Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Different Kind of CEO!

While listening to the car radio today I heard this refreshing story about a CEO who is not driven by greed but by a generous and caring heart. His name is Hal Taussig and he is founder of Untours, a company that arranges trips to Europe where one can truly experience what it is like to live in a particular setting.

"In a world gone mad with greed, he really believes in the common good," says Bob Fishman, executive director of the nonprofit social service agency Resources for Human Development, who has worked with Taussig on several projects. "He doesn't do it to say 'I'm right and you're wrong,' but rather to show, in his own sweet way, that there's another path. By his example, he gets all of us to think, 'can't I do more?' "
Taussig does not consider himself heroic or saintly. "This is my way of finding meaning," he says. "This is how I get joy out of life. The widening gap between the rich and poor is not sustainable. I fear there will be a violent revolution if we don't find a solution to poverty in the world."

MEDIA, Pa. (AP) — Travel company operator Hal Taussig buys his clothes from thrift shops, resoles his shoes and reads magazines for free at the public library.
The 83-year-old founder of Untours also gives away all of his company’s profits to help the poor — more than $5 million since 1999. He is content to live on Social Security.
Taussig takes a salary of $6,000 a year from his firm, but doesn’t keep it. It goes to a foundation that channels his company’s profits to worthy causes in the form of low-interest loans. (About seven years ago, the IRS forced him to take a paycheck, he said, because they thought he was trying to avoid paying taxes by working for free.)
If he has money left at the end of the month in his personal bank account, he donates it.
At a time of the year when many people are asked to give to the poor, Taussig provides a model for year-round giving.
“I could live a very rich life on very little money. My life is richer than most rich people’s lives,” said Taussig. “I can really do something for humanity.”
His decision to give away his wealth stems from a moment of clarity and freedom he felt when he wrote a $20,000 check — all of his money back in the 1980s — to a former landlord to buy the house they were renting. It didn’t work out, but the exhilaration of not being encumbered by money stuck with him.
“It was kind of an epiphany,” he said. “This is where my destiny is. This is what I was meant to be.”
He and his wife, Norma, live simply, in a country house in suburban Philadelphia that’s nearly a century old, with two bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths. It is neither luxurious nor sparse, but a comfortable home filled with photos and knickknacks with wraparound views of trees and clothes drying on a clothes line. To cut energy use and help the environment, they don’t own a dryer.
Norma Taussig uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke years ago. They have been married for 61 years and have three children, five grandkids and five great-grandchildren.
Taussig said his marriage improved when he and his wife decided in the 1970s to keep separate bank accounts. His wife lives on Social Security and savings from her job as a school district secretary and later as an employee of Untours travel. Her salary never went above $30,000 a year.
Taussig said the house — purchased for $41,000 in 1986 and owned by his wife — is paid for and so is her 12-year-old Toyota Corolla. Taussig has his bike for transportation, which he faithfully rides to and from work every day, three miles round trip.
He calls consumerism a “social evil” and “corrupting to our humanity” because of what he said is the false notion that having more things leads to a richer life.
“Quality of life is not the same as standard of living,” he said. “I couldn’t afford (to buy) a car but I learned it’s more fun and better for your health to ride a bike. I felt I was raising my quality of life while lowering my standard of living.”
Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, met Taussig through a network of social-minded businesses and describes him as “a humble guy — not your typical CEO.”
While big corporations give away more money than Taussig, Cohen said, the donation could be “one-half of 1 percent of profits while Hal gave away $5 million and that’s 100 percent of his profits.”
In 1999, Untours won the $250,000 Newman’s Own/George Award for corporate philanthropy, given by actor Paul Newman and the late John F. Kennedy Jr., publisher of the now-defunct George magazine. The awards event was held in New York City but Taussig balked at paying the city’s high hotel prices. He stayed at a youth hostel while he donated the quarter-million-dollar award to his foundation.
Kennedy’s reaction to his hostel stay? “He stared at me blankly,” Taussig said.
The Untours Foundation loans money to groups or businesses at around the inflation rate. The current loan rate is 3.7 percent. The foundation’s tax filing shows total assets of $1.8 million in 2005, the latest record available, of which $1.6 million went to 38 groups or firms. Hal Taussig is the president, and his wife is the vice president. They don’t get salaries.
“I try to make the poor into capitalists,” Taussig said. “They should be self-sustaining. You give them money and they run out and you have to give more. But if you give them a way to make a living, it’s like teaching them how to fish rather than giving them fish.”
—AP story by Deborah Yao 11/27/07

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vermont Valentine

Mary, John, and I arrived in Waitsfield, Vermont on Friday evening to visit with son, Josh, his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, Noah. We enjoyed a marvelous Valentine's Day that included a trip to Montpelier surrounded by the signs that the mysterious Valentine Bandit had struck yet again. Every year on February 14th the residents of this, the capitol city, wake to find 100's of paper valentines taped to storefronts, light posts, and any available surfaces. It is a sight that brings a warm smile to all in this cold and wintery part of the country,

In the afternoon we attended a Vermont Frostheaves basketball game. The Frostheaves are part of the Continental Basketball League and they play some of their home games in Barre, VT. We shared a Valentine's dinner of fish tacos at Josh and Elizabeth's home surrounded by construction paper red hearts crafted by Noah. Over dinner we all shared things that we love about life. The list included family, laughter, playing games together, traveling, music, and sharing.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Orphan Train

In the early 1850's there were thousands of children wandering the streets and back alleys of New York city. They were penniless, homeless, and hungry. The newspapers referred to them as "street Arabs" because of their wandering ways. In 1853, Charles Loring Brace, a minister, founded The Children's Aid Society. The organization's purpose was to gather up these children and take them by train to the mid-west where it was hoped, they would be taken into homes and treated as family. Over 100,000 children were sent between 1854 and 1930 to rural homes where many were simply seen as a source of cheap labor. Others, however, were taken in by loving and caring couples who raised the children as their own. My wife Mary's grandfather and uncle were two of the fortunate "orphan train" children who found new homes in Eastern Iowa.

Yesterday, Mary and I and our granddaughter, Kaylyn, 16, went to a performance of "Orphan Train" that has been created by composer Doug Katsaros, librettist L.E. McCullough, and lyricist Michael Barry Greer. This poignant piece of musical theatre is being performed by the New York State Theatre Institute under the direction of Patricia Birch. The cast was a fine mixture of young and old with wonderful singing voices. The cast moves on and off a stage through images projected on a screen behind them that depicts trains, farms, and other settings. It all works quite well together, the music, lyrics, set, and costumes but it is the power of the story itself that makes this an unforgettable afternoon at the theatre. Five "orphans" are followed in their journey from boarding the train in New York to being "placed" in their new homes and the consequences of that placement. The play honestly depicts the sorrow and even horror that some of the children experienced as well as those for whom this journey was the beginning of healthy and fruitful lives.

There is a scene, based on fact, when the children disembark from the train in a small mid-western town. They each are presented to a small gathering of town folk and then the children simply stand waiting to see if they will be chosen or left behind. The director allows the silence to build as the intensity and awkwardness of the situation is felt by the audience. It is a powerful moment that allowed me to truly enter into the emotion of the story. The play ends with a stark reminder that thousands of "surplus" and "unwanted" children still exist. A photographic display of some of these children filled the lobby and information was available regarding foster care and adoption.

As I sat in the theatre I thought about how Mary and Kaylyn were experiencing a part of their family history in such a vivid way. And I wondered, were there others in the audience for this production who are related to the original orphan train children?

Friday, February 06, 2009

As you can see by the view out my window, we are still in the icy tight-fisted grip of winter. This morning we were in the single digits once again but we are promised a weekend when temps might reach 40 degrees. It hasn't been much warmer then that in central Florida where we will go in just 14 days.

I have to drive two and a half hours each way for a 90 minute meeting today. It sure doesn't seem very energy and resource effecient. It will give me an opportunity to listen to some Greg Brown, Dean Martin, and Gavin Bryars as I drive on the thruway.

Sarah shared the news that the baby she is expecting in June is a boy. This will be our seventh grandchild and fourth grandson. Each of them is a gift and brings great joy to us. We are so fortunate to be able to be an integral part of their lives.

I am presently reading Odd Hours by Dean Koontz and these words on pages 150-151 have me thinking about "the given world" and "the man-made world".

The given world dazzles with wonder, poetry, and purpose.
The man-made world, on the other hand, is a perverse realm of ego and envy, where power-mad cynics make false idols of themselves and where the meek have no inheritance because they have gladly surrendered it to their idols in return not for lasting glory but for an occasional parade, not for bread but for the promise of bread.
A species that can blind itself to truth, that can plunge so enthusiastically along roads that lead nowhere but to tragedy, is sometimes amusing in its recklessness, as amusing as the great movie comedians like Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and the many others who knew that a foot stuck in a bucket is funny, that a head stuck in a bucket is funnier, and that trying stubbornly to move a grand piano up a set of stairs obviously too steep and narrow to allow success is the hilarious distillation of the human experience.
I laugh with humanity, not at it, because I am as big a fool as anyone, and bigger than most.
I think about all the times in my life that I've done the equivilent of pushing that baby grand up the too narrow stairs and I readily identify with that last sentence. Fool that I am. Click on the authors name above and hear his musings about February, poetry, and other matters.