruefully.

“Sure you can, Mike.”

“Not like you, Pop. You could build a whole city if you wanted. I can’t even mix the cement.”

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I just got finished watching a "Dirty Jobs" show on the Discovery channel only to see all of the crew in diapers and Mike saying that they would remain in them until he got some more suggestions for some dirty jobs. I have an idea and this is only because I saw an episode of Dirty Jobs where he had to milk Tarantulas ( I have 25 Tarantulas ) and black widows. I was unaware they did that. But I do know of an operation that is there in Miami Florida for the people that get bitten by venomous snakes. The name of it is called "Venom One". The main two guys on there are Chuck (his nickname is Big Country) and a guy named Earnie. Venom One does exactly what that lady was doing when she was milking the spiders~~my bad~~Tarantulas and black widows. They milk all venomous snakes from the Black Mamba to the Gaboon Viper, to the Bushmaster. Snakes also sometimes get a case of "Scale rot" which is gross. so that leaves them unable to shed when they need to grow. So, it takes 2 people (one to hold the snake and one to pull the snakes skin off very slowly. It takes a long time because if you come across a spot that is stuck on there, you have to soak it in more water and try it again, and yes your hand does cramp up and get tired so with the mere changing of hands (from holding the snakes head so that he cant bite) could be fatal. But the milking of the snakes is similiar to milking those Tarantulas, only there is alot more of the venom, and you cannot mix the different venoms together. When someone is bit it is critical that Venom One know what species of snake they are dealing with or else the anti venom will not work. So, they have different shelves with different anti venoms to save the lives of those bitten. One dirty job is to contact Venom One and ask if you can be apart of their snake milking process. Or you can ask to be apart of the process of the snake that has the scale rot and peel that skin off......either is a dirty job and quite the learning experience. The main person in charge there is Chuck aka "Big Country" and he is a professional with snakes. It is worth a try. Again they are called Venom One and they are located in Miami, Florida.~~Good Luck~~Kristina Bentley

A great, great, story. About several people, mostly you.

Know this: you make "Deadliest Catch". If somebody else narrated, I wouldn't watch. Same, of course, for "Dirty Jobs."

I have also heard you sing.

You got a big toolbox, there. Perhaps your story will help somebody else realize they do, too.

Mike Rowe,
What a great story. I enjoyed your description of your grandfather so much, and as I read his story I felt I was reading a story about my husband. He is a 72 year old grandfather who can fix, almost, anything. His children and grandchildren call on him often. Sometimes they want him to fix something, but more and more often now, to have him tell them how to fix things. Thank you for sharing a wonderful story about a wonderful person.

That story brought tears to my eyes. It's a reminder to focus on who God made me to be instead of trying to be what someone else is.

What a wonderful way to honor your grandfather by showing the world the wonderful people who indeed keep everything running. Without our hard working blue collar workers we are no where. My husband is a man who can fix and make anything. He is my hero and also was greatly influenced by his grandfather. Somewhere along the way we lost craftsmanship, mechanical ability and have become a society of just finding someone to do it for us and not celebrating the people who do that amazing stuff so we can have the things we have. Thank you, Mike for sharing a wonderful and sweet part of yourself! You are amazing and I know your Pop is so proud of you!

Mike has always been one of my favorite celebrities. I've always loved him in the show Dirty Jobs (who wouldn't? he's gorgeous) and I've enjoyed him in his commercials. I knew he was more than just a pretty face, but I never realized his intelligence until I saw his TED talk! and brains!

This article really touches my heart because my dad passed away July 30th of this year. At his funeral his grandsons asked to speak, they all wanted to talk about their beloved "Tata". Each and every single one of them said "Tata was the greatest man I ever knew and if I can be half the man Tata was I will be happy." Grandfathers have such a big influence on their grandsons and I'm so happy to read this tribute to Mike's Pop. Excellent article!

I wish a lot more people knew about the origins of Mike Rowe's Dirty Jobs show and the Foundation he has established and dedicates itself to providing scholarships for tradesman. He has helped so many people love their life better in so many ways . He has given us an example , stories and himself to get to know the sweet , intelligent, sharing, caring , funny guy he is today. I think insight is important and being in Guidepost is all about insight and faith in the past and future.

I absolutely love Mike, and watched him anytime I could! This is SO my dad, and my grandpa! My Grandpa also built homes and churches [ he helped build the one he attended until his death] and was a total fix it guy...just like Mikes grandpa was. And my daddy has gone on to become exactly the same as grandpa...he can also build and has helped build the church they attend now. He can fix just anything, and he is definitely the guy to go too for help with whatever is wrong. He learned it all from grandpa,.....and now one of my brothers has become just like them. It's such a blessing to see that,... Thanks Mike for reminding us that we all have different 'tool boxes'.

I always wondered what the origin of that wonderful, brilliant show was. And it's really so nice to know that it was the answer to a long search for how to measure up to his "Pop" -- a grand role model.

Thank you Mike for sharing your incredible story. It has brought tears to my eyes. I, as a woman, am sort of a handy woman by trade because I have to. My husband who has been sick for a while, taught me many things a harms a grandfather just like yours. Garanddaddy's stuff was amazing. We do all have tool boxes The Lord has given us, I am so glad you had a Pop who showed you the way. God Bless you.