Remembering George Shultz… “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you”
“Great American” is used too freely in my opinion. My friend George Shultz passed away on Saturday. He was a very great American. Much has been written chronicling his extraordinary professional life and his many contributions to the country. And, the Hoover Institution put together a great tribute celebrating his 100th birthday last December.
I want to share a few stories about George in hope that you’ll better understand the kind, generous, insightful, and funny man behind the legend.
I met George in 2010. I had recently returned to take the helm at Spirit of America, and I set out to build an all-star team of advisors. I didn’t know George personally but I knew of him. He was at the top of my list. I sent him a letter, describing Spirit of America and asking if he would meet. This was a “cold call.”
George met with me. He had seen things from the bottom as a Marine in World War II and from the top as Secretary of State during the Cold War. He was especially appreciative of Spirit of America’s action orientation and our ability to get things done. And, he loved the idea of getting citizens involved. He agreed to join our Advisory Board.
After that he always made time and always helped. He participated in our events and wrote letters to Spirit of America supporters (here and here). He met with our Board and staff. He supported our efforts to gain Congressional recognition and approval of Spirit of America’s partnership with the US military. Keep in mind that he continued helping Spirit of America throughout his nineties when he was at work every day at his office at Stanford. Incredible.
The last time I saw George in person was one year ago, Feb. 12, 2020. He liked the Spirit of America ballcap I brought for him and got a kick out of my taking this selfie.
George was deeply troubled by the divisiveness in America and the loss of confidence in what America stands for among many Americans. We usually talked about Spirit of America’s field work overseas. This time George talked about Spirit of America in America. He said, “You provide ways for people to work together to help with the country with no political content.” He thought this was a key for bringing America back together. He asked me, “You know, we have problems here, too. Have you thought about operating domestically, too?” I said we had thought about it but weren’t sure how to approach it. George said, “Study it.”
We are studying it.
I tried to stop in and see George whenever I was in the San Francisco Bay Area. My favorite story is from six years ago. When I walked into his office I said, “George you look as good as you did the last time I saw you and the time before that. How do you do it?”
George stood up to greet me and said, “Look at a young man like you. You have your whole life ahead of you!”
I was 57 at the time, feeling the various aches and pains of getting older, and unconsciously probably starting to have a more limited vision of my future possibilities and contributions.
George’s perspective was an inspiration that has stayed with me. I love that story and tell it whenever I can. I love its optimism and can do spirit. And, George lived that way. He was working hard on big problems, big issues, and big ideas up until his last moment. When I saw him last year he was working on a new book. He said he wanted to complete it by his 100th birthday so that it could “pop out” of the birthday cake at his party.
Last summer – July 2020 – George invited me to give a talk on Spirit of America to a group of national security experts he organized. At the very end, I shared the “whole life ahead of you” story and how much I loved it.
George said, “Oh, I thought you were going to tell a different story. The one about the three stages of life.” I asked what he meant.
“Well, there are three stages of life. Youth. Middle age. And, ‘you’re looking great!’”
I will remember George Shultz with great fondness, respect, gratitude, and love. The memory of him, and the example of his life, will inspire and make me smile always.
I hope it will for you, too. We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us.