Not Finding Emmert Wolf

Or, the Mysterious Case of Using the Wrong Tools

Galen finding skeleton
Emmert? is that you?

I’ve been planning to write a piece about the thrill and agony of deciding on the most efficient and budget-minded methods for running a small creative company. This article started easily enough. I thought I’d begin with that old chestnut, “A man is only as good as his tools,” perhaps updating its gender pronouns before heading into the real guts of the post. Of course, like all good publishers, I strive to give proper attribution to the work of others, so I dutifully searched Google for the quote. What I found was suddenly much more interesting to me — yet still demonstrably relevant — than my original subject. The search yielded several results, all giving credit for this saying that everyone seems to know to a man named Emmert Wolf. What they don’t say, any of them, is who he was, nor where and when he lived, nor the reason history remembers this singular observation.

I think it’s safe to say that when faced with such a mystery, the first tool most busy folks would reach for is Google, or perhaps another widely-known search engine like Bing. What comes up for Emmert and his pithy phrase at these venues is a bit thin on detail. We find a photo of a grave marker for an Emmert J. Wolf who lived from 1894 to 1968, buried in Ogle County, Illinois. (Is this our Emmert?) In Google Books, we find a digitized scan from the “Union Postal Clerk & the Postal Transport Journal, Volumes 60-62,” mentioning an Emmert J. Wolf retiring from service in Illinois. Probably the same man, but is he our Emmert? There’s also a 1940 census entry for the above-mentioned Mr. Wolf from Illinois, one that tells us he was 45 years old at the time, the same age as his wife Uarda, and that they had a 13-year-old son named Joseph. Other than that, we find plenty of people sharing the quote about tools and crediting Emmert Wolf without giving any further context. (If only the census asked whether we’d ever come up with a really catchy phrase that had seeped into the common vernacular and would surely endure long after we are gone…)

The scholar, Periander in his library with printed text
“It’s called citing your sources, Brenda. Look it up.”

Here’s where some of the agony of running a business comes in: do we stick with tools that seem to work well enough or do we spend time and/or money to find better solutions? Having lived among academic types for many years, there is always a voice in my head that bids me dig ever deeper, to find the primary source, to uncover the most authentic perspective. Whatever the undertaking, my instinct calls for researching everything I can find on the matter, gathering other people’s opinions, testing the materials and the tools when available, searching my experience and hypotheses for likely pitfalls or wondrous potential outcomes. I know that there is more information out there about this quote and its origins. I just know that some proud relative of the true and honorable Emmert Wolf has an oft-repeated family anecdote, perhaps about the time her great uncle Em ruined the house’s plumbing system trying to save a buck by fixing it himself and then blamed it on that wrench he never did like.

A young woman with a broken pillar; representing fortitude
“Sure the pillar still works. A little glue, a little duct tape…”

We run into these moments every day, times when our hunch tells us that the results we are seeing are lacking, maybe even to our detriment, but we are forced to glance at the clock and back away. There’s no time. We can’t afford to think about this issue any more. I have a schedule to keep and a cobbled-together system of disparate tools that get me through the day somehow. To tinker with that delicate balance is to court real disaster, a chain reaction of broken cogs that would bring the whole operation to a hard and painful stop. I struggled enough finding and putting it all together the first time; why chance the need for a complete do-over?

Plus, I am cheap. At this point in the game, our publishing company has more time than money, so it’s vital that I find the right combination of tools and workflow in order to get the job done on time and within budget. The fewer dollars I spend on fancy bundles and marketing pitches, the more money we’ll be able to pay our artists and writers. I have had the benefit of working for some famously cheap bosses, and I truly learned many fundamentals of business frugality from them. One boss had a knack for finding tools we could use for free that mimicked bigger, more expensive enterprise suites. The tools often integrated well with other free or very inexpensive tools. Most of the time, that approach worked seamlessly and the apps and hardware did exactly what they are supposed to do – fade into the background and let us concentrate on our projects. The big caveat here is that though small, the company did employ a dedicated IT department to come to the rescue when one piece of the great machine stopped turning.

For Northwest Quest Publishers, we’ve been able to emulate that philosophy to a large extent, and my own technical avocational skills have truly come in handy. However, in addition to all the IT work, my duties encompass nearly all the financial, administrative, and marketing needs, and I share editorial and content creation and publishing decision-making with Beth. Like entrepreneurs and creative workers the world over, we are finding the days too short to accommodate all that we want to do. The tools we choose must help us do that work without calling attention to themselves. (They apparently also need to help me avoid falling down rabbit holes about mysterious men who may have worked for the postal service and may have uttered a famous phrase that would not make them famous…) In a future post, I will go into detail about the heavy research and careful decisions that have gone into shaping our initial business workflow, and I’ll also give some warnings about tools that totally failed us despite that diligence. In the meantime, if anyone out there can lead me to the definitive Emmert Wolf of the “good as his tools” fame, I would be most obliged!

Image Credits: Galen finding skeleton. Wellcome Collection. CC BY
The scholar, Periander in his library with printed text. Reproduction after a woodcut, 1488-89. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
A young woman with a broken pillar; representing fortitude. Etching, 16–. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Leave a Comment