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Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Man in The Arena

Almost exactly 100 years ago on April 23, 2010, former president Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. The youngest man ever to serve as president (Kennedy was the youngest elected), Roosevelt was then a very vigorous 51 who had just returned from a safari to Kenya. Over two months he made a whirlwind tour of Europe meeting with heads of state, ambassadors and social leaders.

The speech at the Sorbonne was vintage Teddy. He advocated living a strenuous life and hoped for peace and harmony among all civilized peoples. One passage from it is quoted frequently even today. It is practically one long rambling clause with punctuation from T.R., not I. The quote is:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

I knew a man who fit that description perfectly. Roughly 30 years ago, a salesman for a magazine asked for an appointment. When he arrived a week later, I was startled at how young he was and how incredibly well prepared he was for the sales presentation. He knew more about my client’s business than the account supervisor at the agency. We talked for quite a while and I recall telling my wife that night that I had met a kid who would blast through our industry like a rocket.

It did not happen. Over the years he called on me from a variety of publications, cable entities, sales promotion firms, and finally internet startups. We would lose touch for a year or two and then he would always surface someplace new. When e-mail came on board it was rare for a month to pass without an excited message from him about some aspect of our changing industry. I used him as a sounding board for ideas and he was generous with his time.

I have never met anyone who struck me as being so alive. His energy and enthusiasm for our business stunned me and I am known as someone who loves it a great deal. One night we had dinner in Dallas followed by four hours of debate, discussion, laughter and several after dinner coffees. As I was driving home, I was humming something and cracked up when I realized it was “Lovin’ of the Game” that Judy Collins popularized so long ago.

Some key lyrics to refresh your memory are:

All my life I’ve searched around
Traveling hard from town to town
But I never found anything to tie me down
Still I would not trade my time
For a solid diamond claim
No, I would not trade my fortune
For the lovin’ of the game


My friend was not perfect. He had no patience, never learned how to stoop to conquer, and did not learn how to work around superiors who were inferior intellectually, morally, or in terms of work ethic. The rest of us usually did and survived and prospered. Money had little appeal—he loved the work and gave every day every ounce of energy that he had.

A couple of years ago I was sitting in my office on a Sunday afternoon putting together a presentation deck. The phone rang, and I knew instantly who it was by the big laughter filled greeting. He was driving through Atlanta on route to the Carolinas. Could I come downstairs and have coffee at Starbucks? Five hours later I put my caffeine laden buddy in his car and on the way to Raleigh. We had discussed the future of communications at a level of intensity and honesty that I never thought possible. I never saw him again.

When I began this blog, he was wildly enthusiastic. Some days he was full of praise; other times he had tart and brilliant criticisms. In January, the messages stopped and I got worried. When I sent him a few e-mails, they bounced back. Several weeks ago, another old media fossil wrote to me that our mutual friend was dead. He was felled by a massive coronary and he died very quickly while on the road. He left behind a much loved son whom he often told me about and, to my surprise, three ex-wives.

Since his passing I have received several messages from those who knew him. Most say gently that he was a hard worker who never made it. Others said he was an undisciplined dreamer who could have done well if he had swallowed his pride a bit and stuck it out with a few employers.

To me, he will always be Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena.” He was not as Roosevelt noted “one of those cold and timid souls who neither knew victory nor defeat.” He knew defeat but it never seemed to get him down for an instant. His sense of life and love of our business made us all look like timid souls. He never had a “big” job and his life was not long in years. But he never settled for mediocrity and never dropped his integrity for an instant or tried to rationalize his way out of things. I really miss him.

If you would like to contact Don Cole, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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