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Dick Sabot, 1944-2005

A year ago Thursday, Rachel and I were getting ready to go out for the evening, to our friends’ house. We’d just gotten back from a week in Sicily with my family, and we wrapped a large piece of marzipan to bring as a gift.

I hadn’t seen my friend Dick for several weeks, an uncommonly long interval for the two of us. For ten years, Dick and I had been in the habit of meeting every week or two for breakfast: a muffin and juice for him, a bagel and coffee for me from the store I passed on the way to his farm.

We always had a lot to talk about. First Tripod – where Dick was chairman of the board and we talked through our growth, the sale of the company to Lycos, then Lycos’s abortive merger with USA Networks and then eventually with Terra. Then Geekcorps, where Dick was chairman – my boss, again – and one of the key funders. And Eziba, where I sat on the board that oversaw the foundation sponsored by the handicrafts company.

With me at Harvard and Dick “retired” from the Internet, we had less business to talk about these days, but still lots to say. For ten years, Dick had been my mentor in business, economics, philanthropy… and, well, basically everything else. I’d been slowly but surely getting him to understand why I found blogging so fascinating and why I thought Global Voices was a worthwhile project to put my time into. Dick, in turn, was trying to turn his backyard dairy farm into a profitable organic cheesemaking operation. I didn’t entirely understand this next step, but as always, I figured it would be fascinating.

We arrived at Dick’s house a little after 7, and were greeted not by his booming voice, his wife Jude’s infectious smile, or by one of the endless succession of friendly black labs who always seemed to be asleep on the floor of the kitchen. Instead, a stone-faced young Italian man – a cheesemaker, who was visiting to help with the farm – told us that Dick had taken ill and was in the hospital. Jude was with him.

Years before I met Dick, he’d had a massive heart attack – while recovering from that heart attack, his heart briefly stopped. I knew about these events because – a decade back – Dick had shared pages from his journal about his experience with Rachel, consoling her after the death of her grandfather with his positive and brief experience of the afterlife.

This time, Dick didn’t survive his heart attack. Working out in a gym in Williamstown before our dinner, he had a massive heart attack and died before he made it to the hospital.

A week later, speaking at Dick’s funeral, I told a story about how Dick and I became friends:

When Bo hired me to take on technology for his new company – Tripod – Dick took an immediate dislike to me, wondering whether I was really qualified to take on the challenge. (I wasn’t.)

As we got to know each other, we realized a fundamental personality incompatibility. Dick thought I was a pessimist, failing to see the upside of situations, too conservative to succeed in business.

I thought he was a pathological optimist, incapable of seeing how hard we were working and how difficult success was. And once, I told him so.

He paused, thought for a few moments and replied, “No, I’m a radical optimist.”

We were friends from that point forward.

The day after the funeral, I flew to South Africa. Sitting on the tarmac in Boston, I reprogrammed the the welcome message on my phone to read “radical optimism”. Every time I get off an airplane – which is to say, every second or third day – I turn on the phone and think of Dick. And I tried to write an appropriate elegy for a man who’s had a hand in almost every one of my successes (and some of my most instructive failures) for the past decade.

I couldn’t do it. A year later, I’m not sure I’m any closer to being able to properly honor his memory or celebrate his life.

After Dick’s death, I found myself wondering whether I should try to find another mentor. I could see my mentor’s hand in almost every success I’ve had over the past decade and wondered how to navigate the world without a wise, loving friend to lean on every few weeks for guidance, direction and advice.

It took me a couple of days to realize that this was profoundly ungrateful of me. Most people aren’t lucky enough to have one mentor in their life – it’s absurd to hope to find a second. Realizing this, I’ve done my best this year to mentor others to whatever extent I’m able. I’m bad at it, and I worry that I may be doing more harm than good for at least one person I’m trying to help. But I’m trying. And I hope I’ll get another few decades to try to get it right.

When Dick died, my mailbox filled with sympathies, memories and recollections from people who’d known and loved Dick. A week later, several hundred people gathered under a tent in a pasture on his farm to remember him, sharing stories, and ultimately joining in singing “Jamaica Farewell”, which his family told us was the only song he ever managed to sing off key. One of the most moving recollections came from Gordon, a carpenter who’d worked on his house off and on for the last few years. My friend Margaret turned to me and said, “You know you’ve lived well when your carpenter sings your praises at your funeral.”

Now, a year later, a smaller group of friends are heading to Jude’s house to remember Dick and celebrate his life. The Jewish tradition of Yartzeit – the remembrance of the anniversary of a death – now makes sense to me. A year later, I’m ready to celebrate Dick’s life, something I wasn’t ready to do a year ago.

We’re bringing marzipan again, this time from Turkey, this time studded with pistachios. Once again, Dick won’t get to taste it. But this time, it will commemorate sweet memories of a life well lived.

5 thoughts on “Dick Sabot, 1944-2005”

  1. For a long time I wondered if I was not being selfish when I felt sad about the death of my mentor. As though there was a finiteness to the sadness, and me feeling sad would rob somebody else of their grief.

    It’s been three years and three weeks – and I cherish every minute of the relationship.

    Bless you Ethan.

  2. thanks for sharing that, ethan. i hope today was special for you.

    and btw, you have *no idea* how many people’s lives you inspire, beginning with me. keep on keeping on…

  3. honor his memory or celebrate his life.

    You have, and you are, and you do — in the mentoring and in the writing. You’ve put something of him on paper at least three times; it may be hard to realize close up how much you’ve captured in a few pages. You have, you know. A life as full as his, you could spend as long honoring as he spent living it; why not? Proving the force of radical optimism… it’d be time well spent.

    When I took the tour at the Museum of the American Indian this Spring, the guide said “we believe being born human doesn’t mean you know how to be one.” She set a value on those who had lived long enough to learn it. You had an unusually good and strong and close mentor. Who’s to say that in time, when you need one, you may not find others, maybe in different ways. While we’re talking optimism.

    Thinking of you.

  4. Ethan,

    The same morning that you went to Dick’s house, I was calling him to continue a conversation we had begun the day before. While my relationship with him was much newer than yours, I felt the same great fortune in getting to know him.

    Dick’s joie de vivre – his ‘radical optimism’- was infectious, and it helped me get past some challenging times during the start-up of GlobalGiving.

    The last time I saw him was when we both spoke on a panel in Alaska, where we were helping the government try to launch a version of the Development Marketplace for the native Alaskan community. Dick’s enthusiasm was an extraordinary force in motivating the politicos and community leaders attending the conference.

    After the conference, I immediately got on a plane to head home and work, but Dick said “I’m not coming all this way without doing some fishing,” so off he went for several days to fish. And I thought, I want to be like this guy.

    Last month I went to the Center for Global Development for the first annual Dick Sabot Lecture in honor of the man who was a founding board member and a driving force. Larry Summers gave the keynote. Appropriately, it was more of a celebration than anything else. That’s the way it should be.

    I am sorry that Dick is no longer with us. But his life is a continuing blessing to those of us who were touched by him.

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