Admiration and Hope…

As the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the good, the bad and the ugly of the previous twelve months. So much of our public discourse has been devoted to the ugly that I decided to end the year by shining a light on a few friends whose accomplishments and attitudes I find especially admirable. As I reflected, I was reminded of the serendipity of life – that random events and minor differences can alter the course of a life. Where you were born, when you were born, whether you inherit good genes or bad, are lucky or unlucky all play a part and remind us to focus and live in the present.

Some folks read the news
And get the blues
Others avoid the Top News Section
‘Cause it causes indigestion.

All the news of Donald Trump
Leads some to seek a stomach pump.
His staff plays a game of musical chairs
About sycophants and millionaires.
When the music stops, no one knows,
But when it does, someone goes.
One way to cope is deadly prose
That works for many, I suppose.
Others read their news in witty verse
Administered by a comic nurse.

Let’s all sit back and have a good time.
Cause here comes the Donald all in rhyme!

The poem above introduces Reverend David K. Fly’s  third book – I’m President and You’re Not: The Residency of Donald Trump – A Distasting. David is the newest of the friends profiled here, and though all five are singular in their achievements, David may have the most eccentric resume – standup comedian, professional clown, and Episcopal priest. 

David says the three roles became increasingly intertwined throughout his life. The big top of the circus came to represent for him the church with its sense of wonder and mystery—a world from which no one is excluded. He sees his role of clown and Christian as an opportunity to expose the folly of pretense and vanity of pride.

David, a stretched out 5’6”, is married to my friend Adrienne, aka Sam, who at 6’2” can probably still dunk a basketball. David tells me he’s just grateful he has a partner who can reach things on the top shelf. 

I met Adrienne before I met David. We were both single and living in Manhattan. The sister of a fellow Marine and law school friend, she was working as a researcher at Life Magazine and I was flying for Pan Am out of JFK. We were both broke but enjoying the free museums and concerts all around town. Then we grew up and took off in different directions. She went to law school, and I transferred to Berlin.

David and Adrienne are about to celebrate their 30thanniversary and proudly share his 5 daughters now scattered around the country. In 1998, David retired as rector of Grace Church, Kirkwood, Missouri but he and Adrienne, a practicing lawyer, spent the next 13 years giving other Episcopal clergy the tools they would need for their own retirement. When I asked about his health, Adrienne told me he was struggling with COPD, but he added with characteristic good humor “I earned it.” I believe him… in the best way. Attitude may not be everything, but it does help smooth the bumps.

When it comes to bumps, my friend Hugh Milburn has been dealing with one that would defeat most of us though you might never know it. His attitude in the face of the obstacle is astonishingly calm.

Last year, while enjoying a well-earned retirement after 40 years as an oceanographer at NOAA, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic version of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This is a guy who was riding his mountain bike on single track, waterskiing, and playing the guitar into his 70’s. We shared these interests and four years ago at his urging I started taking lessons on alternating weeks with him and his guitar teacher. A couple of years later he and his wife, Marilyn, moved to their dream retirement home looking out on Puget Sound near Olympia, and last year after noticing some muscle weakness… they got the diagnosis.

When the Milburn’s two daughters were growing up, Hugh, my wife M, and Tom Bird whom you’ll meet next, had children in the same schools. When they became concerned about how science was being taught in their schools they formed a non-profit called Friends of Science, and dedicated themselves to improving the teaching of science in their local school district.

I didn’t know Hugh until I moved back to Seattle, but in yet another serendipitous small world coincidence, we discovered that my son Brent, a NOAA Corps officer, worked for Hugh as the executive officer on one of NOAA’s ocean-going ships gathering scientific data in the Pacific. Small world indeed. 

When M and I visited Hugh last week he was cheerful and welcoming though confined to a wheelchair now. There wasn’t a trace of self-pity in his manner and his smile is as bright as ever. When I Googled his name, ResearchGate, a social networking site for scientists and researchers, listed 17 publications he either authored or co-authored, most of them from PMEL (Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory) with subjects ranging from tsunami hazard reduction to deep ocean bottom measurements – something my son’s ship was involved with. I’ve always wished we had known each other earlier but definitely glad for what we have now.

Hugh and Marilynn’s partner in Friends of Science was Dr. Thomas Bird. Tom has been a Professor of Neurology and Medical Genetics at the University of Washington for 40 years and a pioneer in the field of Clinical Neurogenetics. He’s the recipient of numerous national awards for his research on hereditary diseases of the nervous system including Alzheimer and Huntington diseases and established the first clinic for adults with neurogenetic diseases in the United States.

Tom and his wife, Ros, share our interest in theater and for the last 10-15 years we have seen play after play in each other’s company. He recently published Can You Help Me: Inside the Turbulent World of Huntington Disease, a narrative account of his encounters with Huntington patients and the bizarre unpredictable, and devastating disease for which there is no cure. M and I were honored to be manuscript readers before the final publication and are always in awe of his ability to manage patient care with empathy for those suffering from this incurable and devastating illness. Tom has ceased his clinical practice, but continues to work on research projects and mentor others at the UW and the VA hospitals.

Ruth Kagi is a relentless crusader for children, a recently retired state legislator, a mother, grandmother, and a warm and generous friend. She began her public life as a policy analyst for the Department of Labor in Washington DC after graduating from Syracuse University with a master’s degree in Public Administration, but her passion and life’s work really began when she retired from the federal government and, working with the League of Women Voters, became an advocate for children. 

With years in the bureaucratic and non-profit trenches and encouragement from her husband, Mark, who died of COPD while she was in office, Ruth ran for the Washington state legislature in 1998. She stayed for 20 years, served on the Appropriations and Environment committees and chaired the Early Learning and Human Services Committee. She has been a forceful voice for children, expanding early learning opportunities, and reforming the child welfare system. In the process she has become a nationally recognized authority in the field. 

In the legislature, Ruth initiated and shepherded the passage of legislation establishing quality standards for child-care and pre-school, protecting foster children, and creating the new Department of Children Youth and Families.

One of the remarkable things about Ruth and one I truly admire is that she is the child of one of Washington’s pioneering lumber families but has devoted her entire adult life to helping the less fortunate, especially children, in difficult circumstances. Today, she continues her work as Early Learning Ambassador for ABC Partners, a collaboration of philanthropies, supported by Connie Ballmer of the Ballmer Group, that dedicates itself to creating early learning opportunities to enable all  children to enter kindergarten ready to succeed, especially those who are disproportionately likely to remain in poverty. Her dogged advocacy isn’t flashy, but it has changed the lives of many children in both Washington state and on an expanding national canvas. 

The outlier in this group of friends is Dave Northfield. He’s the son of my high school friends, Bob and Sue, but Dave and I have a friendship independent of his parents. In the ‘90s we were both living in Salt Lake City where he was the morning anchor on KTVX the local ABC affiliate. During our overlapping four years we skied, played tennis, and went to jazz clubs reinforcing what has become has become a special intergenerational friendship. 

A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, an alma mater we also shared, Dave also has a master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism. As a young reporter, he was on a rocket ride in broadcast journalism – but for a series of bad breaks. 

When KTVX had an evening anchor opening he was told he looked too young for the job and was passed over for a Mormon applicant. Maybe SLC wasn’t a good choice after all. He had come to KTVX from KGET in Bakersfield, a smaller market, where he broke into the field and served his apprenticeship. When he was passed over for the evening anchor job in Salt Lake City, he shopped his resume around and chose KGW, the NBC affiliate in Portland, a still bigger market, where he was hired as a general reporter hoping to advance to an anchor job. 

Malcolm Gladwell makes a point about timing in Outliers: The Story of Success. Timing is everything and Dave’s wasn’t great. After a few years at KGW with no anchor openings, he felt his career was stalling, so with three children in or approaching college he made the difficult choice to leave broadcast journalism. The transition wasn’t easy, but his journalism experience made him a natural in public relations. He recently landed a very good PR job as Director of Communications for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. 

Broadcast journalism lost a star when it failed to recognize how good he was, and that’s not just friendship talking. I watched him work in two markets. On air, he was a charismatic, well-informed, Emmy winning journalist with the kind of interview rapport that made everyone comfortable.

Gladwell is right; timing is everything. Media has changed. Networks are struggling. Cable news is expanding but much of it is opinion rather than journalism. Investigative work is thriving, but the job market is shrinking. Like shopping malls and chain bookstores, print journalism is dying. Dave will succeed in PR but the public would have been better served if he had been allowed to follow his career of choice. 

Sometimes it isn’t COPD, ALS, or even age that interferes with success… it might just be timing, so as the year draws to a close I’m sharing these friends and honoring them for their accomplishments and attitudes – true citizens of the world and examples of the goodness that will hopefully be our salvation.

Happy New Year 2020


  1. Jack,
    You have a unique capacity for friendship, ships that seem to go on sailing forever. More friends in fact than Carter had liver pills. I’m happy to be one of them (not the pills).

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