Nov 27 2008

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Remembrance at Thanksgiving (In Memoriam)

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Washington can be a tough place to live.

There is an innate Darwinism here, where the very talented and the very ambitious collide with the very connected in a competition for jobs, influence, agendas and power.

Cynicism and idealism circle each other warily, while the difference between righteousness and arrogance is simply a matter of opinion. Egos abound while narcissism has a comfortable seat at the table.

 Congress writes laws that it then exempts itself from. There are many self-described arbiters of the truth. It is a place where dropping by a party to be seen can be considered sincere.

Lamenting on this mix in my younger days, an older colleague told me, “Washington is no tea party, kid. If you want to whine, move to LA.”

But to reflect on Washington’s capacity for superficiality is not to deflect from its residents who embody our best qualities as people and citizens, who so often go unmentioned and unrecognized.

Today, I write not on politics or policy, but about a single man who through his life and actions represented the best qualities in our collective selves, and through his example and counsel made me a better person for it:

Donald Alford Weadon, Jr.

I had the privilege of meeting Don Weadon for the first time on a snowy  day,  21 years ago.

An intuitive friend in New York had noticed that for a budding Wall Street maven, I spent most of my time buried in the “A Section” of the New York Times. She thought that Don might be able to help with advice about a political career in Washington, a place where I had enormous interest but no connections or roadmap.

As it turned out, he was only too happy to oblige, a habit that long-time friends will immediately recognize as his way.

Nothing in my preparation or experience equipped me for my first meeting with Don.

It was not so much a meeting as a tour de force on a breathtaking range of issues. There seemed to be no one that he didn’t know, and no topic that he couldn’t speak authoritatively to. And unlike official Washington, this wasn’t a means to impress, it was simply a reflection of the man.

And his life.

No one could possibly do all these things in one life.

Schooled at Cornell, service to the Navy during Vietnam, law school in California, a Masters  from a Harvard adjunct program in Tehran, Iran, hands-on expertise in all things Oriental.

And in his legal career, the man seemed to live at the very nexus where technology and national security meets international business  and politics.

Interestingly, as that first day wore on, I realized that despite his gregariousness and impossibly quick wit, Don’s demeanor was colored by an almost old-fashioned gentility; a courtesy and discretion that comes with good manners and good breeding.

It was a deeply endearing quality that stayed with him all of his days.

Walking away that afternoon, I felt as if I had been touched by the Sun —  blinded and nearly overwhelmed on the one hand, but warmed and reassured on the other. The shade of Don’s absence made you want to come back to him for the light.

That day he had ended our conversation with a simple but hard truism. You won’t find a job in DC living in New York.  If your heart is here, then you need to be here too.  Quit and start over.

Four months later, I did. It changed everything and was probably the smartest decision I ever made.

All of us are colored by our complexities and contradictions.

With Don, I often pondered his life-long interest in the newest technology – the possibilities of technology – against his improbable love of an old record player,  kept at his Chincoteague summer house, on which he played his cherished Cornell Glee Club records, at ear drum crushing decibels.

He remains the only person I have known who could quote masterful literature from memory and still believe that Western civilization’s greatest gift to comedy was the Whoopee Cushion.

He could be impulsively generous.

When I told him of an upcoming date where I wanted to impress, but was ignorant  regarding wine, he mischievously walked over to his personal collection and began uncorking bottles; five in all.

For the next few hours we went through a tutorial on the basic elements of wine.  I only learned later that he’d probably opened bottles collectively worth over $1,000 in today’s dollars; all just to help me on a date.

So much of who Don was seemed grounded in his firm belief that no problem  was beyond solution. He seemed to thrive in environments where others had given up. I became acquainted with his belief through the “Weadon Method”, the application of superior intelligence, the greatest body of digested facts and unconventional approaches, distilled into a logical process to solve problems.

Don never seemed happier than when a client or friend would detail a seemingly hopeless situation that was wide open for him to solve. Such was his faith that I have no doubt that had Don been Captain of the Titanic, he would have found a way to make her float.

At a time when mass culture parses and walls human interaction, Don was  the authentic real deal. You always knew where you stood with him. Honesty, decency and integrity mattered to Don and he practiced them daily.

As President-elect Clinton was preparing to assume office in 1993, I found myself suddenly jobless, feeling hopeless and agitated. Seeing my career insecurity, he hired me on the spot. There were tasks to be done at his firm that would tide me over until I could regain my footing.

That colossal act of kindness defined the  kind of man he was.

Don was also patriot in the best sense of the word. His love of country was beyond question and he never took America for granted. But he was never a “yes” man. He strongly believed that the government was accountable to the people. As part of his professional responsibilities, he never stopped his merciless critiquing of questionable government policies, often to the detriment of officials more accustomed to accolades than blunt assessments.

He did so, not as a contrarian, but because he always believed America deserved better than the mediocrity of narrow agendas, power plays and special interests. He truly believed the gift of being an American was too precious not to be jealously guarded by every generation. And he took that charge seriously, in all fields of endeavor.

But it is in his humanity that Don was set apart from the rest of us.

He was a constant presence in those whose lives he touched. As a bachelor, friends from all over the country had literally dozens of keys to his Old Town townhouse and an open invite to stay over. It was not uncommon to walk in and see someone sleeping in the spare bedroom.

He was always a friendly ear when others were in trouble or crisis. Careful to listen to the facts, quiet to offer advice, quick to make a call that might somehow make things better.

In Washington, where contacts are horded like currency, Don collected them with a vengeance. But his efforts were not for personal aggrandizement, as much as for the general good; to share and connect and to build.

It helped in this regard that no man loved a crowd more. He thrived on ideas, conversation and interaction. He was never happier than holding court at his storied 12th Night parties, his laugh and enthusiasm filling the room.

Don was also defined by his strong commitment to give back.

In Vietnam, a place he had seen in war, he financed a playground, dedicated to his father, for impoverished children living outside Hanoi. He put enormous effort into his beloved DKE fraternity at Cornell. And there are people throughout the Washington area and beyond for whom Don gave freely and generously of his time and talent so that we might be better people.

But as much as Don sought to help his fellow man, the tapestry of his own life remained unfinished for so many years, though that would soon change. I remember the crackle of a fax machine in the middle of winter and in the middle of the night. On it was a simple but startling message:

“Met woman.
Wedding details to follow.”

With that message I learned for the first time about the woman that Don would call “my beautiful Suzie” and later, simply, “my bride.” And with this wonderful person in his life, I truly believe that Don settled into the best years of his life, calmer, more reflective, less impatient, a keener observer of humanity with a strong taste for irony.

And as Suzie’s son Allen started a family of his own, Don had the chance to play a role that I scarcely believe he ever envisioned….grandpa.

Over our 21 years together, Don was a most trusted confidant on all things personal and professional. His consultation was an essential component of all my biggest decisions. I never stopped learning through all the years and conversations, as that bright sun I had felt on our first meeting continued to shine until the end. He was the closest of friends who gently stepped in and served as a surrogate Dad, as need would have it, after my own had passed away.

After years of advice and generosity, I once asked him, “How can I possibly thank you for all that you have given me?”

Without missing a beat, he told me, “you don’t pay this back, you pay it forward”, and by that, I learned that it was not a gift to keep, but a continuing gift to give.

Don was taken from his family and friends too soon for a life that touched so many.

In trying to make sense of his passing, I could only conclude through my own beliefs that God had pressing work for him to do that would not wait.

On a cold and windy November 21st, Don Weadon was interred at Arlington National Ceremony with full military honors. The ceremony, replete with honor guard, horse-drawn caisson, rifle salute and the playing of Taps, was an august procession that seemed worthy of the man with such a larger than life personality and heart.

What is the worth of a man?

In our many conversations, Don would wax philosophical about the point, never quite deciding how he fit. In one of our very last talks, I shared with Don a vexing challenge.. After I had finished, he sat back, stroking his beard, lost in thought.

 “Make sure you take the counsel of your better angels on this one,” he told me.

It was only in his passing that I realized he was talking about himself.

May each of you reflect on the moments, events and people in your life that have made this past year special to you, and may they find recognition on this day at your table with friends and family.

To each of you I wish a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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