Honoring the Place Where I Learned the Golden Rule

There are few things in life quite as joyful as being given the honor to address your hometown. I had this pleasure recently when the Rotary Club of Dresden, Ontario invited me home to share my formative experiences in this “Mayberry” of the North. Dresden was, and still is, an inclusive place of good values with an interesting pedigree—it was the final stop on the Underground Railroad and the home of Josiah Henson, the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I’ve had so many requests for copies of my speech I thought I’d share it with my readers.

There is no greater honour than to be recognized from whence one came. Last year when you recognized Steven McCabe, you were truly in the presence of greatness; and now, recognizing me suggests you may have considerably lowered your standards.

A few years ago at a talk I gave at a University, a cocky student stood up and challenged, "Well it's pretty easy for you to say considering you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth."

My immediate reaction was to verbally smack him, but then I thought — he's right, and responded by acknowledging it with a qualifier, indicating that I grew up with many silver spoons; but, they were not material in nature, but rather a community of people who instilled in me values and beliefs, and the characteristics and attributes necessary to become successful in life as a citizen, a family member, a worker, a leader, and a role model.

Much of what was instilled and learned happened here in Dresden. For me, Dresden was a magical place to live, learn, work, worship and play. Here I developed a wonderful sense of community and belonging.

When my family emigrated from The Netherlands over a half century ago, we were inclusively embraced by the community and integrated into its social fabric. Although we were immigrants, we were not outsiders. We became equal citizens.

My older brother Jack recently told me a story: in our first year here, when he was six, he bought his first pair of skates a couple of sizes too large for him, with tattered laces, from Hugh Chandlers antique barn for 25 cents. Then he came to this arena and tried to skate.

On ice, his ankles buckled, and in an instant, two teenagers picked him up by the armpits took him off the ice. They filled the skates with paper and bought him new laces, which cost more than the skates. And then, they proceeded to teach him how to skate!

Dresden is where I learned that, like individuals, no community is perfect; and that the real test of character is perfecting making right what was wrong. In Canada, when we arrived, there was still a racial divide. In 1956, Dresden native Hugh Burnett became an unsung national hero by forcing the government to, for the first time in Canada, declare racial equality to be a civil right.

I remember well how Dresden responded, and evolved over time, perfecting making right what was wrong.

My dad, Casper, who my brothers and I are so proud of, played a part in this by welcoming black clientele when he opened his barbershop after working for a few years at Ford's barbershop where blacks were not welcome. Dresden, at the time, had five barbershops; so there was a fair bit of competition. Because of this decision, the barbershop thrived – not just because he had black clientele, but more importantly, the white clientele switched to show their support of this stance. In the sixties, because of the Beatles, it was pretty slim pickings for barbers. Most of the young men (including me and my four brothers) in town let their hair grow down to the shoulders. Dad's shop survived when the others failed.

Dresden is where I learned how to learn. Now I should point out that I failed grades three, five and nine. It turned out that I had attention deficit disorder. Back then there were less charitable terms for this. Dresden has had the benefit of what I regard as a superior school system, which has produced people who have excelled in most sectors of Canada's economic and social society like Steven McCabe.

For me, three teachers stand out. My kindergarten teacher Dorothy Rigsby, who was also our neighbor, taught me the ethic of reciprocity — the Golden Rule — do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. This is something that I have tried to abide by throughout my life.

As almost everybody's kindergarten teacher for a few generations, Dorothy became our collective conscience to become a better community.

Francis Livingston, whose daughter Debbie became a highly acclaimed Ontario judge, became my conduit to the world. When the current LKDSC first opened, Francis was the Librarian, who took an interest in this "unusual little man" (her words), who came in every morning to read The Globe and Mail. My comment back to her term for me was, “I would have thought less of you if you called me ‘usual’.”

We developed a wonderful relationship, where over coffee every morning, we debated what was going on in the world. Almost every day she would refer me to a book or magazine article that opened up my horizons. She also taught me that memorizing in an exact way is a barrier to understanding what is written. In our daily debates, her teaching me to analyze what I read in a critical way, and listen to and hear counterpoints, became a lifelong passion. Through this, I became an unconventional thinker — a bit of a contrarian.

George Blandford, my geography teacher, who was also a neighbor, employed me as a baby sitter for his children David & Nancy. Well, as many of you may recall, he had the subtlety of a drill sergeant. He took me aside one day and asked what the heck was wrong with me and that if I did not bring up my grades I would become a loser.

After this tirade, he then volunteered to become my tutor and learning became relevant, alive and fun. The way he did this was to put learning into context. For example, in teaching geography to me and others, he got us to better understand that the social, political, economic, religious, and language dynamics define nations more than physical terrains do.

Dresden is where I learned the work ethic. Starting in my early teens, I had part-time and summer jobs, which allowed me to apply what I learned in school to the "real world." Starting with Hugh Farnsworth's Meat Market grinding mystery meat, to the Red and White Grocery, whose parent company National Grocers, I would go on to lead for over a decade,

to George K. Coyle Clothing, where at the ripe old age of 17 I became their chief buyer, and finally at Canadian Canners, where I learned the intricacies of manufacturing. In all of these roles, I had the privilege of being mentored by people who took an interest in me and made my jobs learning experiences.

Dresden is where I learned how to be a citizen. My Dad and my brothers, Joe and Stuart, became town councilors — not because of their egos, but because they felt a draw to their civic duty. Joe went on to become Dresden's last mayor and 30 or so years later, he still represents Dresden as a councilor of the regional municipality.

Growing up, my brothers and I participated in the Cubs and Boy Scouts, and learned through experiences to be PREPARED, which means to be in a state of readiness in mind and body to do our DUTY. My parents belonged to the Legion; mom, who will turn 98 this month, is a proud member of the IODE. These organizations and others, such as Rotary and Kiwanis, and the various churches fostered a spirit of giving back.

Dresden is where I learned civility. Having spent the bulk of my life in Toronto, where there is less of a sense of community, I often hearken back to my years here. Disputes and conflicts were amicably resolved, neighbours looked out for each other, people were greeted and acknowledged, accomplishments of others were celebrated, people did not mourn the loss of a loved one alone, and those in need were supported.

For me, Dresden was like living in Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show, with the full cast of characters, where everyone knows everyone, people know more about you than you do, and people's intentions where almost always honourable.

So, these teachings were my silver spoons, and have served me exceptionally well in my career. I won't go into my career other than to say that what one does for a living does not define who a person is. Often at social gatherings when introduced to someone, they ask, "What do you do?"

In many cases, I tell them I am a dog walker — usually getting a reaction like, "Oh, isn't that interesting?" before they quickly walk away because they are not interested. Now it is true I walk my two magnificent Weimaraners, Casey Girl and Junior, every day for two to three hours, and I feel that this defines who I am better than what I do for a living.

Thirteen years ago I was given a death sentence when I was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully I became eligible for a wonder drug called Gleevec, which turned what was a fatal condition into a chronic one. This miracle drug is a forerunner to other drug therapies that target cancer cells directly without harming healthy cells.

I have difficulty responding to being a cancer survivor because I did not go through the horrible suffering that most cancer patients go through, from the cancer itself, and the chemotherapy and radiation that has to this point provided the only hope. I did not have one day of down time, and none of the side effects associated with how cancer is usually treated.

Emotionally, however, I did go through what most do — fearing the unknown and anticipating what I have witnessed that others went through. Another dynamic was facing the reality that, as there is a beginning, there is also an end, which caused me to reflect on my reason for being.  

While I have by many standards lived a charmed and successful life, there was a realization, that if I were to meet a premature end, my mark on the world would be insignificant. The day I came to that horrible realization, I cut a deal with the Almighty, that if I were made better, I would become a better person. I was made better and am still working on becoming that better person.

To become that better person, shortly after my diagnosis, I left the corporate world to establish the Faas Foundation to focus on health, education and basic research. Over the last 12 years the Foundation has supported:

·       MSF Doctors without Borders — becoming one of the leading donors in Canada.

·       Wellspring — where we established the Faas Foundation Money Matters program that provides individual, professional care management on the financial impacts from cancer, including providing all available income replacement and drug reimbursement programs.

·       Israel Cancer Research Fund — where we are recognized as being their leading donor and where I act as an ambassador. ICRF is one of the largest sources of private funds for basic research in Israel — filling a void because basic research is not adequately funded by governments and Big Pharma. Without basic research there is no discovery and without discovery advancements in finding better treatments is limited. Let me illustrate: the drug I am on was discovered by an Israeli doctor. It targets cancer cells directly without harming healthy ones, combining this type of therapy with individualized diagnostics and treatments, researchers are very optimistic that chemotherapy and radiation as we now know it will be a thing of the past within a matter of a few years.

·       Casey House — where we established their day program and became the first major donor to their new state of the art facility. Casey House is a specialty HIV/AIDS hospital. Casey House was formally a palliative care institution because AIDS was a fatal condition, but now, as a result of research, is a chronic one. The need has shifted, now becoming a specialty hospital.

·       Chatham Kent Health Alliance — giving us the opportunity to give back to our community.

·       St. Clair College of Applied Arts and Technology—my alma mater—to build the Sport Plexus in Chatham and Windsor.

We are also honoured to be a supporter of the Dresden Medical Clinic, which has been instrumental in attracting doctors to town. We also supported a similar clinic in Thornbury, where we had a farm.

I receive a lot accolades and recognition for my work with these organizations, which is largely misplaced. My role is the easy part — simply writing a check. What my parents taught me, reinforced by what I learned in Dresden, and articulated by President Bill Clinton on giving: "If you can, you must."

The real credit for the work must go to those who volunteer and work in these institutions.

Through my giving, I have gotten to know many of them, and am in awe of the contributions they make, and in some cases in harm’s way. A few years ago, I was asked to become an ambassador for Doctors without Borders, which I agreed to do, providing I better understood the work they do and the impact they have. This led to a 20-day trip to The Republic of the Congo, where I visited a number of their missions.

While I observed many situations, one totally registered. At one of the missions, a pediatric hospital, Heidi, a young doctor from Germany who volunteers her annual vacation time to MSF, took me on her rounds. Before we got to the ICU, which was a room a quarter of the size of this hall with open windows and mothers swatting flies away from their infants, she warned me that I would be observing her negotiating with a young mother who wanted to take her 8-week-old son off of life support so that he could pass away and be buried amongst family. Heidi could not argue that leaving the infant on support would save him.

We then watched the IV being removed from his tiny arm and the mother making a cradle out of a magnificently coloured scarf, gently placing him in it and walking out with the bearing of a monarch to make her journey home. Watching this left me emotionally drained. I asked Heidi how she was able to deal with this. She responded by saying, "There is no question that emotionally, these individual situations are hard on everyone involved, but if the mothers see our emotions, it dilutes their hope. We get by with the knowledge that because we are here doing this, the infant mortality rate goes from over 30 percent, to less than 7 percent.”

Today, in the work I do, I am guided by Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge: "It is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire's fall or its regeneration."

Six years ago, the Faas Foundation embarked on a major initiative of helping organizations create psychologically healthy, safe, fair and productive workplaces. This started as a result of research I did for my first book on workplace bullying. What I discovered is that to address bullying, organizations must transform their cultures. Oscar Wilde aptly wrote – "It's the prisons, not the prisoners that need the reformation."

We have since partnered with Mental Health America and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in developing practical evidence-based programs that address what we believe to be the biggest economic and social issues of our time. To give you an order of magnitude, last year a Harvard/Stanford study found that 120,000 deaths annually might be attributable to workplace stress. When you consider that these are premature deaths, it makes it a number one killer. We are now analyzing the results of a survey completed by 20,000 people covering all sectors across the United States. What we will be able to answer is:

·       Do people make the organization, or does the organization make the person. Better understanding the importance of workplace culture.

·       The relationship between motivation and burnout.

·       What causes the unnecessary stress.

·       What influences engagement and fulfillment.

·       What should keep organizational leaders awake at night.

What we do know is that many people work in environments where there is a lack of trust in leadership. Almost every day in real time on prime time we see or hear about wrongdoings in every segment of society, the media, entertainment, business, religion, sport, government, politics and civic associations. None have been immune. Consider the Catholic Church; Volkswagen; Wells Fargo; the Boy Scouts; Flint, Michigan; doping in sport, Amazon, Brazil's meat packing industry, Fox News … the list goes on. The most common characteristic they have in common is that, internal to the organizations, the wrongdoings were open secrets.

We are calling our initiative the Emotion Revolution in the Workplace, which captures the power of emotions in influencing and making positive changes. I blog and talk about adult bullying. We are seeing in real time the impact this is having.

I encourage people to look at what is going on in the context of the past. Look particularly to the early 30s, with the swift rise of Nazism in Germany, and to the 50s with McCarthyism, where in both cases, the abnormal became normal. I also encourage people, when they are bystanders to this, to become witnesses, resisters, defenders, protectors and activists.

All of us have unconscious biases. We are now witnessing the unleashing of this dynamic, and are in danger of what Stanley Milligram observed in The Perils of Authority, “...ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible disruptive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of mortality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

I assert that emotional Intelligence is a key resource when it is coupled with what Dorothy Rigsby taught us in kindergarten, the ethic of reciprocity—also known as the Golden Rule—"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Martin Niemoller soberly translated this when he wrote: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out."

Someone once wrote: "A popular speaker is not one who is articulate and smooth, but one who is finished." I'm finished.