Alzheimer’s is a chronic neuro-degenerative disease that usually starts slowly and worsens over time. What begins as a loss of short-term memory regresses, like the steady dimming of sunlight at dusk, to problems with language, mood swings, not managing one’s self-care, and to uncommon behavioural issues and disorientation.
Although this deathly march towards societal withdrawal can vary, the typical life expectancy following diagnosis is three to nine years. As of 2016, there were an estimated 564K Canadians living with this debilitating disease, with 25K new cases diagnosed every year.
It’s been ten years since I lost one of my more influential mentors to this cruel affliction. Seldom does a week pass that I’m not reminded, in one way or another, of this most pleasant and gentlemanly man. His name was Earl and he hailed from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Unquestionably, in my mind, he made our world a better place because of his presence, his teaching and leadership.
His Fort Worth, Texas, gravestone speaks of his loving nature as a husband, father, and grandfather. Not unlike the gravestones of other noteworthy leaders, such as former Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson, who is buried on a hilltop in rustic Wakefield, Quebec, you’ll find nothing inscribed which could be construed as ostentatious, or self-promoting, to mark their time among us.
In addition to being an authentic leader, in his day Earl was quite an athlete. He was a great football player. In fact, he was known as the ‘Earthquake’ and was a fullback for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He rushed for over 1,000 yards five times. During his best season, 1961, he led the entire league with a whopping 1,794 yards, which made him known as the first running back in professional football to rush for a mile in one season.
As kids, we’d fantasize away many an crisp autumn afternoon playing football in the local park, pretending to be the ‘Earthquake’ in battle with the mighty Eskimos, or the surging Blue Bombers. In a way, that was our Field of Dreams, as many a fulfilled ambition of an adult can be traced to the activation of a seven-year old’s vivid imagination by their imitation of a hero.
What goes beyond cool is to wake up one day to discover you, as a Director of Marketing, work for one of your childhood heroes. Once the mystic of the moment is supplanted by the daily grit and the grind of front office management in professional sport, your writer’s learning apprenticeship began in earnest.
They say the measure of an authentic leader is directly proportional to their words and actions as displayed during a time of crisis. Well, the downward spiralling of the ‘85 Calgary Stampeders season provided the backdrop for the staging of one of my more poignant life lessons in leadership.
Dire straits had befallen the Stampeders. Consecutive losing seasons, no play-off appearances, dysfunctional ownership, and a dearth of talent across the organization had come home to roost. It was a couple of days before Christmas, and a 3-13 season was in the books. Our crowds had dwindled to a 12-13 thousand average attendance per game. Simply stated, the Stampeders were on the verge of bankruptcy.
In a desperation move a year earlier, Earl had been enticed out of retirement by the Board to become the Club’s General Manager. His job was to turn around the good ship Stamps. Clearly, he’d made progress over the past season, however the eroding red and white brand, its procurement processes and governance wounds were deep, and the corporate bleeding persisted. Any rebuild would take time and plenty of resources; however, the organization was not blessed with either of these luxuries.
It was during such a time when you see a leader either step up and take ownership of the results, or quietly recess and take their leave at the expense of all those who depend upon them. In this case, not unlike his desire for wanting the ball during his playing career, the ‘Earthquake’ ensured everyone understood that he had ‘the ball’ and their backs, and would take it from here.
This was a decisive leader with no regrets, who clearly communicated to all concerned our sad state of affairs and what he intended to do about it. Yes, it was true, there was no money to pay the Club’s payroll at the end of the month, however he had petitioned the League for a loan and was negotiating on a day-to-day basis. One way or another, everyone would be looked after.
Shortly before lunch on December 23, I was summoned to Earl’s office. He handed me $300.00 in cash and told me to go to the local Safeway and buy everyone on staff a Christmas turkey. It was the best he could do in the moment for everyone given our grim circumstances. This was the last $300.00 in the Club’s coffers.
The Canadian Football League, led by Commissioner Doug Mitchell, came through at the end of December – as they did also in January, February and March – with the necessary resources to ensure all Stampeder staff were paid. Bankruptcy and re-structuring proceedings began in early January under the pro-bono leadership of former Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Board Chairperson, Steve Allan.
The entire governance Board was dismissed and replaced by a brand-new group of diverse Calgarians representing corporate, sporting, and media interests. The Save our Stamps season ticket campaign, with the Mayor of Calgary, Ralph Klein, at the forefront, and fueled by unwavering media support, spanned January to March, 1986, and netted over twenty-two thousand season tickets to keep the Club afloat fiscally.
The 1987 Calgary Stampeders finished in third place in the Western Division with a 10-8 record and were defeated in the West Semi-Final by the Edmonton Eskimos.
As for your writer, well, after the passing of my beloved Mother on March 9, 1986, I submitted my resignation, with tears in my eyes, to my General Manager. It was early the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, and something just told me it was time to move on. Later that same day, shortly after supper, our doorbell rang. My wife answered. It was the ‘Earthquake’ delivering her a bouquet of flowers. He said, “I thought today might have been hard on you and the kids, and I thought you may need a small pick-me-up.”
His measure as an authentic leader never once diminished.