A Remembrance On the Eve of Rosh Hashana   4 comments

Years before I met and then worked for him, I had been told that Len was a genius.

But I have come to learn that Genius is the obverse side of a coin.  What is on the reverse side of that coin is not so readily apparent– at first.  

An enduring image I have of Len is feet up on his desk, cigarette smoldering between his tobacco stained fingers, staring into the space outside his window, no doubt resolving a sticky technical problem.  Tall, yet he never used his height to intimidate.  Gentle eyes, he would sit and listen and then clearly discuss technical matters as if he had been born with the knowledge pre-packaged, pre-loaded in his brain.  He was a mental giant but he did not intimidate with that either.  Len was a Jew and as a Jew he would have appreciated being referred to as a Mensch.  A Yiddish word used to describe a Real Human Being, A Good Person.  Many of us admired him, but we also knew that he could be a bit of a loner.  He lived in his head and reminded me of Mr. Spock.

Yet there was a side of him that said, “Look here, I can have fun too!”.  He purchased a cherry red Mazda Miata.  But it was a queer choice.  As a partner in the firm, he could afford a better car.  He wanted to have fun.  But it was Fun within limits.  Then there were the sheer mechanics of folding his Ichabod-esque frame into the confines of a Miata.  I remember passing him on the highway once and looking over he had cigarette perched in left hand, hunched over the wheel, staring forward, lost in thought at 60 miles per hour.

I was thrilled the day that I was asked to support Len with respect to one of the more high-profile clients in the office– a company with coal mining interests in West Virginia.  The vice president we were dealing with was a short fellow with a major Napoleon complex.  Standing about five feet five inches, he surrounded himself with a team of six-foot tall men that he bullied for sport.  For some reason, he never focused on me– perhaps because I am a mere five feet eight inches on a good day.  Len, on the other hand was just about 6 feet tall.  And theirs was always a tenuous relationship.

During one of the recessions in the early nineties, the a Firm made a decision to lay off the lower performing employees for economic reasons.  These were people who were not superstars.  They were average but they were effective and good at what they did.  However, rather than admitting that the cutbacks were being made for economic reasons,  the leaders of the firm, in their infinite wisdom, decided to base the cutbacks on performance evaluations that were unnecessarily and intentionally negative.  No mention was to be made of the economic motivations for the lay offs.

I rankled at this notion.  My feeling was– that you could give someone a decent and honest evaluation and then tell them that good as they were, they were not at the top of the class and business being business, they had to leave with company’s blessing and some outplacement assistance and a letter of recommendation.  The company’s approach was more draconian– tell them they are sub-par, sub-standard, sub-human chattel and fire them.  Eat what you kill.  Corporate Darwinism. 

As Senior Managers, they charged me and others with drafting and delivering these negative performance evaluations.  I, along with a few others,  bridled at this and refused to write an evaluation that I thought was a lie and unduly cruel. 

Len and another leader in our group, George called me into their offices.  I calmly explained my position– fire them if you must, but don’t kick them when they are down.  I expected them to calmly explain why I should do their bidding (aside from the fact that they were my bosses).  Len’s face filled with rage and he exploded into an emotional tirade directed at yours truly.  I was stunned that this mild-mannered man that I had admired had turned on me with such ferocity that I thought there was a fair chance that he was going to strike me.  I still see his sanguine face contorted by anger, his voice rising, ordering me to write the evaluation. 

Standing over me, he demanded, “So are you going to write the evaluations or not?!”  George, leaning back on his desk in the background, was perhaps more stunned than me, I do not know.  I could not take my eyes off of Len in case he decided to take a swing at me.

I sat motionless.  The next words out of my mouth were going to have an impact on my immediate future.  And perhaps my physical well-being.  Growing up, I was taught never leave a job unless another is lined up.  My daughter was just a year old then.  My wife was making a few bucks doing free-lance journalism.  No real savings to speak of.  And we were in a difficult economy where firms, like ours, were letting people go. 

Why not ask me– “So, do you want to provide for your family or not?!”  The message was that clear. 

I took a deep breath and prepared to respond.  In a soft and even tone I looked Len in the eye: “I will draft the evaluation and put in it whatever YOU want.  But I will not sign it and I will not deliver it to the individuals.”  This was unusual– because as the direct supervisor of the two people in my group who were going to be affected, it would normally have been my responsibility to deliver performance evaluations.  I was disavowing responsibility for these evaluations which I felt were filled with lies. 

I think it fair to say that my career with the Firm ended (at least unofficially) that day. 

There were two individuals in my group who were let go as a result of this action.  I liked them both very much, though I realized they would never be superstars.  

You might say that I woosed out that day.  I guess I did.  Practicality beat out idealism.  The world can be a heartless place.

Shortly after the Tirade, Len approached me and gave me what I felt was a sincere apology for his rant.  While that must have been difficult for him, and while I accepted his apology, I could not forget.  He and I both knew that the damage to our relationship was done and it was permanent.  I could never look at him in the same way again.  Within a few months, I left the firm, on my own terms.  But I do not doubt that they would have pushed me out eventually in any event.  It was that kind of a place and they knew that I was not going to go along with “the program”.

A couple of years after the Rant, I received bad news.  They say that the Coal Napoleon had been disgruntled with Len.  Len was about to lose the account.  At a place, like the Firm, where there was little tolerance for failure, this may have been the catalyst for what happened.

Len was a thinker and a planner.  September 16, 1993 was an important day in his life.  As I mentioned, Len was Jewish and he chose Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) as the day to put a bullet into his brilliant brain.  The choice of day.  The choice of method.  Even the place.  These were not last-minute decisions.  Even in death he was delivering a message.  The symbolism embedded in choosing to attack his own brain continues to resonate.  He destroyed his greatest asset.  The car, he stained the inside of a thing that brought him joy. 

Being a thinker, I am certain that Len was aware that this particular day,  September 16, 1993, is also referred to as “the day of judgement”.  He had thought about it.  He had ensured that his life insurance policy would pay out even if he did himself in.  He had calculated that he was worth more dead than alive– even to his family.  Alone, perhaps with tears in his eyes, but determined to do what he had logically concluded he had to do, he passed judgement on himself and then extinguished his life inside the red Miata.

It has been 19 years and I have long ago forgiven him for the Tirade.  But I have not forgotten his actions– the Tirade, but more importantly, the Kindnesses he showed me and the Life Lessons he left with all of us.  As I approach that anniversary, I pause to reflect on his greatness and am thankful that I experienced his Goodness.  


Posted September 14, 2012 by Sybarite Sauvage in Food-Wine-Love

4 responses to “A Remembrance On the Eve of Rosh Hashana

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  1. SS, there’s so much here I can’t begin to say what I feel, but you seem better than I could have previously believed and I like you better for it. Life is vanity, and all we should leave is better impressions of life: more forgiveness, more love, more beauty, and more truth!

  2. Things happen for a reason, I’m not sure why, but what I do know is that most negative events in my life eventually led to a better place.

  3. I marvel at the way you tell such a tragic story in such a beautiful fashion….

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