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A Tribute: To a Man of Great Character

09Jan 2010

Unfortunately, when the issue of “character” is in the news today, the focus is usually on character failures — lack of integrity, marital unfaithfulness, greed and dishonesty. So to be able to talk about a man of good character is a privilege.

When thinking about the title of this entry, I was indecisive about whether it should be “To a Great Man of Character” or “To a Man of Great Character”. Obviously, I chose the latter — for two reasons. First, in the world’s eyes I don’t know if Spence Sawyer would be characterized as a “great man” — in the general terms of incredible success professionally or in terms of raw talent. Although he was talented in several areas and he was also quite successful in his profession, most who knew Spence focused on who he was as a person. So, the second reason I chose this title is because almost everyone who knew Spence would agree he was a man of “great character”. It was his character that impacted others, and most who knew him (including myself) found themselves wanting to emulate him.

Spence Sawyer died this week at the age of 78. He was born and raised in the suburbs of west Chicago and spent most of his adult life in this area, with a few years early in his professional life living in New Jersey while commuting to New York City. He was the father of seven children, whom he mentored and helped each obtain a private college education (no small feat financially, regardless of the era).

I want to highlight just a few of the character qualities that I first thought of when reflecting on Spence’s life:

Responsible. Responsibility was at the core of Spence’s being — shouldering the responsibility of leading his family and guiding his children, from childhood through adolescence and into their adult lives; taking responsibility to provide leadership in most of the organizations he was committed to (his church, his company [he worked for Illinois Bell and AT&T for forty years], the college he and many of his family members attended), and just in general daily life. If Spence saw something that needed to be done, he would make sure it got done.

Faithful. In his personal relationships, Spence was faithful to his wife, Ruth, of over 50 years, his children, grandchildren and his friends. Spence was “Mr. Reliable”. If he made a commitment, he kept it. You never had to wonder if he was going to show up; he was always there. He followed through on commitments made — in fact, you would never think of Spence not following through. He was rock solid. You wanted him on your team — and he was sought out by organizations because they knew he would help you achieve your goals.

Investing in others. I’m not sure of the best way to put this, or of a good singular term, but Spence gave his life in the service of others. He was not self-promoting. He did not seek positions of leadership — he was seen as a leader and asked to take leadership positions by those around him. After his retirement in the 90’s, he spent much of his time and energy meeting with others — teaching, mentoring, listening and encouraging. Interestingly, because of some early life experiences that impacted him significantly, Spence was reluctant to give advice to others — even when asked. But if you cornered him, you could get him to help you frame the problem and think through the issues you needed to consider. (The result of his investing in others will be seen next week at his memorial service where 800-900 people are expected to honor him and share in the celebration of his life.)

Laughter. From the previous descriptors, one might conclude that Spence was a stern, stodgy, “all work and no play” kind of guy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spence was one of the best story- and joke-tellers I have ever known, and he loved to laugh. In fact, one of my favorite memories is sitting with him at the kitchen table, having a bowl of ice cream and he would start telling some of the funniest stories I have ever heard. The problem was, he would start tearing up and laughing before he finished the joke — and you found yourself laughing and crying just because he was (and you weren’t exactly sure why)!

There are lots of other personal qualities that characterized Spence, some of which were so ingrained in who he was that you couldn’t think of him not exhibiting them (honesty, integrity, generosity). He was a man of deep spirituality who loved the God he served and who has left a legacy in the lives of those who knew him — that will endure for years to come. I know that I have been deeply impacted by his input into my life and I will miss him dearly. I had the privilege of knowing him for over 30 years, as the father of my wife. His leaving the life on this earth has caused me to seriously reflect on my life and my priorities.

I hope that I will also become a man of great character.

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