Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I am a fairly obtuse person and it isn't easy being that way.  I generally mean well, but I just plough through  life and sometimes forget what another person might be thinking or feeling.  Sometimes I don't ask the important questions about the things that a person is really excited to talk about.  And sometimes I say all the wrong things and bring up those that hurt the most.

As I drove home from Las Vegas, I was thinking about grace.  As I so often do, I started thinking about Kay Whitmore and his kindness to me.  Now I may be obtuse, but I am at least a little intelligent and it didn't take long after meeting him for me to realize that Kay Whitmore had been through every experience I could imagine and many that I couldn't and that he had navigated most of them successfully.  I viewed him as a source of unfathomable wisdom and he willingly shared his wisdom with me.  There was once though, when I think I took things too far and asked a little too much.

Kay Whitmore had a special familiarity with us students.  He was our Branch President at church.  There were 60 Mormon college students in Rochester and he was sort of the watchful shepherd over our little gaggle.  He had dry, wicked humor and would frequently talk himself into a hole over the pulpit.  He would give us updates on the married and now expecting past members of our group in colorful anecdotes sprinkled with innuendo.  He would give candid assessments of dramatic musical performances put on by the Eastman music students, about whom he was so enthusiastic that they never took offense.  (None was ever intended.)  And he had a famous speech about gender differences that went like this "Men are like microwaves.  You can turn them on and off with the push of a button.  Women are like crockpots.  It takes a while to heat them up, but once they're hot, well..... they're hot."

I had wanted him to talk to students about how to be successful.  Clearly he knew how to succeed.  He had been CEO of Kodak and that was more success than most students would ever come close to.  Yes, he had been fired from being CEO, but no one and I mean NO ONE (among the people I talked to) thought that he had deserved being fired.  He had inherited some really big problems and had proposed some measures to keep Kodak managers and executives honest and they hated those measures and he got fired for them.  Pure politics.  Someone had to take the fall for the company's problems and since he was the top guy, it was him.  Everyone felt that way.  So I thought.

I had hinted to President Whitmore that I wanted him to talk to us, the students, about being successful several times.  He always asked "And what are my qualifications for success?" and I would say "You were CEO of Kodak.  You must have done something right." And he would look into my adoring face, smile, and shake his head.

I got my real chance to set this up when I was asked to organize the speakers for a LDS YSA conference.  I had the venue and I didn't know many people and so I issued a formal request.  When I did, he looked stoic and he asked me "So you are asking me, as a member of the Church, to do this for the Church?"  and I didn't really understand the question and I just smiled and said "Yes."  And he nodded and said "All right, for the Church, I'll do this."  And I was thrilled.  His secrets of success would be ours.

When the time came for his talk, I treated him with all the professional courtesy I could, but I took the liberty of introducing him myself.  I talked about all of the service he had done in the Church and that was all fine. But when I got to the CEO bit, he blushed bright red and waved his hand to the side indicating that it was time for me to finish up and move aside.  As he looked out at the group of students, I saw fear and embarrassment and I suddenly realized the situation I had put him in.  He was looking out into the faces of children whose parents had been laid off by him.  He was looking into the faces of people who had seen the very public demise of his career on the local evening news.  He was standing there facing failure.

Kay Whitmore gave us the best talk I have ever heard about how to be successful.  He did so with humor, grace and enthusiasm.  He gave us concrete advice that was instantly implementable and useful.
1. If you can stand it, learn math.
2. Accomplish the most important thing every day.
3. Build in time for yourself so that you don't burn yourself out.

The entire group took notes furiously and asked really good questions.  I thanked President Whitmore and gave him the small gift that was provided to all of the speakers and he blushed and took it with much embarrassment acting as though he didn't deserve it.

I saw pure grace though, because after that, whenever his experiences as CEO seemed helpful to someone, he would share them with whoever was in need.

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