SALT LAKE CITY — So that’s that. Another year of column-writing in the books, and I know exactly how I want to bid adieu to 2013.
I’d like to thank all the people I interviewed this year while writing my About Utah column who taught me that the best way to live is to live to help others.
Every time I turned around, it seemed, I was writing about people who left me as humbled as if I’d just been posterized by LeBron James.
It wasn’t by design. There was no grand plan to write about service and people who serve. I like to think I’m as suspect as the next card-carrying cynical reporter about so-called good causes and the agendas behind them.
But what happened, happened. And as I think back on the year, I'm astonished at the inordinate amount of people I met and interviewed that I’d like to be like when I grow up.
People who are providing extraordinary service all on their own. No one called them into a room and asked them to do what they’re doing. No one coerced them. It’s all on their own initiative.
And no one’s paying them a cent.
It started in February when through my friend, golfer Billy Casper, I was introduced to a Salt Lake man named Alan Rudd. As a businessman, Alan made a fortune as an entrepreneur with a knack for turning around companies.
Now he’s doing his best to spend that fortune excavating ruins in Israel he’s convinced testify to the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. Alan’s a Mormon, so that explains part of his enthusiasm. But when you sit down and talk to him you realize that what drives him, and his millions, is the “feeling” he and hundreds of others experience – including his friend Casper — when they travel to Israel and stand on the ground known as Beit Lehi, a feeling that applies to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
A few months after I wrote about Beit Lehi I drove by a business in Sandy with “World Wide Trekking” in bold letters out front and words like “Everest” and “Kilimanjaro” underneath.
Thinking there might be a column there, I walked in and made the acquaintance of the owner, Dean Cardinale, an adventure guide who takes people up mountains, down rivers and all sorts of other places you wouldn’t want to wander into alone.
Cardinale is Paul Newman/Steve McQueen cool, so after you meet him you figure he must have an ego at least the size of K2. But then he asks: If you’re going to write about World Wide Trekking, would you please also write about the nonprofit arm of the company, the Human Outreach Project, whose purpose is to help out in countries where WWK treks — maintaining orphanages, cleaning up blight and so forth.
The project uses this anonymous quote as its mission statement:
“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any goodness I can share or any kindness I can show … to any fellow human being … Let me do it now and not defer nor neglect it … For I shall not pass this way again.”
After Cardinale, I happened to check out a book at my neighborhood library called "Second Suns" about two doctors whose goal is to eradicate cataract blindness through their Himalayan Cataract Project. As I read I discovered that one of those doctors, Geoffrey Tabin, lives in Park City. Luckily, Dr. Tabin was in town and I got to meet and interview him before he was off again to his clinic in Nepal. Tabin could be kicked back exclusively in the Utah mountains, making millions as a world-renowned eye surgeon. Instead he spends large chunks of the year traveling to the Himalayas to operate for free.
I next was introduced, through my friend Steve Hill, to Kevin Flannery, owner of Shamrock Plumbing in Bountiful, one of the state’s largest plumbing companies that Kevin started by himself from scratch over 30 years ago. A self-described workaholic, Flannery didn’t believe in vacations until he was talked into visiting the Mayan jungles in Mexico 13 years ago and he discovered a kind, generous people who could help him — and he could help them.
He started the Mayan Miracle Foundation and ever since has returned to the Yucatan Peninsula multiple times a year, often with employees from his plumbing company, loaded down with clothing, bedding and food for the natives, in exchange for their wisdom and friendship.
Here’s how Flannery sums it up: “We give them clothing, they clothe us in perspective. We give them food, they feed our souls with humility. We give them household supplies, they give us joy in simplicity. We offer our desire to help and they offer us true friendship.”
In October, my editors assigned me to do a story on the Success in Education Foundation founded by Bob and Kathi Garff.
Bob Garff is heir to the Garff automotive dealerships started by his father, so I was suspect that this might be a self-serving charity, until I learned the Garffs willingly parted with a sizeable chunk of their inheritance to personally get a program up and running that every year offers thousands of Utah students prizes — including cars — as incentive to do well in school.
Finally, another friend, Bill Aho, suggested I should interview Gary Kehl, a self-made millionaire who these days is mostly retired. But not to a hammock — to a crusade.
A church calling to work with kids at the Wasatch Youth Center, a detention lockup for juveniles, opened Gary’s eyes to the huge uphill battle teenagers face once they’ve done their time. On his own initiative and own dime, he started Forever Changed, a foundation that, among other things, not only finds jobs for the ex-con teens so they can get back on their feet but also privately funds their pay so the jobs are more readily available.
I asked Gary how many hours he spends each week with the youths he has taken under his wing.
He thought for a minute and answered, “Oh, a lot. It’s a lot.”
Then he added, “But I love it.”
That’s what they all said.
(Here, in order, are the websites for the above: beitlehifoundation.org, wwtrek.com, cureblindness.org, sieutah.org, mayanmiraclefoundation.org. You can reach Gary Kehl at email@example.com).
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org