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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.