A Life Changing Conversation

During the time that I was working for the real estate consulting firm back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I accompanied the chairman of the board of the firm to a meeting with a client of ours. As we were sitting in the reception area in the suite of offices where the meeting was going to take place, the chairman turned to me and said, “I can tell that you’re an Irish Catholic.”

I replied, “Why, because I have the map of Ireland written on my face?”

He said, “No, it’s because you always ask.”

I said, “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

He replied, “Well, you always ask for permission before you do something. It’s the same way that I envision you sitting in a class room and asking permission before going to the bathroom, or something like that.”

I laughed and said, “Well, if you had both the Irish Christian Brothers and the Jesuits as teachers, and if you did something wrong got the living you-know-what beat out of you, you’d ask too.”

He went on to say, “You know, Paul, a Jewish kid is raised differently. (This man was obviously Jewish). A Jewish kid is taught to very carefully assess what the upside potential might be in any decision, and weigh that very carefully against what the downside risks might be as a result of making that decision. And, you know, Paul, typically when you do that, the downside risks aren’t that bad.”

He continued, “And, even if the downside risks turn out to be much worse than originally thought, and it turns out that a horrible mistake has been made, the Jewish kid is taught to beat his breast and say, ‘My God, how could I have been so stupid? I don’t know how I could have done such a thing. How awful. I’m terribly sorry-and, it won’t happen again’.”

And then he dropped the punch line. He said, “And, really, Paul, what else is left to say after someone says that they’re sorry? Besides, if you ask permission, fifty percent of the time, someone’s going to say ‘no’.”

That one conversation changed my life, forever. I concluded that he was absolutely right.

It’s much better to beg for forgiveness, than it is for permission.

The only problem with all of this is that I have taught this lesson very well to my children-and, they’ve sometimes driven me into fits of apoplexy as a result.

The Rich and the Poor

A wise old Jesuit priest once said in a college class that I took, “If you’re searching for God, don’t hang around with rich people. They haven’t got a clue. Look into the eyes of the truly poor…the helpless…the destitute, for there you will see the true face of God.”

Think about that the next time that you pass a poor person on the street!

Shorty Gets the Shaft

A couple of years ago, I was contacted by a search consultant (also euphemistically known in the business community as a “headhunter”) about a very senior business development position at a major financial institution in Chicago. I was very excited about this opportunity, because it was a HUGE job, with a HUGE salary, at a VERY, VERY prestigious establishment.

Once the headhunter received my resume’, he was as equally excited about this opportunity, saying that it would be a perfect match for someone with my credentials and experience. We hurriedly set up lunch for the very next day at the Tower Club in the Civic Opera Building at 20 N. Wacker Dr. in Chicago. (For those not in the know, the 20 N. Wacker building is a veritable warren of both headhunters and outplacements consultants. I wonder if they feed off of each other.)

At any rate, on the day of the luncheon, I put on my best blue suit, had a smile on my face, and a very positive and confident attitude. I was at the “top of my game”, so to speak.

As I strode through the door of the Tower Club, I saw the headhunter, whom I had never met before, standing in the doorway. I confidently put out my hand to shake his, and he looked at me and said, “I was expecting someone taller.”

With that, he closed his portfolio and put his pen back in his pocket. We sat down and had a very pleasant lunch. But, the issue of the job never came up.

All of my education, all of my experience, all of my connections, all of my hard work for so many years—meant nothing.


After lunch, we shook hands and parted. There were tears in my eyes as I walked back to the office.

The headhunter never returned my phone calls, when I followed up to enquire about the job-and, I never heard from him again.

The Faustian Bargain

Some years ago, I was exploring the possibility of other jobs in the financial services industry, and spoke with a business acquaintance that I worked with on a couple of civic committees in Chicago. This gentleman had retired some years earlier as the vice chairman of one of the major banks in town. He was very well known in Chicago business and civic circles.

During the course of the conversation, he began to lament the course that he had taken in his business life. He said that he had obtained all of the things the mark success in Chicago’s business community…a big home in Lake Forest…a Jaguar in the driveway…private schools for the kids…country club memberships…European vacations, and the like. (And, make no mistake, that is precisely how we define success in Chicago’s business community. As long as you have all the “toys”, you can even be dishonest and deceitful…as long as you don’t get caught. If you get caught…well then, poor bastard, etc., etc.). But, he felt terrible about how he had obtained them.

He told me that he now regretted how he had “sold out”. He told me that, whenever there were people to be fired at the bank, whether justly or unjustly, he was the “hatchet man”. He told me that, whenever there was something “slimy” to do at the bank, he volunteered for the job. He said that he never stood up for anything, or anybody, other than himself, because that is how he rose up the ladder at the bank; and, he couldn’t give up the” lifestyle” that each career move up the bank’s hierarchy gave him. He was addicted to the “toys”.

But now, like Christopher Marlow’s Dr. Faustus, he regretted what he did in his career-and, he couldn’t go back. He couldn’t undo what he had done.

I was stunned at this turn in the conversation and said nothing.

A few years ago, I was paging through the obits in the local newspaper (what we South Side “micks” euphemistically call the “Irish sports pagers”)-and, there he was… dead at a fairly early age…late sixties or early seventies, I think.

I wondered if he ever reconciled himself with his own conscious-and, with God, before he died.

No one has ever figured out how to attach a U-haul to a hearse!

A Beautiful Smile

As I walk down the streets of the Loop in downtown Chicago, I have the habit of studying the faces of the people that I see coming at me down the street. Many times, in fact, most times, I see faces that are cold, or mean, or selfish, in that typical “What’s in it for me” Chicago style.

This evening, however, I was going into a restaurant for dinner, which is very close to where I live. As I was approaching the door to enter the restaurant, a man was holding the door open for a very elderly, hunched-over lady, who was exiting the restaurant, creeping along, ever so slowly, with a walker. She saw me patiently waiting for her to shuffle through the door, before I could approach the entrance. She slowly looked up at me, and with her bright blue eyes, flashed me the most beautiful smile.

What a lovely way to end the day.

A Writing Career Cut Short

Some time ago, I had a conversation with my long time friend, who is the associate publisher of a major Chicago business publication. He has encouraged me for the past couple of years to write op-ed pieces for his publication. I really could not do that, as long as I was a member of an accounting and consulting firm. But, now that I am “Dillon Consulting Services LLC”, I can say almost anything that I want. Well, I submitted my first op-ed piece to this publication on Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics last week. My friend, who is the associate publisher, loved it. The op-ed editor obviously did not, since she informed me in an email that she wouldn’t consider it. Oh well, if at first you don’t succeed…. I’ve pasted it in below–so, at least it’s getting published SOMEWHERE! I kind of liked bullshit..and, with some clever twists! But, obviously, I’m in the minority on this one.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The article was eventually published in the on-line version of the Chicago Tribune ( in the “Voice of the People” column on May 25, 2006.

Recent press reports have indicated that Chicago will form a committee to explore a bid for the 2016 Olympics. Good. That’s in keeping with the “I Will” and “Make no little plans…” spirit of this city. But, this committee can’t operate as business as usual, or Chicago will taste the agony of defeat, before it ever has a chance to experience the thrill of victory in its Olympic bid.

Past efforts at major civic projects in Chicago haven’t met with great success. The Crosstown Expressway, 1992 World’s Fair, Lake Calumet Airport, and Downtown Circulator all met with resounding defeat, due to either lack of broad community support, political infighting, or sometimes both. Millennium Park seems to be the notable exception, even though it could be argued that this was a more localized downtown improvement project, rather than a major civic endeavor that required support from all areas of the city and both political parties.

If Chicago is going to launch a bid for a major event like the Olympics, with its tremendous economic impact, it can’t be doomed before it even starts. Past committees formed to support major civic endeavors like the 1992 World’s Fair and Lake Calumet Airport generally have been comprised of older, white, downtown oriented business leaders, whose method of operation to date has been to hold up in some downtown club to “hatch” a plan, and then “spring” that plan on Chicago’s citizens and politicians alike, in the feverish hope of gaining support for their brilliant idea. (Full disclosure here-I’m an older, white business guy, who belongs to a downtown club, and who supported many of these past civic endeavors). The rationale for operating in this exclusive way has been that, if too many people (read: people from the neighborhoods) are brought into the “process” too early, then nothing will get done. Of course, nothing got done with these projects, anyhow!

Hopefully, things will be different now. Hopefully, those charged with exploring the feasibility of bringing the 2016 Olympics to our city will learn from past mistakes, and recognize both the changing face of Chicago and the necessity for including all of Chicago’s citizens and all political interests “up front” in the exploratory and planning process.

According to the U.S. Census, when the doomed Crosstown Expressway was being planned in the 1970, Chicago was 65 % white, 33% black, and 2% “all others”. (Hispanics weren’t identified separately). By 1985, when planning for the ill-fated 1992 Chicago World’s Fair was underway, the city was 47% white, 38% black, 13% Hispanic, and 2 % “all others”. And, by 1995, when Lake Calumet Airport’s wings were clipped and the Downtown Circulator fell of its tracks, Chicago was 42 % white, 36 % black, 18 % Hispanic, and 4 % “all others”. As of 2004, the city was 41 % white, 31% black, 24 % Hispanic, and 4 % “all others”.

Chicago has changed. The city is more diverse, now-and, hopefully, the wise heads that populate the committee charged with exploring Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics will realize the necessity for including all of Chicago’s citizens and all interest groups early on in the exploratory and planning process. Otherwise, Chicago will simply have an “Olympic moment”-and, we’ll be watching the games-and the dollars-move to another city.

Veterans' Day 2005

I attended the re-dedication of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Fountain, along the Chicago River, on Veterans’ Day. It is a nifty little park, nestled along the south bank of the river, between State and Wabash streets. It was a beautiful day in Chicago—perfect for an outdoor event like this, with the brilliant fall sun shining about mid-day, and no wind (and this the “Windy City”), with a temperature hovering near sixty degrees, or so.

The politicians were out in full force (my, how they love a dedication!), with several hundred Vietnam Vets and their families providing a ready made audience.

Two things struck me, as I watched the dedication ceremony from various vantage points, and gazed at the weathered countenances of the vets who were in attendance. The first was: God, I look pretty good for my age!! It was hard to believe that most of the Vietnam Vets that I saw at the ceremony were in my age bracket. Some looked more like Korean War vets than Vietnam vets. I concluded that it must be that “clean living” that I adhere to religiously…hee…..hee… The second thing was a bit more serious. It is obvious that, even after thirty or thirty-five years, the wounds from that terrible war have not healed. There was an overwhelming pall of sadness that hung over the ceremony, with remembrances of sons and fathers lost, and families torn apart because of the war.

I shall stroll down to that park often, I think, and sit in silence, as I remember a war that seemed so long ago.

“Hey, Lieutenant”, I hear our company clerk, Tom, call to me, “your Jeep’s ready. Want to take a ride with me into Saigon, this morning? Safer than taking the morning ‘copter shuttle to MACV Headquarters and the Embassy compound. I haven’t lost anyone on Highway 1 yet!”

Gettin' Lucky

As I have mentioned before, sometimes you hear the most interesting things in the health club locker room.

A couple of weeks ago, two guys were talking in the locker room, and one fellow said to the other, “Ya’ know, I gave my kid the best home that I could. I was always there for him, and saw to it that he had the best education that money could buy. He even acknowledges to me that I was a great dad, and that he loves me very much. And, now he’s goin’ to screw up his life and go live with a woman much older than him, who already has children. And, there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it.”

The other guy replys, “Go let him screw up his life. You can’t stop him. If that’s what he wants to do—to go and throw away his future like that—then to Hell with him! I know that sounds harsh–but, you really can’t stop him.”

And, then he said, “You know, sometimes kids and parents get lucky. Sometimes kids actually listen to their parents, and realize that they speak from experience, and that they really have the kid’s best interest in mind. Both parties get real lucky when that happens. But, it occurs all too rarely, I think.”

I agree with him. All too rarely, indeed!

Pen and Paper

I wrote a letter of sympathy today to a long time friend who lost his father. Whenever I have something serious to convey, I say it in a letter. And, not just any old letter. I use a fountain pen with black-blue ink and very good stationary.

Someone recently told me that writing letters is a lost art. I hope not, because a letter, for centuries, is how a person best communicates their most personal thoughts, I think.

I like writing letters. Being the hopeless romantic that I am, I always feel that writing letters is the most optimistic of acts. When you sit down to write a letter, you have to be optimistic that someone will open it up and read it.

A letter never intrudes. A phone call nearly always intrudes. An e-mail intrudes most of the time. But, a letter can be opened up and read whenever a person wants–and, can be kept to be read over and over again.

There you have it–from a hopelessly romantic optimist, who doesn’t like to intrude!

Where is that pen and paper, anyway?

A Few Kind Words

A few kind words go a long way, I have found.

I attended a late afternoon board of directors meeting, yesterday, for a non-profit organization that I have been involved with for many years. As is the organization’s custom, there is a small reception (wine and hors d’oeuvres) at the conclusion of the meeting, so that the board members can socialize and get to know one another better before they scurry on home. Lovely idea.

During the reception, I noticed that there was one member of the board, a rather elderly gentleman who has been on the board for many, many years, standing by himself, precariously balancing his glass of wine and plate of hors d’oeuvres. This particular person probably is in his late-seventies, and has been retired as an executive from a rather prominent Chicago company (which was a very long-time client of my father’s) for over a decade, I would guess.

And, he was standing alone. No one was stopping to talk with him. They simply looked right past him, as they strolled by.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in Chicago’s business cocktail reception scene, by the way. It seems that people only want to talk with you if you are perceived as being prominent, or powerful, or most important, if YOU can do something for THEM. Because, that is what they are most interested in–themselves! And, clearly this man has been retired for many years, and can’t do anything for anybody anymore–or, at least that is how he is perceived.

So, I went up and talked with him. (I have known him for many years). We made “small talk”  for about fifteen or twenty minutes about the company that he once worked for–and, I told him stories about my father’s involvement with this company, and the people that he knew.

He seemed to be having a good time. After we had been talking for awhile, I excused myself to get another hors d’oeuvre. He looked me in the eyes and thanked me profusely for the conversation. He left the reception, shortly thereafter.

I hope that I made him feel needed and appreciated. I know that I felt good about myself.

A few kind words go a long way, I think.