My wife and I have been in a Book group for 33 years. The co-founder is turning 90 on March 7. When we joined the group, all of us were in our 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s. Now we are in our 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. We have been through a lot together – diseases, deaths, disasters, and disagreements as well as celebrations, joys, and shared experiences. We have a deep and abiding respect for each other.
Fox, our co-founder and 90-turner, has been a steadfast supporter and significant contributor to the group for its entire duration. I first met Fox 37 years ago when my wife and I moved to Basking Ridge, New Jersey. I had left a highly secure job in a large hospital system in Phoenix, Arizona with lots of upward career potential, but walked away from the security to accept a job as a sub-contractor for a small consulting firm in NJ with no benefits and no fixed pay. (Yes, I have been known to take reckless risks.) My income depended on how much I billed clients and there were no guarantees. After two years with the firm, I decided to form my own company, Possibilities, Inc., and managed to land a large consulting contract with AT&T where Fox was a Senior Executive.
My former employer was very angry because I didn’t bring the work to his firm, so he wrote a long letter to my client at AT&T insisting that they fire me and give the work to his firm. My client called Fox and asked for his input and opinion. Fox stood solidly behind me. I am forever grateful for his belief in me, because life could have turned out much differently without his support. That starter story gives you a sense of the depth and breadth of our relationship, but also who Fox is. Here’s the backstory.
Fox grew up in Mississippi in the 20’s and 30’s. He was smart enough and ambitious enough to get accepted to Purdue’s engineering school in 1945, the year of my birth. He excelled at Purdue, went to work for AT&T, and finished his MBA at the MIT Sloan School while he was working. Fox worked his way up the ladder and eventually became a senior executive when AT&T had over one million employees. During AT&T’s early history, its vision statement revolved around “Providing Universal Service” which employees universally took very seriously. So from his early days, achievement, excellence, and service were programmed into Fox’s DNA. He even served two stints in the Army after WWII. His cultural conditioning, innate capabilities, and spiritual commitments have remained consistent throughout his life. Service is his operating system.
Over the years, Fox and I worked together in multiple capacities. We were both members of the local Presbyterian Church, we worked together on the YMCA Board for several years, and Fox solicited my help to conduct strategic planning sessions for the VNA where he was also active. Fox is not a flash in the pan kind of guy. You know – here today, gone tomorrow. He worked for AT&T for over 35 years, he has been a member of the YMCA Board for over 30 years, and has served on the VNA Board for over 20 years. In all of those capacities, he engages fully in the process. Fox is not only extremely generous with his time and money, but he also brings valuable perspective to whatever meeting he attends. I have never seen such an unrelenting dedication to improve whatever situation he encounters, i.e. to be of service.
When he retired from AT&T, he didn’t spend four days a week at the golf course working on his short game; he spent 7 days a week contributing to the community and helping a variety of organizations work on their long game. He didn’t sit back in his lounge chair and become a critic of all that was wrong in the world; he leaned forward and took an active role in doing what was right in his local community. He didn’t categorically dismiss any idea contrary to his own; he did his research and sought out new ideas. That’s just who he is.
As you can see, I have enormous respect, adoration, and love for Fox. And yet we are very different. Over the 33-year history of our book group, we have read over 300 books. In practically all of our discussions, Fox and I disagreed on one aspect of the book or another. We liked and disliked different books. We found different heroes. Fox liked linear, non-fiction, fact-infused story lines. I liked non-linear, fiction, idea-infused plots. Fox often took very conservative positions on the positions presented in the books. I tended toward more liberal points of view.
Over the years, the book group engaged in open and honest conversations about politics, religion, sexual orientation, race relations, and social issues. The discussions were always candid and respectful. One far right member of the group dropped out of the club, but everyone else has stayed together in spite of our differences. Fox and I often held very different points of view and expressed them with great emotion. But we always emerged from the conversations as friends.
Even when I disagree with Fox, I know that he has done his homework, thoughtfully considered his positions, and listened carefully to opposing points of view. He always expresses himself with restraint and respect. As a result, I never see Fox as the “opposition,” but as someone who helps me think more deeply about how I arrived at my opinion and how I presented it. Yup, he is smart like a Fox.
Fox represents what many people have lost. Instead of remaining open to new ideas and collaboration, large groups of people have retreated to entrenched, competitive positions where progress is impossible. If we are ever going to find a bridge for the ever-widening and hostile divide that separates us, we need to learn from the example Fox sets – even at 90 years old when most people are pretty stuck in their ways.
I have no idea how Fox voted in this current election, but I do know that whatever decision he made, it was based on a rigorous analysis of the facts and a thorough review of how well each candidate reflected his or her deeply held values. I respect that.
When my five-year-old grandson acts out in ways that don’t make me proud, I ask him, “Did you forget who you were for a moment? It seems to me that many folks have either forgotten who they were or ceased to care who they have become. In the past, conservatives, who remembered who they were, conjured an image of someone like Fox: caring, responsible, reliable, thoughtful, pragmatic, open, respectful, rigorous, honest, ethical etc. Even though I might disagree strongly with many conservative beliefs and policies, I could relate to that kind of person just as I can relate to Fox. He always seems to remember who he is.
I wish the conservatives would once again start emulating someone like Fox. At 90 years old, Fox still sets the standard for what a decent, deliberate, and decisive conservative looks like. He is all about serving others instead of serving himself. I wish they would turn to him as a model and a mentor. They may have lost their way, but Fox continues to pave the way for what growing old with dignity looks like. America grew strong because of people like Fox. We need people like him to find a constructive path to the future. He has my highest admiration and gratitude as he approaches his 10th decade of life and service.
I just turned 72 on Saturday, I hope in 18 years, when I turn 90, I will be as strong, sharp and sensitive as Fox. Thanks Fox, for challenging my thinking and inspiring me to live my life as consistently with my values as I can and for as long as I am able. May we continue to value our differences and learn from our disagreements. And, as I grow older, I hope I too can be smart as a Fox.