Requiem For A Roommate

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.
William Shakespeare

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.

Unshakable Certainty
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.

Different Paths
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 servicethat 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.

Update: after three decades I finally got to give Michael a memorial even he would have thought was fitting and proper. I established the Michael Krzys Public Interest Fellowship at the University of Michigan Law School. Details here

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22 Responses

  1. thanks for the reminder to try to keep everything in perspective.

  2. Professor Blank, thank you for sharing. Sometimes it’s great to pull your head out of the startup trenches and read a story like this.

  3. Steve,
    I went to high school with Mike and belonged to a small group of students who called ourselves the SBS. (Student Breakfast Society) Every Sunday we would go to a different members home have breakfast and discuss politics and current events. We all worked to get Mike elected student council president. While none of this is that important, I was a friend of Mike’s and saw even then that he was a rare human being, full of love for his fellowman and a passion for justice. I was heartbroken when I heard of his passing so many years ago.
    Your warm and loving tribute to Mike has brought a warm smile to my heart and I shall now think of him everytime I look at the stars.

    Mike Clark

  4. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

  5. Steve,

    What a wonderful, thoughtful, and inspiring piece.

    Your sentiment capture exactly the best of public service and how each of us can make a personal difference in a world that has, in many ways, devalued such participation.

    Thank you.

    Fred Keeley

  6. Steve, very moving post. All your posts are excellent. They convey great wisdom and experience. But this one touch my heart in a way that I still have to assimilate. I just had to write this comment in appreciation for your work and contribution. Thank you.

  7. Thanks for sharing Steve. I found this post just when I needed it. You know how the internet throws the right piece of writing at you at the right time? Yeah, well that just happened. A beautiful tribute.

  8. Thanks Steve. A question I have: how to make room for the Mike’s in the startup/entrepreneurial world?

  9. Wow that was a wonderful piece. Thank you Michael Kryzs swam with my brothers and i spent years literally looking up to him!

  10. thanks for sharing Steve. your roommate sounded like an incredible guy. it’s great that he lives on in your memory helping to inspire and influence even after his death.

  11. I guess I am lucky. I started my company as a way to save the world. So I have been able to combine my public service calling with my entrepreneurship.

  12. By coincidence, I was just visiting Beaufort South Carolina and saw the Edgar Fripp mansion, made famous by the Bill Chill film. Since I bleed Maize and Blue, this was a wonderful feeling as we rode through the streets of historic Beaufort in a horse-drawn carriage. What is less clear from the movie is that this house is but one of many amazing structures contained in a small area representing many of the early entrepreneurial pioneers of this country. And yet, these houses discovered public services later in life in many forms. The Fripp house, for example, was used as a hospital for the Union Army during the civil war.

    Like these houses, many of us older entrepreneurs discover public service later in life after many years of puzzlement because we come to realize the only true happiness in life comes from giving to others.

    Of course, starting a company itself can be a form of giving in the sense that you are developing an opportunity for personal growth and development to all employees, as well as a livelihood.

    I find the younger generations have a stronger sense of this purpose than we did. Perhaps we did our jobs well to raise subsequent generations with a more balanced sense of the broader purpose in life.

  13. I was moved to tears. Touching, insightful and loving.

  14. Thank you for that lovely and caring post.

    I am going to offer one short rebuttal; you wrote that:

    “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?” – – And I disagree.

    I think one can earn a reasonable living working hard on ventures that are good for society, make a profit, and deliver products and services that make the world a better place.

    It may take a bit more fore-thought, but it can be done.

  15. And then there are the public service startups that change the world: things like Grameen Bank, Harlem Children’s Zone, and the Rocky Mountain Institue. Bless ‘em all.

  16. Thanks for reminding us of what’s truly important in the larger scope of life.

  17. If there’s anything missing here it’s the many generous, principled and yet quiet things you’ve been doing over the years outside of your Coastal Commission work. That you don’t need recognition for all of those things speaks to the strength of your inner compass. I’d say Michael Kryzs would approve.

  18. Mike was my only brother, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. His death has left a huge hole in my life, but he filled it with many wonderful lessons, and I am the person I am today partly because he was my brother.

  19. Michael is my uncle and who I was named after. He is someone I’ve missed so much, yet never met, because I wasn’t born until ’84.

    My grandparents (his parents) didn’t talk about him much because of the pain and sorrow that went along with that. The comments would usually be in passing such as “Michael would…” or “Michael was…” Anything more than a couple sentences about him would well up my grandma’s eyes. But whether it was my grandparents and family, or others in the community speaking about him, their words always echoed a common sentiment: the utmost respect and admiration for him, describing him as the most kindhearted person who always put other people first.

  20. Steve,
    I have to admit that Michael Krzys has been a continuing inspiration to me as well. I still ask myself “What would Michael Krzys do?” I don’t think I will ever measure up. I still have find memories of Michael in High School and at Michigan State, and spending time with the two of you freshman year.
    -Marcia Allen

  21. Randomly googling people I once knew and came across this. I dated him once or twice (he was way too old/sophisticated for me!) in college when he was in his second year of law school. Met him volunteering at the Campus Legal Aid society where he was indeed one of the committed ones under LA director Jonathan Rose’s tutelage. Like you I was a New Yorker and our differences were pretty obvious. I remember him telling me the Polish word for knife (noz) while we were eating. I hated reading here that he didn’t get nearly enough time to do what he wanted, and left a wife behind, too. A good guy.

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