‘Lasting Impressions’

The Bonfils-Stanton Foundation held an annual ceremony yesterday to honor achievements in the arts and humanities, community service, and science and medicine. The foundation also introduced its 2011 Livingston Fellows. They hail from five different nonprofit organizations and include Alyssa Kopf, CEO of Community Shares of Colorado and a board member of the Colorado Association of Funders.

We’re reprinting the reflections from a past winner of the Bonfils-Stanton community service award. The essay appeared in “Lasting Impressions,” a book published last year about the recipients of a prize that has become known as “Colorado’s Nobel.”

By Sam Gary

It’s an honor to be asked to share my personal philosophy. It’s also a little confusing because, at 83, I’m still trying to figure out if I have one. I don’t exactly have a philosopher’s background.

IBM used to have a one-word motto: Think. I was very young when it occurred to me that maybe I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t do well in school—I was always thinking about fishing when I should have been thinking about geometry. Teachers told me to try “doubly hard,” so I’d try triply hard, but it didn’t seem to get me anywhere.

Somehow I managed to make it through high school and several years in the Coast Guard and the Maritime Service, but I really had no direction. I had friends studying medicine and law, going into business, but there was nothing I felt driven to do. On top of that, I seemed to have a real limitation. Today, they call it dyslexia.

But since they made it easy for veterans to go to college, I ended up at Cazenovia Junior College—for women. I got a good job stoking the furnace in a girls’ dormitory. (An incentive was that my dog could live there with me, in the basement.) I thought no one would realize my major motivation wasn’t education but the opportunity to be around all those girls.

One man did, though—Charles Schwerin, the dorm master. He was smart enough to know what was going on, but we still had a comfortable, open relationship. He knew I was having trouble in school, but he never lectured me or told me to try doubly hard, and eventually he suggested I transfer to Syracuse University, a much more demanding school nearby. “You don’t have to love college,” he said, “you just need to hang in there.”

Hanging in there turned out to be a pretty important skill. I graduated from college in two-and-a-half years, with a grade point average of 2.5, which didn’t exactly catapult me into graduate school but impressed me all the same. In retrospect, I couldn’t have done it if Chuck hadn’t been only twenty miles away, reminding me that I could.

Nearly fifty years later, I called his old number in Massachusetts.

I said, “Chuck?”

After a long pause, he said, “Sam?”

He remembered me!

By this time, I was an established oilman. Since this was a more prestigious career than stoking the furnace in a girl’s dormitory, I’d sometimes been tempted to reinvent myself as an accomplished, hard-working person. But I knew much of my success was due to nothing more than my ability to get up in the morning, and to having gotten to connect with other people like Chuck. By then, I also knew that some people are born on the wrong end of the stick, through no fault of their own, without the basic tools it takes to participate in society. When I got involved in philanthropy, I realized that we have a tendency to put these people in cans, to try to fix them. When that doesn’t work, we tend to dismiss them as hopeless.

Instead of doing that with me, Chuck had given me a little encouragement, a little time to figure out how to think. It’s as if he looked at me and thought: Why not?         

Since then, I’ve approached a number of potentially impossible situations by asking that exact question: Why not? There are usually plenty of reasons not to do something, and it’s never hard to find someone who’s happy to point them out. Others have not only entertained the question, but hung in there with me as I tried to find an answer. I’ve been lucky.

If you want philosophy, how about this:

Recognize potential.

Hang in there.

Why not?

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In founding the Piton Foundation, Sam Gary pioneered a model of urban philanthropy that unites neighborhood schools, churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations to improve public education, create economic opportunity, and strengthen civic leadership.