Mike McGough
July 2024

It started out as a small gas station along the Lincoln Highway located between two large towns. Over the century they’ve been open for business, Abe’s Garage has grown and changed with the times. The original owners, the Nicolay family, called it Abe’s place for two reasons. The first and maybe the most obvious was because it sat along the Lincoln Highway. The second reason was the family’s deep regard for President Lincoln, not only as a President, but as a man who set a model worthy of admiration.

The first member of the family to emigrate to the United States was Gustavus Nicolay. Arriving in 1857, he settled in Philadelphia and began helping other members of his family come to America. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he enlisted with a Pennsylvania infantry regiment. He lost a leg at Gettysburg and was mustered out of service in the fall of 1863. Even though he lost a leg, he picked up a level of respect and appreciation for Lincoln, the Commander-in-Chief under whom he served.

When his son opened the garage in 1914, it was just that—a garage. But as automobiles became more and more popular, the garage changed with the times. The first change was a small general-store type addition. Because of its location, they had a steady clientele that appreciated the convenience and the variety of items offered. Next came a small lunch counter. A five-star restaurant it wasn’t, but the menu offered what suited the locals in a friendly setting. In the post-World War II era, when American families took to the road in ever-increasing numbers, they expanded both the store and the restaurant. That’s when they changed the name to Abe’s Place. 

The location of Abe’s provided the Nicolay family with a front row seat from which to observe the growth and development of 20th and later 21st century United States. Serving travelers from across the country their view was broad. True to the legacy of Opa (grandpa in German) Gus, they regarded everyone as a welcome guest, and all were treated with respect. Well beyond his Civil War discharge certificate that still hangs over the front door, is his legacy of mutual respect, six generation later. The current “Gus” understands the legacy, appreciates it, and is something less than tolerant of anyone who violates it.

Changes in social norms notwithstanding, there is an unspoken understanding that if you’re going to work at Abe’s there are certain expectations. Gus VI has lived long enough to have seen what was once outrageous behavior becoming part of acceptable norms. For example, he sees it in the language that’s accepted in public, the lack of toleration for others, and most notably in the increasing disregard for the truth. For him, these are clear indications of a generalized decline in interpersonal respect and social responsibility. He’s grown concerned.

Now that he’s begun really focusing more on how his staff interacts with the public, he noticed something. The way his family members interacted with customers was noticeably different from how non-family members interacted. He quickly told himself that such a gap was his fault. He had long been a protector and sharer of the family legacy, and maybe he needed to share that legacy with the broader team at Abe’s. 

Over a two-week period, he did just that.  Asking folks to either come a little early or stay a little later after their shift, he shared the important role respect has played in his family and at Abe’s. He was clear about his expectations. He told each group, “Changes in what is acceptable and unacceptable happen over time—I get that.  Nevertheless, there must always be certain limits of what is viewed as acceptable, if any level or respect, social decorum, and interpersonal propriety is to survive.  Folks, we’ve got to guard against allowing unacceptable or outrageous behavior to become “inrageous” or acceptable behavior.  I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but that’s long been and will continue to be a priority at Abe’s. Thanks for doing your part!” 

Even though “inrageous” is not a real word, it demonstrates a genuinely real concept. If the outrageous, the shameful, the offensive, and that which is way outside the norm are tolerated, how long will it take for them to become part of that which is accepted, viewed as usual, and inside the norm?  Such a transition generally doesn’t occur overnight, Instead, it happens over time, slowly, insidiously, without being seriously questioned or challenged. It creeps into the everyday flow of human interactions almost unnoticed, that is until it has firmly rooted itself. 

That which is passively tolerated today may well turn into that which will be considered normal tomorrow!