*Galaxy Grind, 12402 E. Saltese Road
On Wednesdays, Mike and Joe confront Earth’s cosmic challenges at a Galaxy Grind not very far, far away.
What’s wrong, Chewbacca? Not able to make that jump to hyperbole? Fine. Here’s how Mike puts it: “We meet for coffee and cream cheese cinnamon rolls and try to solve the world’s problems.” (The coffee shop is walking distance from Mike’s house, though, so there’s that.)
While the pair may not be going head to head with the Galactic Empire, from the moment I learned about their weekly coffees, I was angling for an invite.
Mike Vlahovich, 75, and Joe Connor, 71, are longtime friends and Spokane legends in their own right. Mike spent more than five decades covering local sports (the first half when his father, John, owned the Spokane Valley Herald), and he is a member of the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame’s Scroll of Honor. Joe spent decades running a successful independent insurance agency in Spokane. A Gonzaga graduate, he is a season ticket holder for men’s basketball games. (The same day I crashed their coffee get-together, they reconvened in the evening with their wives to watch Gonzaga dismantle North Carolina at the Kennel.)
For two hours, we talked politics, life lessons and why Joe believes this year’s Zags are better than last year’s version — a sentiment he’s held since before the season began. I still can’t fathom that last point, but much of what we discussed is still inspiring me these days later. So while the best advice in the Galaxy (Grind) should include trying the cinnamon rolls, here are four even more important gems I hope to carry with me into 2020, courtesy of a conversation with my own version of Obi-Wan and Yoda.
The love of money is the root of all kinds of … generosity?
Joe lists many reasons that drove him to a career as an independent insurance agent, but two are particularly to the point: 1. “I don’t like working for people.” 2. “I like money.”
The former reflects the values of many entrepreneurs who want to reap the rewards (and/or any other related consequences) of their own efforts. The money thing, though? Joe and Mike are lifelong Catholics. I’ve spent most of my life in nondenominational Protestant churches. Some version of 1 Timothy 6:10 rings familiar: “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
“People don’t understand how money is; people think it gives them power and stuff like that,” Joe explained. “I don’t see it that way. It’s like you are a steward, and you have to go back in and help other people out. … It’s the opportunity to help people.”
(Money) is the opportunity to help people.Joe Connor
As with most things, it’s the misuse and abuse of money that is the problem. You have to avoid the grip of greed.
“Like my dad used to say, ‘You can’t spend your way to prosperity,’” Mike said.
You can, however, give your way into a prosperity of a whole different kind.
Be yourself – the ‘yourself’ that has a plan
Whenever Joe encounters a young person — from neighbors and friends to the stranger taking his restaurant order — he invariably turns the topic to education and asks, “Where are you going to college?”
“You don’t ask a kid, ‘Are you going to college?’ You ask, ‘Where are you going to college?’” Joe smiled. “Assume the sale.”
He explains it’s a process of leading them through questions to embrace a direction for themselves.
“Have a plan,” Joe said. “I think that’s really, really important. The questions that I ask are all intended to … try to get them to think for themselves. What are you going to do? Open ended questions like that help them become the best that they can be.”
It doesn’t have to be a four-year business degree from Gonzaga, it just has to be a plan that honors – and maximizes — one’s own God-given abilities, Joe and Mike explained.
“Everybody is successful if they do the best they can with what they have been given,” Mike said.
A value system serves as a great compass
Before Mike had even declared his major in journalism at Washington State University, he was surprised to be offered the job as sports editor of the Daily Evergreen. Little did he know, another tempting offer was right around the corner from legendary basketball coach Jud Heathcote, who Mike knew from West Valley High School.
“Jud Heathcote calls up and says, ‘Do you want to be the manager on the Cougar basketball team,’” Mike recalled. “It was like the next day after I had committed to (The Daily Evergreen), but I was already committed so I went that way.”
Not only did Mike not seem to regret the choice he made, he talks about the episode with an aura of unblinking clarity: Reneging on his first commitment was never even an option.
“The lesson here is something that’s really important to us, I think: You’ve given your word,” Joe added. “There are times when you’ve given your word and you see, ‘Oh, I think I might have made a mistake.’ You still have to go through with it, and that’s a value system.”
Both Mike and Joe credit family and their Catholic upbringing with instilling the type of value system that serves as an anchor for life, for success and – you knew it was coming back to this – for Gonzaga basketball.
That’s right, Joe is convinced the success of Gonzaga basketball is rooted deep within the Jesuit tradition. He would know. He played for legendary Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald in eighth grade while attending a private Catholic school in San Francisco. Joe also played on the Gonzaga freshman basketball team in 1966. As much as he loves Coach Fitzgerald (who would end up at Gonzaga much later), he believes the enduring success at Gonzaga is more about the school’s Jesuit values than the various GU personalities with accomplished resumes.
“The value systems they had back then are the same value systems they have now,” Joe said. “(The university) has grown and expanded, but the value systems haven’t changed. … We have a core that’s consistent that does not change year after year after year. … That’s why GU is doing so well.”
Don’t shine the spotlight on yourself
Mike spent five decades as a prep sportswriter in the same community. While many sportswriters may dream of working the sideline of a Super Bowl, Mike has found greater fulfillment in celebrating his neighbors. He has spent the equivalent of years of his life at local high schools — walking hallways, visiting practices and pacing sidelines with a notebook in hand. Many area scrapbooks are filled with stories and photos with Mike’s byline, and he is always ready with a story of the joy he has found in celebrating the accomplishments of other people.
It wasn’t just his job; Mike found ways to encourage others through the years through coaching youth sports and volunteering with schools, a passion Joe shared as well. Both Mike and Joe believe strongly in mentorship (it’s probably why they let me tag along on this particular Wednesday). They are consistently on the lookout for opportunities. In fact, Mike begins a new mentor relationship in January, when he will weekly share lunch with an Opportunity Elementary School student through the PrimeTime Mentoring program. It’s an apt setting, across the street from the first home he purchased in the Valley decades ago.
Maybe this is what Mike really meant by “solving the world’s problems.” It’s not as much about making a political point over coffee; it’s about investing in another person, one at a time.
Mike and Joe order the same thing at Galaxy Grind every time they meet: cinnamon rolls and mochas, though Joe takes his hot while Mike likes his iced (even in December). The two regulars have become part of the fabric of the local Valley business, where they know the staff by name and are on the Christmas card list.
While you’re here, would you do me a favor?
If you enjoy articles like this one, join the CoffeeJosh mailing list. It’s hurry-free, spam-free and also free … free. As a thanks, I’ll send you a PDF — you guessed it, free — that has 10 of the best coffee shop orders in the Spokane area. (All 10 are drinks and treats local coffee shop owners make for themselves. In this case, expect to pay for your order and feel like it was totally worth it.)
Inspiring. Thank you for what you have done and continue to do for our community, Mike and Joe!