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

Pop thought for a moment before he spoke. “God gave me a toolbox, Mike. He gave you one too. But he didn’t give us the same one. You understand?”

I shrugged. He was just trying to make me feel better. I didn’t have a toolbox, and if I did, I doubted it contained anything worthwhile.

Good thing other people knew better. Like my mom, who urged me to sign up for the high school choir. And Mr. Fred King, the new music teacher and choir director, who saw some potential in me and pushed me to develop my voice.

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Soon, I was singing solos, then trying out for the school musical. I got the lead. Something clicked. Standing onstage, singing, performing, it just felt right.

Over the years, I discovered I had other tools. For my Eagle Scout service project, I read aloud to students at the state school for the blind. I formed a barbershop quartet with some friends from choir, and with Mr. King’s help, we won several competitions.

I majored in communications in college, and studied acting and music. I won the debate competition. I auditioned for the Baltimore Opera—I figured it was a good way to meet girls—and sang professionally for several years. In the early 1990s I landed my first television gig: selling stuff on QVC, the home shopping channel.

From there I got other work on air, hosting shows for local stations, then for TBS, FX, the History Channel, PBS. I approached my work like a tradesman, freelancing wherever the jobs took me.

On visits home to Baltimore, I’d play Pop videos of myself from this or that show, and he got a kick out of it. My quiet, ingenious grandfather— a man who would rather listen than speak—and me, his grandson who got paid to smile and talk. Amazing.

I was living in San Francisco, hosting a show on the local CBS station, when the toilet in my apartment backed up once again. (It’s a recurring theme in my life.) Pop wasn’t next door to help, so I found a plumber in the Yellow Pages.

“Think you can fix it while I’m at work?” I asked. “No problem,” he said. “Just leave a key under the mat and a check on the counter.” When I got home that night, the mess was gone and the toilet was working just fine. It was as if the plumber hadn’t even been there. But something bothered me.

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I thought of Pop and the day he’d fixed our plumbing all those years ago. I thought of all the hard work he did on our house, our church, and hundreds of homes and businesses in our community. I remembered how badly I had wanted to be a part of all that, and how I had yearned for the ability to do what he could do.

I didn’t even know the name of the plumber who fixed my toilet. How could I be so disconnected from the kind of tradesman I had once dreamed of becoming?

I considered a world without men like Pop. What would civilization look like without them? If a TV host calls in sick, life goes on. But if our tradesmen don’t report for work, things fall apart. Literally.

Okay, Mike, I thought. You found your toolbox. What are you doing with it? More game shows? Talk shows? What about a show for men like Pop? What about a show that honors hard work and the people who do it?

The next day, I pitched a new show to my station manager called Somebody’s Gotta Do It—short profiles of people who do the tough jobs. Rather than act like a typical host, though, I would assume the role of an apprentice, and let the worker call the shots.

It was a radical idea, but the manager gave me the go-ahead. I found a dairy farmer who specialized in artificially inseminating cows. My crew and I spent a day filming this man at work, showing what a hard, dirty—and necessary— job it was.

That profile of the dairy farmer turned out to be the most popular segment the station had aired in years. We got tons of calls and e-mails, and invitations to film in all sorts of other interesting places.

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Best of all, I got a thumbs-up from Pop. He was in his nineties and not getting around too well, but he was excited to see each new segment. “Good for you, Mike,” he said. “I think you’re on to something!”

I did more of those profiles, which eventually led to the show I’m best known for, Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs.

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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.