Category: Beyond Classification
Bob Wooldridge (1961-2006)
Bob Wooldridge died last weekend, killed by a car as he skateboarded in front of his home. He would be the first to note that this was a bitter irony. Last winter, Bob had a serious heart scare. His response was to stop smoking, lose weight, start exercising. He had just left the craziness that is AOL and started a new job. And it was summer, the best season to spend quantity time with his family. Instead, the most loving father and devoted husband we may ever know is being buried, this week, at 44.
Very few HeadButler.com readers knew Bob. He was not, by conventional standards, “famous” or “successful.” Nor was he destined for a grand title or a CEO's salary. But he was, nonetheless, a man of importance, even a great man --- exactly the sort of person that Butler exists to celebrate. And so, with your indulgence, I want to take this day to tell you a bit about him.
Bob was the kind of leader it's easy to overlook. He wore flannel shirts and baggy jeans. He thought and spoke in quips, headlines, sound bites --- he was wonderfully cheeky. To look at him or hear him for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking he was an aging slacker, the kind of employee you get rid of.
Bob was not unaware of the image he presented. Indeed, a decade ago, there had been a “re-org” at AOL. I wasn't there then, but survivors told me that most of the editorial people fired were the most creative. Bob had survived by keeping a low profile. A few months later, when we were introduced, he was still, metaphorically, hiding under his desk.
For much of the last decade, Bob continued to hide. He spent his days preparing photographs for the editorial screens. A key job, and one that paid the bills, but not one that used his great talents as a writer and editor. Eventually, Heather Perram found a way to drag him into the sunlight, where he went on to make legendary programming that was always just under the radar.
But Bob's real importance was as a role model. There's one in every office. Management may be AWOL, but this guy holds things together in his little corner of the business. He looks into the hearts of damaged people and sees how to make them whole, and then he says the words that help them heal. And he never asks for credit, and he never gets it.
Bob was that guy. He did his job, and he took care of everyone, and then he went home to the three people who mattered most: his wife, Valerie, his son, Stix, and his daughter Linley. There he did all the things a great husband and father does; he listened, he engaged, he loved.
I spent a few hours with Bob in New York a few months ago, just before he found his new job. We talked about what it might be like for him to work in New York, and what it might be like for his family to live in Montclair or Nyack, and then we abandoned the shop talk and just bragged on our kids.
May I speak directly to Stix and Linley for a minute? We've never met. But I'm married to someone who lost her parents when she was young, and I have seen what a terrible thing that is. The hole in your heart --- no one can fill it. But losing your dad is not the worst thing. Never having one is. I mean: having a dad who's always working, or never listens, or can't find the time to come to your games and concerts and plays. A lot of kids I know have that dad. They're the damaged kids. Not you. You guys are alright, and you'll do just fine. Because as bad as you must feel now, the fact is: You were the luckiest kids on the planet. Your father loved you with all his heart, and he told you, and you knew it. That kind of unconditional love is rare; you may not see it again in your lives until it's your turn to give it. But it's your dad's greatest gift to you. It's your foundation in life, your treasure, your inheritance. No one can take it from you. And I'd bet my hands on this: Your father's love for you and your mother did not die with him.
I've read dozens of e-mails about Bob from former colleagues. This is the first death of a close friend for a lot of people, and feelings are raw. But I'm impressed much more by the clarity of their memories of Bob --- by the example he set. Like you, I keep waiting for a second newsflash, saying this was all a mistake, a minor screw-up, and that Bob will be back with us any day now, and with quite a story to tell.
But he won't. The Donald Hall haiku has it exactly right:
You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.
Then they stay dead.
That finality gets our attention. Oh, we'll move on, as we must. But for right now, how good it is --- in a world that conspires to make us feel nothing, to not care, to go right to the next thing --- to feel this bereft, this real, this alive. For that, and for so much more, thanks, Bob, and godspeed.
Copyright 2006 by Head Butler Inc.