And, when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of Heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Last week I had my “public servant” hat on in my official capacity as a California Coastal Commissioner. Walking out after a 13-hour hearing, one of my fellow commissioners asked, “Why on earth do we do this?” As I got back to the hotel, I found myself wondering the same thing. What ever got me interested in public service and non-profits? As I tried to unwind, I turned on the hotel TV and caught part of an old movie, The Big Chill.
It reminded me that I volunteer my time because of a gift I had received my first year in college.
I had never been outside of New York so to me Michigan seemed like a foreign country. On the first day of college I wandered down my dorm hall introducing myself and met Michael Krzys, the guy who would one day be the best man at my wedding, making a salad on the floor of his room. I provided the bowl and as we started talking, I was fascinated that he was from Adrian Michigan, a quintessential small town in the Midwest. He was equally curious about someone who grew up in New York. As we got to know each other, I pretty quickly I realized that I had met my match, someone with even more curiosity, creativity and a wry sense of humor. As best friends our freshman year, we did all the crazy things that first year college students do (things I still won’t tell my kids.)
But as I got to know Michael, there was another, completely foreign part of him I didn’t understand. (It would take me another 30 years.) From the day I met him he had a commitment to public service that was deep, heartfelt, profound, unshakable and to me, mysterious and completely unfathomable. Even as a freshman, Michael already knew that his calling was to help others and to do so he was determined to become a public service lawyer. It confused and unnerved me to know someone with so much certainty about the meaning and direction of his life. It couldn’t have been more different from mine.
After our first year our lives took different paths. When they would touch again, it would be in ways neither of us could have predicted.
With the Vietnam War going full tilt, I left school and joined the Air Force, spending a year and a half in Southeast Asia. Michael and I kept in touch via letters – me telling him about adventures in the military, fighter planes, electronics and foreign countries. His letters explained to me why I was an idiot, war was immoral and that while he appreciated my dedication to national service, it was public service that was the higher calling. Each of his letters ended with him reminding me that I was destined for a different career.
When I got back from Thailand the war was winding down and Michael was now in the University of Michigan Law School (having finished his undergrad degree in 3-years.) For my last year in the Air Force, I was stationed on a B-52 bomber base, 183 miles from Ann Arbor. I knew the exact mileage as I would drive it every weekend to see my girlfriend and hang out with Michael. Over dinner we’d argue about politics, talk about how to best save the world, and he’d tell me what he was learning that week in his law school classes. I remember when he taught me the best way to understand an issue was to learn how to argue both sides of a case.
It didn’t take long before he was loaning me his last quarter’s law books to read during the week at the airbase where I was keeping the world safe for democracy. (While students in law school were hiding their Playboy magazines inside their law books, I’m probably the only guy who had to hide his law books from fellow airmen under a pile of Playboy magazines.)
Remove the Tag
In his last year in law school, the high point for Michael was arguing his first pro bono case in Detroit for a tenant who he claimed was being illegally evicted. (In Michigan law students could appear and practice in limited court settings under the supervision of an admitted attorney.) When I drove down to Ann Arbor that weekend, I was regaled with Michael’s tale of his passionate defense of his first client as he stood in front of the judge waving his arms for effect in his first-ever sports coat. Michael said he was ecstatic that the judge ruled in his favor, but was a bit confused when the judge motioned him to approach the bench. In a low voice the judge said, “Son, that was a pretty good argument for a law student. However the next time you’re in court, you may want to remove the price tag from the sleeve of your sports coat.”
When I got out of the military and went back to school, Michael was finishing up law school, and a year later he and his new wife headed to the South to work for Georgia Legal Services in McIntosh County in Georgia. I moved to Silicon Valley, and we kept up a sporadic correspondence, me trying to explain startups and Michael telling me about the world of civil rights and equal justice for the poor. If possible it seemed like his excitement for what he was doing matched mine. I just didn’t understand why he did it.
It’s a Calling
For entrepreneurs, understanding why people dedicate their lives to working for non-profits is hard to fathom. Why work for low pay, on something that wasn’t going to deliver a product that would change the world?
Today, each time I see the staffs of those non-profits where I’m on the board, I get a glimpse of that same passion, commitment and sense of doing right that I first heard my freshman year decades ago. For the best of them, it’s not a job, it’s a life-long calling. The executive directors of the Coastal Commission and POST remind me of what Michael might have become.
A Life Worth Living
One fine California April day in 1981, three years in Silicon Valley now into my second startup, I got a call from someone in Michigan who had been trying to track me down. Michael and his wife were bringing some kids to camp, and he was killed in a head-on car accident with a drunk driver. His wife and the kids survived.
It took me a long time, but as I got older I realized that life was more than just about work, technical innovation and business. Michael and others worked to preserve and protect the values that made life worth living. And while we were making things, they were the ones who were who changing our society into a more just place to live.
There isn’t a day that goes by on the Coastal Commission that I don’t wonder what Michael Kryzs would do. To this day he is my model as a human being who found his own compass.
I always hoped that mine would point in the same direction.