Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Deborah Eagan Yorde: An Appreciation

A few days ago, Rick asked if I would say something at Deb's memorial celebration. And while there are many things I could say about Deb, I’m going to focus in on two things Rick said to me shortly after her passing that have haunted me ever since. The first was that Rick said Deb was a “serial forgiver.” And the second thing he said was that until recently, Deb didn’t think she qualified to be considered an “artist.” 

First, a little context for why I’m here. I met Rick and Deb back in 1993, shortly after they moved to Gambier from Chicago. They came to my house for dinner, and from that point on were regular members of the household. Sometimes, we even placed a couple of extra plates at the table, just in case they showed up at the door needing some food and friendship after working ridiculous hours at the business they came to Knox County to take over. Throughout the years, we celebrated successes and milestones with each other, and comforted each other in times of failure and loss. And perhaps the truest test of friendship is that we helped each other move lots and lots of stuff, lots and lots of times, and lots more times than any of us would like to admit, and we did so without second-thought or complaining. What I’m trying to get across to you is that we became each other’s chosen family. And even when Deb moved up to Maumee to be with Rick, we continued to get together when possible. In between get-togethers, Deb and I spoke by phone. And each of our conversations would always start the same way. We’d chit-chat for a few minutes before getting down to real business, which always started when one of us asked the other, “So: how are you doing? Really.”

Over the last two decades, I was privileged to be able to be there for Deb during difficult times in her life, and boy was she ever there for me during my struggles.  One of the things I came to learn about Deb was just how deep her ability for compassion ran.  She was compassionate toward everyone, and she was certainly compassionate towards me over the years. She realized that everyone struggles with choices in life—some of us more spectacularly so than others—and she realized that our demons sometimes shout down the better angels in our heads and temporarily win. But she also knew that that didn’t necessarily make you a terrible person in your heart. The thing that mattered to Deb was whether or not there was any real personal recognition, and whether or not the person strove to do better in the future. 

Authenticity was important to Deb. While she was kind to everyone, she had little time to invest in people who were false and took no responsibility. But if you were sincere in wanting to clean up your mess, then you had no greater cheerleader than Deb Yorde. So it came as no shock to me when Rick told me a couple of weeks ago that he received an email from one of Deb’s boyfriends of 40 years ago, who said that she never gave up on him, even when he kept messing up: she saw there was real value in him, and miraculously found a way to hold onto that and continue to cheer him on through his struggles. I also experienced this first-hand with Deb. So this is the “serial forgiver” part of her being.

The other part, her not acknowledging until recently that she qualified to be considered an “artist,” seems unrelated.  Interestingly, for her business name she chose “Craftsman Hill,” not “Artist Hill.” Without getting into any lengthy philosophical discussion about the differences between an artist and a craftsman, let’s just say that the terms can overlap in many ways. But for me, the most important differentiating factor is that real art has an “X-factor” that holds a message for us which transcends the functional use of the craft, and can stand on its own, separate from the product’s utility.

Now clearly, Deb considered whether or not what she created was art or craft. But I’m not sure how much she ever actually stressed over the question. I once asked a successful business-leader friend of mine the question, “How do you know if you’re a leader?” And his reply was “Look back over your shoulder… are there people following you? Then you’re a leader.” I can apply this to Deb by saying that if she looked back over her shoulder, she wouldn’t just see large numbers of people happily wearing the things she made. She would see people clamoring to touch, and feel, and simply look at her creations because they’re so uplifting and beautiful. Her work just makes you feel good. They have that X-factor… because Deb had that X-factor to her being. So when she had that recognition recently that she was, in fact, an artist, I don’t think it was a “Yay, me! I made the club!” type of moment, but more of a simple acceptance: “Yeah… I guess I am an artist.”  What was important to Deb was not the end realization, but the process of getting to that recognition.

As with people she serially forgave, Deb realized that it’s the process of developing as a human being that counts. We’ll never be perfect, but as long as we keep confronting our issues and moving step by step slowly forward, that’s what matters. It was the same with her craft-art; she simply kept putting one foot in front of the other, eyes always on the process.

One of the things I loved so much about Deb as a person was that, unlike some artists, she never tried to push her work on you. Again, she was in it for the process, not the fame and glory. She was a humble artist, which is probably why all these years she didn’t even consider herself an artist. When I look at her creations, I don’t see a shred of ego in them. What I do see, though, is a reflection of who she was at her core: a person of rock-solid values and character. She was someone who had her priorities in the right places. Her output rings with such authenticity because that’s just who she was.

Lastly, of all of Deb’s work, the pieces that are most beautiful and significant to me are the ones with lots of knots in them. We’re going to run into knots and entanglements in our lives, and some of them just can’t be unraveled. But even though that may be the case, Deb’s work proves to me that you can still have a beautiful life by incorporating those knots into the big picture and moving forward with your head held high. And for this simple recognition—as well as her 21 years of friendship, cheerleading, compassion and love—I am incredibly grateful.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Eulogy for William Collins Cutler

We are here today to bury William Collins Cutler. And although there will be a religious service and remembrance of his life held in DC in a few months, I’ll say a few words now at his graveside.

First: Since there’ll be a memorial service later, why is it important to say something now as he’s being buried? In the novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” the character Grandpa dies while traveling across country from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, the time period into which Bill Cutler was born. Grandpa’s son asks a non-family fellow traveler (who happened to be good with words) to say something at the impromptu grave site along the road. The son asked the traveler, “Won't you say a few words? Ain't none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.” The traveler hesitated but then the daughter chimed in, “It ain’t decent not to." So the traveler spoke…


I first met Bill Cutler in Gambier, Ohio back in 1985, but that was just in passing. I had no idea at the time that 25 years later, starting in 2010, I’d actually get to know him as a friend. And while it’s said that ‘death is the great equalizer,’ since both kings and paupers die alike, there actually are some individuals in this world who are not equal, and who are truly extraordinary: not necessarily because of their position, or any wealth they’ve amassed or honors they’ve been awarded, but simply because of who they are at their soul-level. Bill Cutler was one of these extraordinary individuals, and let me tell you why.

What I say to you this morning comes from an observer who got to know the man at a culmination point in his life. I got to know him after he had raised a family, become a grandfather, lived and worked around the world, and spent a professional career in information management systems, computers and software development, starting from the point when there really weren’t computers, software and the field of information management systems. So to use the lingo he loved so dearly, by the time I got to him, he was no longer the Bill Cutler 1.0 first-release of his youth. I caught up with him with the release of the much-anticipated Bill Cutler 7.7 version, which had many more features and capabilities, and had fixed all the bugs and smoothed out most of the kinks from his previous years. In other words, the man I got to know was a fully developed and integrated person whose sum being transcended his individual parts.

So what were his “parts”? Well they started right here in Seattle in 1932. He was raised in Bothell, on a farm that was devastated by the Depression and World War II. His family had to be on welfare in order to survive, a situation that embarrassed him greatly, and made him determined that never again would such a thing happen in his life. By age 16, his mother passed away and his father was in a nursing home. While his brother and two of his sisters went to foster homes, he went out into the world on his own.

Bill Cutler easily could have been the main character in a Dickens or Steinbeck novel. I tell you some early details of his life to show that he was not dealt a very promising hand in this life. What was so extraordinary and brilliant about him, though, was the way he played those cards he was dealt. At 16, he made his way doing odd jobs while continuing with high school. For a while, he slept in a car. Yet in spite of his circumstances, he was always looking out for his siblings, bringing them clothing and candy, and taking them to the movies. Early on, he had a special talent for showing people that they were important and not forgotten. He was a proud and compassionate soul.

A high school teacher saw potential in him, and urged him to go to college. So he enrolled at Washington State University with the intention of going to dental school. For some reason, he left WSU five credits short of graduating. Whatever the reason was, it was an early example of God’s hand somehow leading him in a different direction. And when God called, Bill Cutler always heeded Him.

He went to Salem, Oregon to work for Allstate Insurance. It was here at Allstate where he came face-to-face with a life-changing, love-at-first-sight experience: Allstate had just gotten their first computer. Now, computers in those days were not the sleek small packages preloaded with lots of fancy software and capabilities, like we have today. Early business computers were the size of refrigerators, and all they came with was a simple operating system. There were no premade software packages like WORD, Excel or Photoshop; if you wanted the computer to actually DO anything, you had to custom write a program for it. So here’s this young guy who never saw a computer in his life, yet knew intuitively how to use it. And Bill Cutler now knew what he wanted to do with his life.

In the 1950s, computing was a new sub-field of mathematics, so he decided to get advanced training in the field at Stanford, since it had a cutting-edge mathematics program. There’s a wonderful story that he was in an elevator at Stanford shortly after he arrived in Palo Alto, and told the elevator operator, “I’m starting a degree in mathematics.” The fellow said, “Congratulations on your acceptance.” And he replied something like, “Oh, I haven’t been accepted yet...”

But matriculate to Stanford he did, graduating with both undergraduate and Master’s degrees in mathematics. He enlisted in the Air Force, and then began a series of positions at Boeing, IBM, Informatics, and NASA. Then he became an independent consultant, working for companies like Exxon, Mobil, Xerox, Amtrack, AT&T and Regent University. Next, he responded to an ad for computer work at KSU, assuming the letters stood for Kansas State University. Boy was he surprised when he learned that KSU stood for King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Having grown up embracing whatever opportunity was in front of him, he said, “Why not?” And so, now in his mid-50s mind you, never having traveled outside of North America, he spent the next four years in Saudi Arabia, followed by extended positions in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Manila.

Clearly, the Hand of God was leading him again.

To come from so little, accomplish so much and live the life he did, well… that’s just extraordinary. To me, he was a self-made man in the tradition of an Abraham Lincoln or Horatio Alger character. He was a pioneer in the new world of computer systems, and ultimately choosing the life of a consultant proved he had a pioneer’s self-sufficient, fearless spirit in his heart. And because of his early circumstances, no one, but no one, was going to tell Bill Cutler what to do. He would make his own life and way without anyone’s help but God’s.

As I got to know the man he had evolved into, I learned that William Collins Cutler held deep convictions, especially concerning God, Christianity, family, country and politics. Throughout our discussions, I learned that though he himself was a devout Christian, he loved different religious traditions and cultures and found great beauty in them. For instance, he had always wanted an authentic Jewish prayer shawl and yarmulke. He finally got them in 2007, when his wife went with her Church group to Israel. She purchased them as a present for him, and I am wearing them right now.

Bill Cutler was a man of intellect, eager to discuss ideas great and small. Like the information management systems he was paid to design, his brain was a veritable encyclopedia of information; the range of topics he could discuss with authority was staggering. He also had refined and even esoteric tastes in music, art and cuisine.

One thing that was especially delightful about him was that he retained his childlike sense of wonder even until the end. He was not only an interesting person, but like a child was interested in everything. This made his mind always active, even without external stimuli. And although I can’t prove it, I’m confident that not once in his life did he ever utter the phrase “I’m bored.”

Ultimately, Bill Cutler was a man who could not be fully categorized, or bound by social norms or stereotypes. If I had to sum him up in a single phrase I would say that he was a “surprising bundle of contradictions”: with his farm-boy roots, he remained a good ‘ole boy his entire life. But he was also kind of a rocket scientist (after all, he DID work for NASA). He was as comfortable fishing for trout in the Pacific Northwest, as he was designing information management systems in a suit and tie in an air-conditioned office in Manhattan. He loved it all. So since Bill Cutler was a such unique mix of very different parts and competing inner forces, since he loved different religions and traditions, and respected anyone who held sincere beliefs even when they differed from his own, it seems fitting that the last formal words at his gravesite are being spoken by a spiritually-minded, God-loving, secular Jewish, bleeding-heart liberal from Brooklyn, New York.

In spite of our different convictions, he and I clicked with each other on both intellectual and heart levels: we genuinely liked each other and delighted in each other’s company. He unknowingly gave me a great gift the day before he passed. He had been going in and out of consciousness all morning, occasionally uttering an incoherent syllable. I stopped by his room at the hospital after work, and said “Hello, Mr. Cutler,” but got no response. So I went to the other side of the room and talked quietly with Carolyn. After a few moments he stirred slightly, and Carolyn called out, “Daddy, Micah’s here to visit you.” And then clear as a bell, in happy, musical and loud tones he said, “Mi-cah!” I went to his side, took his hand, and brought my face close to his. Then he briefly opened his eyes a crack, gave a little smile, and gently squeezed my hand. Like I said earlier, he had this wonderful gift for letting you know you were important to him.


I’d like to share one final thought with you: being both science- and religiously-oriented like he was, Bill Cutler would be the first to tell you that energy never dies. Material things like bodies can die. But energy like the human spirit lives on. And it’s my conviction that while we each are individual spirits for our short sojourn here on earth, we’re also part of one great, collective and eternal spirit. So even though William Collins Cutler is no longer walking among us, he is not departed from us, since we still carry him inside us. His spirit is still a part of our spirits. And this bond is eternal.