Lives #6 – Making a Difference

[This is the sixth in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, a series I’m calling “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not easily identifiable. The more I change, as here, the more it becomes fiction. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]

I’ve always been a bit jealous of Andrew. He made a choice, decades ago, that his life would be devoted to making a difference. Sure enough, he did just that. Anyone who looks at his career would say it was admirable, and he is certainly deserving of the many honours he has received.

What is interesting, though, is that Andrew’s take on his own life is quite different. In his mind, his working life should be described with the words “unrealized potential”. In his mind, he is a failure.

I first met Andrew in high school. We weren’t buddies, because he was two years behind me, and went to a different school, but we knew each other reasonably well through music and debating. When I left to go to work, he remained for a couple more years, and we still kept in touch. We had some common interests (motorcycles and folk music, among others), but more than that we liked to engage in flights of creative discussion about how the world could be made better.

In school Andrew was actually known more as an athlete than as a social thinker. His sport was track, where he won numerous age group competitions. Tall and lanky, but well-coordinated, Andrew was an imposing person, then and now. Add to that his very strong personality, and the result was pretty good athletic success.

Those attributes, and that history, propelled him into a university track and field program, with a highly disciplined training regime, and international competitions. He amassed trophies and medals, although not quite at the elite level. He wasn’t a superstar, but still a star perhaps. His Olympics would have been Montreal in 1976, but he missed qualifying by a fraction, and the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics prevented him from having a second chance.

Still, his athletic achievements helped him end up with undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics and political science. He had not changed his plans to make the world a better place. Couple “successful athlete” with very good marks, and he certainly had choices when it came to jobs.

Not everyone thought he was a good catch, however. His marks, and his athletics, meant that on paper he was a great candidate, but once organizations talked to him, some were turned off. He was pretty strident about what he was going to do with his life. It wasn’t focused on listening to other people.

Andrew likes to tell the story – even today, almost forty years later – about the interview that resulted in his first job. It was a small charity that collected funds in Canada for foreign poverty-reduction programs. Andrew spent a week in the library, researching its work, finances, and project successes.

The interview was being done by a volunteer member of the charity’s board of directors, who was a human resources manager for a bank. I’m sure he didn’t know what hit him. Andrew says – laughing all the way through the story – that he was just trying to set the right expectations. To do that, he opened the interview by telling the director that the charity was completely messed up, but Andrew knew how to fix it. His theme was “You need to hire me”, and in support of that theme he itemized a litany of changes that had to be made. Andrew, though, was happy to come in and make them.

He is not now the same brash (obnoxious, perhaps?) young man of 24 that he was then, so he can chuckle about it. At the time, however, he honestly couldn’t understand how the charity could go into a village in Africa, install a well for drinking water, but leave with the village still lacking a school and a hospital. “Those people are still poor” he would say, and the fact that they were better off than before was irrelevant.

(His solution to this particular problem was just as aggressive. He would simply go to the federal government – directly to the Prime Minister, in his mind – and demand that they build a school in every village that his charity built a well. How could they say no? The government had enough money, and the villages certainly needed the schools.)

If you look at this in today’s context, you’d wonder how he ever got a job at all, but in fact that very charity hired him after a couple of additional interviews. His “change the world” mantra may have been jarring, but he didn’t lack drive or commitment, so they took a chance on him. (Today, would that even be possible?)

He spent three turbulent years in that first charity, often the centre of heated debates about strategy, tactics, and whether anyone other than Andrew really cared at all about the poor of the world. He worked very hard, and he had lots of great ideas (some of which were actually implemented, such as a hard-hitting newsletter that increased donations by more than 50%), but the people who worked with him at that time would say he was pretty hard on his co-workers, and the world in general.

One of the people he worked with was Gail, who later became his wife. Gail is also a “true believer”, even today, and at that time she was just as young and idealistic as Andrew. On the other hand, she was and still is a gentle soul, a person you immediately think of in a peasant dress, with flowers in her hair. You can’t get her angry about big-picture things, although don’t let her catch you hurting a puppy, or a child. She is not without toughness.

The way Gail tells it, in this small organization of twenty people, she was the only one who could put up with Andrew. She thought his constant criticism and anger at others was cute, and perhaps a little manly. She didn’t tune him out. She heard what he had to say, and then in her very soft-spoken way agreed with him without stoking the flames any further. It didn’t hurt that she was good-looking, and that Andrew, despite his strong personality, lacked any real self-confidence when it came to women.

How they actually ended up dating and becoming romantically involved, I don’t really know. I suspect Gail took the lead, given Andrew’s ineptitude, but she denies that, and he isn’t talking. Whatever the genesis of the relationship, it became apparent that they were going to be a couple. Under the rules of the day at that time – couples couldn’t work together – one of them had to leave the charity. Andrew gallantly volunteered to be the one, which is probably a good thing, given that everyone else at the charity would have reached the same conclusion in a nanosecond.

You’d think that, with that tumultuous history at his first employer, Andrew would have some difficulty getting another job, but not so. Within a month, he was working for a government department planning aid programs for India, and within another month he was on his first trip to what was then still called Bombay.

I’d like to report that his decade working for the government was marked by a kinder, gentler Andrew, but that was not to be. He continued to fight against what he saw as lack of commitment, incompetence, and failure to dream big. At the government, though, he had a wider field of fire: not just his own government department, but also the many charities with whom the government was partnering on projects. He pushed all of them, often to the brink and beyond.

Yet if you ask Andrew about that period of his life, he wouldn’t even talk about his work at all. Everything truly important during that decade was personal. Ideas, and changing the world, were still important, but a bit on the back burner.

Andrew and Gail got married shortly after he started with the government, and within two years they had their first son. By the time Andrew left the government in 1991, they had three sons, a house in the Ottawa suburbs, and a garage full of hockey and football equipment. He also went through two personal tragedies: the divorce of his mother and father, both in their fifties, and the death of Gail’s younger sister in a car accident later the same year.

Andrew left the government because, at 39, it was no longer enough for him to have potential. When a management position came up, someone else got the job. When he asked why, he was told in clear terms that he was hard to get along with, and so perhaps he was not really management material.

To his credit, he didn’t leave out of spite, or anger. He just realized that, if he wanted to accomplish anything really big, it would have to be somewhere else.

His solution wasn’t a new job. No idiot, Andrew realized that working for someone else might not suit his strong personality. That led to an improbable solution: he would establish, and even fund, his own charity.

The combination of a house bought in the early eighties, and in 1991 worth twice as much, plus Gail’s assiduous saving habits, meant that Gail and Andrew were financially on solid ground. Andrew decided to dig that ground up a bit, taking a $25,000 second mortgage on the house to fund New World, a charity that would finally do some things right.

New World – not its real name, of course – didn’t have a very clear vision at the outset. It was going to raise money in Canada, and use that money to raise the health, standard of living, and educational prospects of Africa and South Asia.

Andrew may have been aggressive, even a little bit crazy, but by that time he knew quite a lot about foreign aid and how it works. He also knew lots of people at other charities, and many donors who wanted to see change happen. Thus, while his vision may have been a tad vague, he started the charity with a number of useful tools, and he put those to work immediately. He started a newsletter, seeking both donors and proposals for good projects. He got both, and he also got good people asking to work for him. (Little did they know…)

Within a year, he had his first success, a partnership with the University of Guelph to send agricultural students on work programs to African farming villages. They would go, not just with their skills and willingness to work, but also with tools, equipment and other valued commodities. The university gave them scholastic credit, preparatory training, and supervision in the field. His old government employers helped pave the way locally, and the local government turned out to be enthusiastically supportive. New World provided the vision, and the money. He didn’t even have to use his own money. Donations were coming in at a good clip.

Suddenly Andrew was somewhat of a star in foreign aid circles. Stories in newspapers, and requests to speak at conferences, were just the tip of the iceberg. Astute as always, he immediately announced a second project – chicken breeding in India – and hired people to move it forward as the money came in. Which it did.

On the home front, things were not so rosy. With three boys, 11, 8, and 6, Gail was not happy with Andrew’s unrelenting, twenty-four hour a day commitment to New World. She wanted him to recommit to his family as well. To do that, she wanted Andrew to hire a senior manager to run the charity on a day to day basis.

Andrew knew for certain (!) that no-one would be able to run his charity as well as he did, but he also knew that he couldn’t be away from his young family all the time. He relented, even permitting Gail to have a say in who he hired (so that, as she put it, “he didn’t just hire a secretary”). This ended up being the first step in the real success of New World.

Although blessed with early wins, Andrew was not satisfied with one town in India having healthier chickens, or one village in Africa learning more successful agricultural methods. He had one idea after another. Now, though, in addition to being shot down by potential charitable and government partners, many of his ideas – often dubbed “grandiose” – were being shot down by Roger, his new second in command.

Still projects kept coming. Each project success spurred further donations. Money in the bank wasn’t helping anyone, so new projects had to be launched. The projects that were actually doable were smaller scale than Andrew liked, but they were still something. The Guelph partnership expanded, first to other villages, then to other universities. A German government aid program partnered on the chicken breeding plan, and it also expanded to other towns. A project was launched to organize local women in Indonesia into a “company” of sorts that manufactured clothing for domestic sale. Andrew discovered micro-lending, leading to improved methods of delivering economic assistance in Africa and the Caribbean.

The accolades started coming in – awards, newspaper stories, public honours – but a couple of things were spoiling the party.

First, Andrew and Roger were at odds. Andrew always wanted things done his way, no surprise, but he had hired someone with a mind of his own. The big picture projects were not going ahead. The ones with a smaller scope and higher probability of success were going ahead, and they were succeeding. Andrew wanted to change the world. That wasn’t happening. The baby steps New World was taking were not enough, so Andrew and Roger fought.

Second, Andrew, at the age of 46, decided that it was time to have an affair with an employee of New World. Even at the time, he knew it was a bad idea, on so many levels. But he allowed himself one “boys will be boys” exemption. Surely someone doing all the good things he was doing was allowed that?

Gail – sweet, patient, flowers in her hair Gail – was by that time parenting her 18, 15 and 13 year old sons with less than full participation from Andrew. She didn’t accept the “exemption”, and over the objections of everyone who knew them, and the protests of her sons, and Andrew’s increasingly desperate apologies, she kicked Andrew out. She made clear – louder than anyone would have anticipated – that her relationship with Andrew was permanently over. If she couldn’t trust him, what was left?

Andrew, to his credit, realized he had screwed things up, and moved to make his life better. His affair was over, never to be repeated, and he made Roger the executive head of New World. Andrew backed off, taking a more strategic and creative role, focusing more on his family and less on his work.

If you ask Andrew about the ten years that followed, he will describe them in dark tones. New World kept growing, but Andrew wasn’t at the heart of it any more. Roger now was truly in charge, and made all of the major decisions. Andrew still chaired the board, and still had lots of ideas. He came into work every day, and despite the underlying reality he still got much of the credit, including major public recognition. But Andrew knew it wasn’t his baby any more. Some of the 150 employees only vaguely understood Andrew’s role in starting the charity.

At the same time, his kids spent their teenage years and beyond with a two day a week dad. They left high school, went to university, found jobs, and started their lives, all with Andrew only intermittently involved. It isn’t that he didn’t try. He just wasn’t a day to day part of their lives. He had a good relationship with his boys, but it wasn’t the same as being there in the kitchen when they came down for breakfast.

Five years ago, at the age of 57, Andrew’s life changed again. Roger, known for his workaholic intensity, had a sudden, fatal heart attack. New World, now an established and successful charitable organization, was without a leader.

The board of directors immediately turned to Andrew to step in, but he didn’t want the job. He didn’t believe he would good for the organization. so he declined. It was only after intervention by many people, including Gail and his sons, that he agreed to take it on.

Is this a redemption story? Not really. Certainly Andrew at 57 was a more mellow and pragmatic person than when he started New World at 39, or when he first worked in a charity at 24. On the other hand, he was not a skilled manager, and he knew it. Smart guy, though. Instead of trying to tough it out, he took the reins, then immediately initiated a search for a new CEO.

Andrew retired from the board of directors of New World this year, at 62. His new CEO, now four years on the job, is more of a visionary and less of a nuts and bolts person, but that’s who Andrew wanted. He accepts that the future success of New World – and the vision being implemented – is not in his hands, but hers.

The other thing that happened is that Andrew and Gail are now back together after their “separation” of fourteen years.

If you read Andrew’s story, it sounds like a pretty successful life. Yes, it was marred by some personal failures, both at work and at home, but overall most people would consider his a life well lived (at least so far). His three adult sons are happy and successful, and despite everything they love both their parents. His charity is the cornerstone of many successful projects around the world, and has helped countless people improve their lives. He has letters after his name, the result of some of the honours bestowed on him by an appreciative society. How many people can say that?

It’s just that…Andrew doesn’t agree.

For Andrew, the story is simple. He set out to change the world. The world is still the same as it was. He failed. Full stop.

Andrew is, as already noted, no idiot. He gets that he made some things happen, and he gets that good things resulted. He just doesn’t think it’s enough. He thinks he could have, and should have, done more.

Perhaps as he grows older, he will take a more tolerant view of himself and his actions. Maybe, particularly with Gail’s help, he will see the glass of his life so far as being half full rather than mostly empty, as he does now.

Right now, though, he is wondering whether the old man that he has become – in his mind – can ever do anything worthwhile to redeem himself.

     –  Jay Shepherd, May 11, 2015

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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