Saturday, December 31, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 46 - Uncle James

James Skaggs, 1922-2016
The last time I saw my great Uncle James, I asked him how he was doing.  He said fine, though he was annoyed that he had shrunk by one inch, down to six foot-two or -three.  "And I can't dunk anymore," he said, though he was pleased he had been able to show the younger generation some good moves on the basketball court the previous week.

Uncle James died this morning, days short of his 95th birthday. His posture was better when I saw him a few months ago than mine will ever be. His good nature and kindness and decency set a standard.

He was my father's mother's brother. He had spent his career working in mining in eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia.  He was one of a kind.

RIP, Uncle James.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 45 - "Hick" in Overalls

This great piece by Bill Easterly dissecting the temptations and dangers of stereotyping brought to mind the following story.

In 1979, I had a teaching assistant for my undergraduate statistics class at Chapel Hill. For some reason, the real professor was sick or a no show, so this guy had to teach the whole course. He was a good ol' boy - probably all of 24 or 25 years old - and he told us he was from rural North Carolina (Farmville, I think).  My heart sank when he walked in sporting an incredibly ill-fitting pair of overalls.  With a smirk on my face I tried - without success - to slip out the back door.  He called the class to attention, and said something to the effect of: 
“Now listen up boys and girls.  I want you to write these five things down in your little notebooks, and if you remember nothing else from the entire semester, just regurgitate ‘em on the final exam, and you will pass.  Here we go, ready? 1) Population distributions (at least normal ones) have a mean.  2) Population distributions have a variance around the mean. 3) Populations with a positive mean can have part of their distribution in negative territory, and you gotta keep this in mind, because it can be really bad news.  4) Populations with different means often have hugely overlapping distributions, so they ain’t all that different when it comes down to it.  5) Over time, especially for human populations, the mean can change, the variance can change, and even the individual observations can change position in the distribution.  Now, let me show you how to draw this stuff, and then I want you to get your little butts out of here and go back to your fraternity and sorority parties.”  
I wrote those five things down, and in those 30 minutes I learned half or more of what I know today  And it’s taken me decades to realize how lucky I was to have that “hick” in overalls for a teaching assistant.  I wish I knew his name so I could thank him personally.

Saturday, July 30, 2016


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 44 - Bob Whittle

William Robert Whittle, 1953-2016
My uncle Bob taught me important things about how to live and how to die.

In the 1960s, at his parents place at "The Lake" in rural Kentucky, he taught us nephews and nieces card tricks, practical jokes, and how to make trouble without getting into (too much) trouble.

In late 1979 and early 1980, he and his wife Paula looked after me when I was a lonely college freshman living near by.

In the late 1990s, I watched and learned as he left a job working for "the man" and started his own business.

In the 2000s, I became more aware of how he was a friend to all and a stranger to none, something I have tried (and failed) to emulate. I hope to do better with the parenting skills he taught me.

And then, in May, just a few weeks before he died, I was stunned to get an invitation from him to a lobster bake.  He knew he had only a short time to live and wanted to assemble friends and family  for one last party while he could still enjoy a good meal and conversation.  We assembled at the same "Lake" place where we spent so much time in the 1960s.  We ate an enormous amount of outstanding lobster while he regaled us with a tale of a practical joke he had played on his surgeon and the nurses a few days before.

And then, on June 15, he was gone.  He was only 62. But I feel lucky to have had him as my uncle, and as a role model, for any amount of time.  RIP, Uncle Bob.

Monday, June 27, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 43 - Dr. John Niparko

John Niparko, 1955- 2016

John Niparko died April 25, aged 61.

A pioneer of cochlear implants, John transformed the world for thousands of people with severe hearing loss. In addition to his surgery and teaching, he co-founded the Listening Center at Johns Hopkins, and then the River School in Washington, DC - both with Nancy Mellon, his frequent collaborator.

I saw his work first hand: he gave my son the ability to hear for the first time at age four, and then to begin speaking soon thereafter.

There are many things to be said not only for John's clinical and academic accomplishments, but also for his humanity.  He would reassure parents when their kids came for testing, and then go into the gym next door to shoot hoops with the kids to relieve their anxiety.

I am profoundly grateful to John Niparko for what he has done - for the world, and for my family.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

100 Days of Gratitude, Day 42 - Shari Berenbach

Shari Berenbach
Shari Berenbach has died.  Most of us had no idea she was so ill.  That is because she always - always - had a smile on her face and an encouraging word for those of us trying to develop new ways of creating opportunity for the world.

I met her in Budapest in 2001 at a small, intense meeting of some of the early pioneers in social finance.  Most of us were in the early ideation phase, but through her visionary work at Calvert Foundation Shari had already achieved more than the majority of social entrepreneurs do in a lifetime.

I remember that at that meeting someone referred to her as the "grandmother" of social finance.  She was a bit offended, saying that she was only in her 40s!  But in retrospect, it was true: Despite the small age difference, she treated many of us over the years with fond indulgence, and helped us the way that grandmothers do - in my case acting as the original fiscal sponsor of a crazy idea called GlobalGiving in the shaky early years.  GlobalGiving might well not exist today if not for her early help.

There are many good people trying to do good in the world. But Shari stood out.  RIP, Shari. May the rest of us live up to your example.