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Thank you, Marshall
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Once upon what seems a long time ago, America's service industry took a personal, sincere interest in making certain that customers were thoroughly satisfied. All across our land successful businesses were operated by professionals who cared enough to make sure the customer was genuinely pleased with the service provided.

You don't forget folks like that. And when you meet someone who goes that extra mile, repeatedly making absolutely certain everything is just right, you seek out that person the next time you need service. And you do so even if you've paid a little more for the services rendered.

That person, you see, earned your business. They demonstrated a concern for you, the customer, which exceeded merely performing the basic tasks required. You left satisfied with the work, but more importantly knowing that you actually mattered to them.

In the end, we all want to know that we matter. So the next time you need service, you return to the person who let you know that you, and your business, matter.

There are other factors at play, for sure. Have you ever gone out for dinner, perhaps to celebrate a special occasion, only to have the entire evening soured by inattentive or incompetent wait staff? Even if the manager became aware of your disappointment and made an entreaty to appease your angst, will you return to that emporium the next time?

The bitterness of poor service languishes long after the satisfaction of a perceived great deal fades, whereas quality stands the test of time.

In fact, I'll wager that right now you can remember from the days of your youth a store owner or barber, a businessman or waitress, or perhaps a clerk in a retail store whom everyone in town regarded as honest, cheerful, helpful and caring. It's been nearly half a century since I left my home town, but thinking of such characteristics easily brings half a dozen people, many now long gone, to mind.

Those folks were genuinely glad to see you when you called on their establishment. They asked how you were doing, about your family, and expressed real concern and offered real help if there was a need.

Those folks, the ones you've just stopped reading for a minute to think about, perhaps for the first time in years, are still with you, aren't they? By their actions, by their example, by going the extra mile, and by their genuine desire to provide the best possible service to your greatest satisfaction, they made you into a little bit better person, didn't they?

Four decades ago my wife and I settled here to raise our family. Over the years we've come to appreciate local entrepreneurs who cling to the notion that going the extra mile for the customer earns his business and loyalty.

And so it was that last week I was stunned to learn of the departure of a man from an establishment I've helped support since 1977. The local automobile dealership with which I've always traded recently changed ownership and has now parted ways with longtime service manager, Marshall Atha.

I'm still in a state of shock, frankly. I've bought a right fair number of vehicles from that place, and the main reason I kept returning was because Marshall Atha and his service staff always went the extra mile to be certain everything was as it should be.

When my children started driving and eventually departed for faraway colleges in Kansas, South Carolina and Indiana, Marshall hooked me up on a first-name basis with service managers for our vehicles in those college towns. After the kids were settled in their dormitories, I visited those dealerships and reminded the managers that Marshall Atha, whose service team won so many top corporate awards that the wall space in his tiny office could not accommodate them all, had recommended them to take care of "our" kids and "our" cars while they were there.

And you know what? They did.

Marshall Atha and his lovely wife, Dawn, are a credit to our town. They raised three great children, all of whom as adults are making this world a better place. When their youngest son, Wesley, a deputy sheriff, was wounded in the line of duty, Marshall and Dawn turned that negative into a positive by establishing the fundraising campaign that raised enough money to equip all our sheriff's personnel with top-grade flak vests.

You see, going that extra mile for others is what Marshall Atha has always been about. And quality stands the test of time.

Thank you, Marshall, for doing right by your customers for all these years. Loyalty is earned, not granted, and as we mattered to you, so you matter to us - today and always.

Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.