Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

Did you have a dream when you were a kid about what you wanted to be when you grew up? A goal? An all-consuming passion for something? Anything?

I did. From before I have independent memory of it, I was fascinated with airplanes. A photo of me taken when I was 2 shows my head tilted back and my finger pointing to the sky. I was probably 10 or 11 when I came across the picture and asked my mom what I was pointing at. She responded immediately, "It was an airplane. You have always loved airplanes."

I built my first model airplane when I was 7. It was a dreadful model. It didn't look like the artwork, but somehow, even at 7, I knew I wanted to build other models, and I was certain they would look better as my skills improved.

At some point early in my life, I decided I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I would have paid the Air Force if they would have only let me be a pilot. There was a problem: I was really nearsighted and had to wear glasses. I had a buddy who was also nearsighted and outlined exercises someone had told him about that would correct nearsightedness. I worked diligently for months. I knew I was going to get better if I persevered.

At the end of two years, my vision had indeed improved, but not enough to qualify for flight training. So I looked at the entirety of aviation and aerospace and decided that if I couldn't fly a plane, I would learn how to design and build them. That set my high school class and university curriculum for me at the age of 14.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. It was astounding. Electric even. I was going to design and build rockets. That would involve mathematics, chemistry and physics. I had an aptitude for all three. This was going to be great!

I built my first solid-fuel rocket when I was a sophomore in high school. It blew up. So did the next three, but they all exploded a little higher in the air, so I knew I was getting better. I entered the last rocket I built in a science fair in Charlotte, N.C., in 1959. It was quite impressive, at more than 12 feet tall. I was awarded first place in that regional fair and placed fourth in the state science fair that year. I was on a roll.

While studying chemical engineering at North Carolina State University, I applied for a summer job in 1962 with the Atlantic Research Corp. in Alexandria, Va. I landed a job in their research lab and had the opportunity to work on a number of important projects. Except all the projects were government contracts. My young mind wasn't ready for all the red tape and bureaucratic nonsense associated with that, and at the end of the summer, I was thoroughly disillusioned.

I graduated with a firm conviction that I was going to make a difference, but I had a family that had to come first. It took about 18 months for the idealism to wear off and to realize that I had to have a plan.

I decided that I was going to work in product development, process development, research, marketing, sales and operations on my way to being the top dog at whatever company I was working for at the time.

I turned my energies to rebuilding a 10-year-old Corvette. It was going to be a record-setting drag racer. Yes, I was on a shoestring budget, but with careful planning and by doing a lot of the work myself, I knew the goal was achievable.

And it was. Except by the time I was able to finish my car, the record was a full half-second lower than when I began, and there was no way I had enough money to build another engine to be competitive. So I decided to convert my car to a fully restored, completely stock 1956 Corvette that would be so beautiful and well done that it would win trophies at car shows.

Three weeks after I finished the car and put it back on the road, someone stole it. The stripped remains were found some five months later.

Sometimes the eye on the prize is distracted. An unraveling marriage and divorce will do that, you know.

Renewing a years-old acquaintance with Sherrie, the woman who would become my wife, helped me become focused again. I still remember being at a gathering with some of her friends, and one of them asserting, "Charlie won't be satisfied until he is in the travel business." I literally laughed out loud. The idea! I was an up-and-coming manager with a major company and after all, I had a degree in engineering. I had a real job.

Sherrie and I married, and she started Pacesetter Tours, operating out of our home. She had a goal, a vision, a dream: to open the first cruise-only agency in Tennessee, which she did in January 1988. I was a 50-50 partner, but the show was hers, and that was OK because I had a "real" job.

When you don't know any better, you ask for things that those more knowledgeable find cringeworthy. We asked to meet Bob Dickinson, then CEO of Carnival Cruise Line, at a conference in May 1988. He not only agreed but invited us to lunch, during which I asked him what we would have to do to be named Carnival's Agency of the Year. He told us, and we set a goal to do just that. We were Agency of the Year for 1990.

Circumstances changed, and I came into Pacesetter full time in 1993. Now, all of a sudden, things were real. Don't make a profit and lose your house kind of real. It was time to set more goals for automation and operational efficiency. Selling travel was now my "real" job, so I guess Sherrie's friend was right.

Along the way, we have weathered terrorist attacks, floods, wars and recession. But here's the best part: In that time, I have discovered that as much as I enjoy the technical and operations side of this business, I absolutely love helping other people fulfill lifelong wishes and dreams. I love selling. We do it well. We teach others how to do it. They do well, also.

Sherrie and I decided that we had a responsibility to share with others all those things we knew and thought everyone else knew, because it turns out they didn't. We set goals to write three books for travel agency owners and to offer our services to conduct training sessions on a wide range of travel industry topics. The books have sold well, and we have been privileged to produce dozens of training sessions for Vacation.com, Travel Weekly and Travel Leaders Network over the past 20 or so years.

I finally figured out that my original goals all those years ago to get things for myself were misfocused. It turns out it might not be about getting. For us, it became more about giving away and being fulfilled in return.

It has been said there is a circle of life, and I believe that. I have been blessed and honored with a beautiful wife, a home that we open to friends for entertaining, recognition of accomplishments by peers and industry leaders and a satisfying career. We travel to places I never thought we would, and I get to write for Travel Weekly.

I had a dream the other night that I had engaged someone to restore my '56 Corvette, and it was finished. Oh, it was magnificent. The Roman red paint and India ivory coves were perfect. The door fit and upholstery were impeccable. It was a really pleasant dream. As long as God is closing circles, maybe I'll be flying an F-16 in my next excellent dream.

It's like this: Setting goals will always be important. Sometimes the goal can't be reached no matter how hard one tries. Sometimes the goal gets moved while you're on the way. Sometimes you just thought you knew what the goal was, but it was something else entirely.

Set a goal, work toward it, keep an open mind about how the journey is going, and never give up.

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