Posted by: COSI | August 11, 2009

Why? Too Many, Too Young

Cutting the grass. Hiking the trails. Swimming at the shore near Cape Cod.

They seem like simple activities which many of us have engaged in and after which felt invigorated. In just the last five weeks each of these activities ended with a friend and colleague dead. It doesn’t make sense and I’m not sure how to react to losing three friends so suddenly other than this hole I’m feeling somewhere inside of me.

The museum world is essentially small, especially within your discipline (say, science museums) or the size range of your institution. You not only know fellow CEO’s by professional stature, but you often have personal friendships—you partner with them, you serve on committees or panels with them, your careers might actually weave together at some point and you work together for awhile, you have drinks at conferences where you share thoughts and concerns, you go to dinner or even vacation with them and their spouses, and call one another up when you’re facing challenges or opportunities and want another point of view.

And you share a passion for doing good in your community, which is a strong bond we all start with which drives us to not only our institution’s success, but a vested interest in each other’s success—in a way unlike the for profit world. So between the larger shared sense of mission and the supportive interaction, museum CEO’s are a pretty tight group where professional relationships are often enhanced with personal friendships.
So when you lose a colleague, it’s often way more than a moment of sadness over the news, it’s a strong feeling of loss of a friend, a confidant, a fellow champion of “the mission.”

I blogged a few weeks ago about Jeff Swanagan’s sudden death at 51 after cutting his grass. A great guy who I’m missing every time I think of how COSI and the Columbus Zoo can continue to work together.

Shortly after Jeff’s death, the news came from New Zealand that my former boss at the Carnegie Science Center and after that a friend and fellow CEO, Seddon Bennington, had been found dead on mountain trails in the New Zealand winter—caught in a sudden snow storm, dying within a short distance of a shelter that would have saved him and his companion.

Seddon Bennington

Seddon Bennington

Seddon, 62, was the picture of health, vitality, and optimism—serving as CEO of museums in three countries, finally back in his native New Zealand. I remember our first conference together sharing a room. His flight got in at 9:00 pm, he dropped his bags off in the room, and then went for a 2 hour “tramp” around Portland just to get refreshed from the cross-country flight. I think his long walks and swims were Seddon’s way of handling the stresses of the CEO position. We just spent time together as co-panelist at a session at the World Congress in Toronto last summer and then hooked up at the science center conference in Fall—each time sharing updates on our individual efforts, families and institutions. Now he’s gone.

Bill Laidlaw

Bill Laidlaw

I’m on vacation as I write this, but in checking e-mail I just saw the announcement that Bill Laidlaw, my colleague who’s led the Ohio Historical Society through incredibly challenging times, just died suddenly swimming with his family at his beloved vacation spot at Martha’s Vineyard. Dottie and I have been hosted at Donna and Bill’s lovely home among other times together and we could tell that their relationship and family were vital and important—and Martha’s Vineyard was a clearly beloved place for their family bonding.

Bill and I had talked a number of times how the three week vacation he takes is the ideal way to escape CEO stress and refocus on family—particularly in a great setting like that. And boy has Bill been through the ringer with the continual Chinese torture the state has put him and his team through with one cut after another, culminating with the huge one in this last state budget. He and I had just exchanged e-mail as he was heading out on this last vacation promising to get together when he came back to talk about how I might help with the change process they are going through.

Now we’ll never have that conversation–and another friend’s wife, in this case, Donna, has to cope with a huge and sudden loss of her loved one.

CEO positions tend to be lonely by nature—you have your team that you support, you have the board you work with and report to, but you can never be as open and close as you would like through the nature of your position. So your worries, frustrations, cross-institutional planning are more often shared with CEO colleagues. Losing one of your friends from that group hurts. Losing three in quick succession, all way too young and suddenly, has left me with feelings I can’t make sense of right now. And I feel so sorry for each friend’s loved ones, who I know as well, who are left behind. I’m sure they are at a loss for finding the meaning in these tragedies.

Maybe later I will make sense of it all; for now it just hurts. Jeff, Seddon, Bill—I miss you all.

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