Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine Letter to the Editor–November 20, 2005–Beating the Odds >> Leisure >> Magazine


Beating the odds

Published November 20, 2005

I read with interest your article on the Joffrey Ballet (“A Leap of Faith,” Oct. 23). When the Joffrey was still in New York, I was asked by the firm that employed me to do some research for a client on the Joffrey board who wanted to know how the Chicago philanthropic community would view the idea of another ballet company moving to the city.

When I asked foundations and other organizations that funded the arts if they would support another ballet troupe, I was met with stunned silence. It was obvious to me that, of all of the performing arts in Chicago, dance is the least supported, especially ballet.

I recall reporting to the Joffrey board member that, while not impossible, getting the necessary financial support for the Joffrey in Chicago would be extremely difficult, at best.

What a pleasure to read that this wonderful ballet company has not only survived, but thrived in its adopted Chicago home-a leap of faith, indeed!


Sometimes Things Just Work Out

I had the distinct privilege and honor of introducing the Tony Award winning actor, Joe Mantegna (now Dr. Joe Mantegna) at the commencement ceremony for the graduate school of psychology, where I am a trustee. My introductory remarks were as follows:

President Horowitz, I have the great honor to present to you Mr. Joe Mantegna, for the honorary degree of Doctor of Psychology.

Mr. Mantegna was born and raised right here in Chicago. A graduate of Morton East High School, his early days as a professional actor trace to the Organic Theatre Company where he worked alongside the likes of actor Dennis Franz and playwright David Mamet. In 1984, he won a Tony Award for originating the role of Ricky Roma in the Broadway production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Mr. Mantegna’s film work includes House of Games, Homicide, Bugsy, The Godfather Part III, and Searching for Bobby Fischer. On television he received Emmy nominations for his roles in The Last Don, The Rat Pack, and The Starter Wife. He also is known by millions of Simpsons’ fans as the voice of Fat Tony. He currently can be seen starring on the CBS series Criminal Minds.

Mr. Mantegna is being honored today for his work on behalf of children with autism, which spans more than 20 years. He is actively involved with organizations such as Autism Speaks, Actors for Autism, the Easter Seals, the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center at Eisenhower Medical Center, and HOME Ownership Made Easy, an organization that offers affordable housing opportunities to individuals with disabilities and their families.

Mr. Mantegna, allow me to be the first to formally welcome you to our academic community. I am confident that you will feel at home as all of the graduates seated before you share your commitment to service and community. These values, along with education and innovation, are core commitments of a Chicago School education.

I now ask that you please join me, along with Chairman Grunsten, and Dr. Drake Spaeth, Chair of the Faculty Council, as we award the Honorary Degree. This degree is presented in accord with the resolution authorizing its awarding at the annual meeting of The Chicago School Board of Trustees on May 16, 2008.

Before the ceremony, I had asked Joe a question that I am sure that he has been asked many times. I said to him, “How is it that you went into acting?”

He replied. “Well, I tried out for a play in high school and got the part-and, I loved it. Then, I tried out for some more plays and got those parts-and, I was hooked. I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”

He continued, “There were some disappointments along the way. I tried out for West Side Story, but didn’t get the part. I was devastated-but, continued auditioning for other roles, and was successful in getting those. And, I never looked back. I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

He paused for a minute, and then looked at me and said, “You know, sometimes things just work out.”

I was stunned. We do forget that, don’t we? When things don’t work out for us, we tend to fall into the trap of thinking that it never will. But, they sometimes do.

Sometimes things do work out.

It was a great reminder from the newly minted “Dr. Mantegna”. Fat Tony couldn’t have said it better himself!

Father's Day-2008

I found the attached article (link provided) fascinating, not so much for its content, but for how the reporter found me, and how she conducted the interview for this article.

The reporter “googled” blogs on Father’s Day, with the words “father who has died”, and up popped an entry that I had written on my blog on my father for Father’s Day in June, 2005. From there, she commented on that blog entry, and asked if I wanted to be interviewed for an article that she was writing on this subject.

I was amazed. I had no idea that blogs could be “googled”–but, sure enough, there is a search button on google for exactly that purpose. Fascinating!

It also was interesting on how she conducted the interview. It was all done via email. This was a first for me. Had I not picked up the phone to get some idea of who I was talking to, and the general tenor of the article that she was writing, we would have never had a verbal conversation–equally fascinating!

It is, obviously, a “brave new world” out there.

Happy Father’s Day!

The Brush of Angel Wings

I had the most fascinating conversation with a woman whom I barely know at a dinner, recently. The conversation took place at a table with people who were virtually strangers, with a person sitting between this woman and me. We talked over (or around) her.

I’m not sure how the subject came up-but, this woman proceeded to talk about a time early in her nursing career when she supervised the “preemie” ward in a hospital during the night shift. As her eyes widened and her face glowed, she talked softly about how, on several occasions, she was the only one in the room when a baby was fighting for his or her life. It was only her-alone with this frail infant-with the two of them inextricably locked together in their desperate struggle to keep the flickering light of human existence from being extinguished.

This woman was transformed as she told this beautiful story. A quiet sense of spirituality permeated her voice as she spoke. I asked, “Are you religious?” She replied, “Well, I was raised as a Catholic, but haven’t practiced that in many years.”  I went on, “Do you consider yourself to be spiritual at all?” She replied, “Yes, I do. I do consider myself to be a spiritual person.”

I thought to myself as she was relating this story, and watching her countenance change and her eyes sparkle as she was telling it, that there was more than just a nurse and a child in that ward-that, surely, the spirit of God was present, as well.

I took a chance and asked, “Do you think that there was a spiritual presence in that room on that evening? Do you think that there was some sort of divine intervention that was helping you keep this child alive?” (With this, the woman who was sitting between us dropped her jaw, in disbelief that this conversation was occurring between the two of us. It was rather comical to watch).

She replied with somewhat downcast eyes, “Yes, I do.” I pressed on, “Did this and other experiences that you’ve had like it (since she said that this happened on more than one occasion) change your life?” She said, “Yes, it has.”

Knowing that she said that she has a daughter, who is a young adult living abroad, I asked, “Have you ever told anyone else about this?” She said, “No.”

I said, “Don’t be selfish. Don’t you think that your daughter someday would want to know these beautiful things about her mother? I think that you should write this down, if not for all of us who could learn so much from it and similar stories that you might have within you, then for your daughter.”

She said, “Well, I have difficulty writing things like this. The words just don’t come easily to me.” I said, “”Don’t be frightened. Don’t be scared. Just write what you feel, what’s in your heart. First draft-right out of the box. Your daughter will understand.”

She said, “Well, I’ll try.”

I hope that she does, for my guess is that there are many beautiful stories within her heart that her daughter someday would want to know -like the story of how her mother felt the brush of angel wings on that miraculous night in the hospital ward long ago.

Children of a Lesser God

We Catholics can fulfill what’s known in church doctrine as the “Sunday Obligation” by going to Mass on late Saturday afternoon, or early Saturday evening. Since I’m the only one in the entire Dillon family who keeps up this tradition, I usually go to Mass at our local parish church at 4:00 PM on Saturday afternoon. I have been doing this for many years, now.

But, I must confess to you that I usually arrive late, sometime after the sermon (now called the “homily”), but before the part of the service known as the “Offertory”. This is another part of church doctrine that I recall. You are considered to have attended a complete Mass, if you are present for at least the three principal parts of the service: the offertory, consecration, and communion. (See, I learned well). So, I just slip in “under the wire”. (I wonder if I will “slip in” to heaven in the same way).

At any rate, since I arrive late, I usually wind up standing in the back of the church. This vantage point affords me a good opportunity to view the parishioners who attend this 4:00 PM service, even though I largely see them from the rear.

For many years, I have watched at this Mass a girl (now a young woman), who is both very severely physically and mentally handicapped. She is there with her parents-and, in her younger years, wore a bicycle helmet, probably to protect her in case of a fall.

I am fascinated by how this young woman’s parents so lovingly tend to her. They calm her down, when she gets excited. They wipe her mouth, when she begins to drool. They whisper what must be cheerful words to her during the service, since she reacts to them with a smile.

How wonderful-and, yet, so heartbreaking. How these parents must have suffered, knowing that they have a daughter like this. Yet, you would never know it. For her parents always radiate a warm, loving smile, as they tend to her needs. Amazing! I am so ashamed, since I doubt whether I would measure up, if I was in a similar circumstance.

On the Saturday eve before Mother’s Day, I was at this Mass, watching this young woman and her parents, when it was obvious that she had to go to the ladies room, which is toward the entrance to the church, where I was standing. Her mother gently helped her up from the pew-and, as the young woman turned around, our eyes locked, for a few brief seconds. I quickly looked away in embarrassment. But, in those few brief moments when I looked into her eyes, I saw no hurt, no pain, no desperation-just a creature of God, there to worship in her own way, like the rest of us.

I saw this same look in her mother.

Surely, I concluded, that this young woman could not be included among the “Children of a Lesser God”, but must be loved by God even more than the rest of us. I think that her parents must have felt the same way.

Because It Is There and Into Thin Air

I attended a real estate breakfast seminar some months ago hosted by a well known Chicago civic organization, and had the good fortune to sit next to a gentleman that I read about some time ago, who is the oldest person to attempt to climb Mt. Everest. Actually, I spied him out of the corner of my eye as I entered the room, and slipped quietly into the chair next to him at his table.

Before the seminar started, I introducing myself, and told him that I read about his Everest attempt in the local press some time ago. He seemed flattered that I recognized who he was, and was quite eager to engage in a discussion about his attempted feat.

I asked him, when guys his  (our) age seem content to play golf, or possibly even a strenuous game of tennis, why did he choose to attempt to summit the world’s highest mountain?  He replied that, when he was in his late 50’s, he was bored with his job and was becoming lethargic. (I thought that was an interesting statement, since he was a very well known and successful mortgage broker in Chicago). He continued, “One day, a catalogue for outdoor adventure trips appeared on my desk. And, I opened it up and started reading it. I came to the section on white water rafting trips, and signed up for one, did it–and, loved it. I went on several more over the years. The adventure seemed to be good for me and got me motivated again.”

“But”, I said to him, “that doesn’t explain how you came to climb Everest.”

He replied, “Well, after I while, I wanted a new adventure. White water rafting wasn’t enough. So, I decided that I’d take up mountain climbing. I did, and liked it. I eventually climbed Mt. McKinley in Alaska–and, then the only challenge left was Everest.”

He seemed like a very warm and open person, so I asked him if climbing Everest was a “religious” experience. He said that religious wasn’t the right word. It was a very “spiritual” experience.  “How could it not be?”, he queried. “When you see the magnificence of the mountain, and become aware of the enormous challenge to climb it, it becomes a very spiritual experience”.

The room was beginning to hum with activity, as the breakfast seminar was going to begin. So, I hurried to slip in my final question. I looked him in the eyes and asked, “What did you learn from the experience?” He said that no one had ever asked him that question before.

He thought a bit and said, “I learned patience and kindness.”

I thought that was a fascinating answer. So, I asked him to briefly explain.

“Climbing Everest is the ultimate exercise in patience”, he said. “Simply putting one foot in front of the other is a monumental effort at that altitude. Nothing happens quickly. It is as if life is happening in slow motion. Each little step is a victory by itself. You gain an appreciation of the agonizing slow, steady effort that it takes to climb the mountain. I’ve been a patient man ever since.”

“And kindness?”, I asked.

“I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Sherpa people”, he said. “Their whole culture revolves around helping one another. They made a great and lasting impression on me. The other day, I was driving down the street, and pulled over in my car to help a guy who was having car trouble. I would never have done that before I climbed Everest.”

Patience and kindness. Virtues learned on a mountain climb attempt “because it was there”–and burned in the heart, so they won’t dissipate “into thin air”.

Funny, the speaker at the breakfast seminar was an extremely prominent real estate executive in Chicago. I don’t remember a thing about what he said, but shall never forget the words of my new friend about his Everest climb.

On My Own

It has been a little over a year now since I left the firm and started Dillon Consulting Services LLC. It has been an interesting, if not unexpected, year.

The first thing that happens when, after thirty-three years, you leave a major professional services firm to start your own firm in your early 60’s is that people make an awful lot of unwarranted assumptions. They automatically assume that something happened—that you really got fired from the firm, and that, at your age, the only thing left for you professionally is to hang out your own shingle, since, face it, no one is going to hire you at your advanced age. The other thing that they assume is that you must be in desperate financial straights, since they figure that your regular income has been “cut off”—so, you must be living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and mac and cheese.

All of this without knowing any facts, whatsoever. This is the convenient stereotype. And, we tend to automatically put people into stereotypical categories. It makes thinking about them, and positioning them in the status hierarchy, so much easier, even though it may bear absolutely no relation to the actual truth.

The second thing that happens when you leave a major firm to start your own firm is that you are swiftly dropped by your so-called “friends” and “business acquaintances”. This is because, without a major firm behind you, the perception is that YOU can no longer do anything for THEM. And, that is what it is all about, isn’t it—-THEM.

It gets even worse.

The perception is that, not only can YOU no longer do anything for THEM, but–but, heaven forbid, now YOU MIGHT BE ASKING THEM FOR SOMETHING! And, my God, that is a “no-no”! I mean, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. See, THEY want to be in a position to be asking YOU for things, not the other way around. Oh, the horror! Oh, the calamity!

Of course, I knew all of this before I left the firm, since I’ve seen this occur with many others who have done the same thing. But, it must be a hell of a shock to executives who have sat in the catbird seat at major firms for many years, and who now find themselves adrift on the lonely sea of solo entrepreneurialism.

Passover and Easter-2007

I think that the messages of Passover and Easter are basically the same. It is faith in God’s divine love and providence that enables us to pass through the difficult times in our lives and gives us hope for a better future, both in this life and, for Christians at least, in the life to come.

Life is difficult at times. We know this. But, it is faith that sustains us. I have noticed that people without faith seem to stare into the dark, black hole of nothingness, when faced with life’s seeming overwhelming difficulties. How tragic—and, how I fear for them. They so easily fall into the valley of despair. But, the Passover and Easter stories tell us that, with faith in God’s love for us, we can overcome these difficulties, and have hope for a better future.

As one person said to me, “it’s not what you want, but what you get—that’s what you have to deal with.”

Rose Kennedy was reportedly once asked, with so many tragedies in her life, how she could remain so upbeat—so positive. It was said that her reply was, “Well, if the birds sing after the passing of a storm, why can’t we?”

Good advice. And, it is our faith in God’s abiding love for us that gives us the voice to sing that song.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. Happy Easter!

Winners and Losers

The world seems to love a winner. That is certainly true in sports, in business—and, in life in general. Why, I believe that a best selling business book is even entitled, “Winning”. But, it has been my experience that those who “win”, at least in terms of how the world defines it, win because of their selfishness, their ruthlessness, their meanness, their complete lack of disregard for the welfare of others. But, the world seems not to care about the means—only the end. And, the end of this game is winning at all costs.

Those who “loose”, on the other hand, seem to loose, not out of stupidity or laziness, but because of their meekness, their humbleness, their selflessness, their kindness, their generosity, their poverty of spirit, and their unwillingness to “win” at the expense of others. They may have “lost” (in business or in the game of life, as the world defines it), but they are certainly not “losers”. The end doesn’t justify the means for them.

Could it be that the so called “winners”, as the world defines it, are actually, in the end, the real “losers”? And, that those who have “lost” (notice that I didn’t say “losers”) end up the real “winners”?

I think that might be the case.

Famous Last Words

In last Saturday’s week-end Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan wrote a beautiful little piece on the last words that were captured on answering machines or voice mails by the victims of the 9-11 disaster, as they called their loved ones, when the tragedy was unfolding. (She relates that, never before have we had such a complete record of what people say when they are confronted with their own immanent mortality).

Peggy relates in the article that there was not one message of hatred, not one message of “I can’t stand you”…not one message of “You never paid me the alimony”…not one message of “I’ll never forgive you for what you did.”

When these people were at death’s door and life was stripped down to its bare essentials, they invariably expressed their love for whomever they called. They asked for forgiveness for what they might have done. They forgave others for any transgressions that they may have caused…and, they asked the silent voices on the other end of the line to pray for them, for, as one person reputedly said, “I haven’t been very good”.

Isn’t that how we should act…isn’t that what we should say…throughout our lives, and not just at the end, particularly since we don’t know when our “end” is coming, like these people did?