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Dr. Jane Aronson

Dr. Jane Aronson

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The Death of a Mentor

Posted: 04/11/11 02:13 PM ET

I have looked for mentoring all my life...I have yearned for it and sought it almost desperately. There were fortunately some giants in my life and I am grateful. I write this note at 5 a.m. in the morning on April 9 to honor the philosophy and importance of mentoring for my personal vision in the developing world because I lost a mentor on April 8. I lost my dear friend, Eddie Phillips who was a mogul in the world of business, but more importantly a mentor to many people in his life.

Where to start? I am lost today and can't sleep because I am sad and overwhelmed with this loss. I am a grown-up admitting that the loss of a mentor at any stage of life is a great loss...the learning never ends.

Eddie had a style that was for me just perfect. He was savvy, seductive, silly and smart. He was warm and had fast humor which I frequently missed, but he was very kind when I was stupid. He was a mature and wise man with a unique family history. His immigrant grandparents worked punishingly long hours and gained wealth in their community. Their wealth was immediately turned into world philanthropy and became the Phillips family legacy. I had never met such a man in my life. He came to me through someone in the business world who was indeed eager to do business with him, but never did. This person introduced us in 1999, I think on a lark thinking that Eddie might be interested in Worldwide Orphans Foundation, my very fledgling foundation. I created the foundation in 1997 and sent my first volunteer (Orphan Ranger) to work with orphans in three orphanages in Russia during the summer of 1998. Eddie and I met when I had no credibility and no business plan -- just full of a lot of hooey or what we now call "vision". I was leaving a very long marriage and was starting a new life as a parent.

We really loved one another at first sight. Me, in my Kenzo black suit with a safety pin in the zipper (it broke on the way to meet him) and he, in his blue silk suit and Prada shoes. We met at Shutters in Santa Monica, California after a short introduction and some sassy emails that made us both laugh. We dared one another to meet at Shutters, and in less than 24 hours I was there having breakfast with him. We spent half that day together just talking and laughing. We would have stayed longer if there weren't the usual time constraints for busy people. We both ended up with wet pants as we sat on the deck at Shutters on soaked lounge chair upholstery. And that was the beginning of frequent emails and many, many cell phone calls. We had meetings mostly in New York where we continued to sit for hours at breakfast, lunch, and dinner...walks in the streets of New York talking about everything. We always spent the essential time speaking about our families...Eddie loved that I was about to become a parent for the first time at 47 when I adopted my now 11-year-old son, Benjamin. And he was thrilled when I adopted my now almost 13-year-old son, Des, when he was 6 years of age and Ben was 4. I knew all about Eddie's family as well. And I met them over the years. When his twins had their B'Nai Mitzvah my family traveled to Minneapolis for this very special event and had a wonderful weekend learning about his family and enjoying being part of the community that Eddie had built.

He became ill years ago and successfully managed that illness without much self-pity and died with courage and grace. Even while fighting the very pernicious multiple myeloma, he always had time for my musings and missives on email. He believed that I would do what I said I would do. He never questioned that I would make things happen, but he always asked lots of strategic questions that helped me shape my work. He wrote long critiques of my proposals. I am not sure that I loved some of these notes, because I had to then spend days sometimes, thinking about his queries and coming up with answers. While doing that work, I clarified my thinking and fine-tuned my visions. He essentially gave me challenging homework and I did my homework.

He invested in me as a budding CEO and then in WWO. He donated $50,000 in honor of my adoption of Ben...on a napkin at a restaurant he wrote a pledge. He made additional generous gifts over the years. And then he brought his family to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2008 and saw WWO Academy as it was just opening. I went to Minneapolis and presented a complex proposal and budget for the school and he wrote a detailed critique shortly afterwards and gave WWO a $875,000 grant over five years. He also taught me that with that grant came the responsibility of finding other investors and stakeholders, which I did.

As I look back now, he was teaching me all the time. I remember a time when he seemed to listen more and more and we spoke less of the foundation and more about ourselves and family. The lessons were done....I had done a crash course and he trusted my judgment and would say that to me.

He attended all of the foundation's galas except one because he became ill and had to leave urgently to get medical care in Minnesota. He sat next to me at the head table and his physical presence was powerful for me. He wanted to meet potential donors and speak to them about WWO. He even came to the L.A. events years ago to meet the newest stakeholders and help consolidate WWO's credibility. He had a mission that we create a core group of investors that would grow over time and increase the financial stability of the organization. That mission was realized last week as Eddie was dying, when WWO had its first Leadership Council dinner in New York. Without Eddie, there would be no WWO Academy...I asked him about naming the school after him on several occasions; but this made him uncomfortable. That was Eddie.

I was in touch with his family and a dear friend this week as he said goodbye and made peace and did the very courageous work of dying. That was a parting lesson for me and those who knew him. He died well... He had the benefit of great medical care and when his body could no longer respond to medication, he was smart and let go so that he could die comfortably and gently surrounded by complete safety, love and admiration.

I was not able to sleep much this week, knowing that Eddie was slipping away physically. I was trying to figure out how to handle my sadness and feelings of loss. Keeping in touch by email, text, and phone was very helpful, but finally my back went out and my good sleep failed me...and I succumbed and was fragile. I went to his funeral on Sunday and it was very healing to be there among his devoted family and friends. It will be hard to say goodbye, but it will be sweet to see his children and let them know how much I loved their father...and why. Sharing the memories will be healing on all sides.

 

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