A Lesson in Caring

Last month, a childhood friend passed away. The announcement of his passing was not totally unexpected, as he had defied those odds for years. For you see, a diving accident when he was a 15 year old star athlete had left him a quadriplegic. He remained wheelchair bound the remaining 45 years of his life. Although we never really knew how long he would be with us, his doctors four decades ago never expected him to reach his 60th birthday. Good for you, Chuck.

And yes, he was a wonderful, contributing member of society, completing computer courses at junior college and being employed by the USDA. Good for you, USDA, for taking a chance on him. He loved his job and served as a wonderful role model for all who knew him. My world was a better place because he was in it.

But this piece is not about Chuck directly. As much as I learned about strength, courage and life from him, I choose to honor him by writing about one of the most important parts of his life – his mother, Dorothy. Hers is the story of hard work, sacrifice, and unconditional love taken to the limit. Dorothy is an amazing woman.

There is no way I could even begin to grasp the level of emotional pain and heartbreak she must have experienced in her life. But what I am certain of is the way she responded. Imagine the learning curve of how to care for an active and invincible teenager, who in the blink of an eye is now virtually immobile from the neck down. Imagine getting up several times, night after night, year after year, to turn him in his bed. Imagine bathing him, shaving his face, and dressing him day after day. Imagine trying to help him learn to feed himself, with only very slight movement in his upper arms. Imagine moving a fully grown man from his bed to his chair, then into the van, then into the classroom while he attended college, and then to the job he loved. Imagine the hundreds of other things which were required of her to make Chuck’s life the best it could be. Actually, as close as I was to her and the family, I simply cannot imagine.

At the time of Chuck’s accident, Dorothy had three younger children to be a good mom to. Raising healthy, self-sufficient children is stressful and exhausting enough. And her home was almost always filled with extended family and friends who had come to visit. Yet somehow, she just figured out a way to hold it all together.

Dorothy always welcomed everyone, and ensured there was plenty of food and drink. That house was like a second home for many of us, who were Chuck’s friends. And like most self-absorbed teenagers at the time, I cannot remember any of us ever washing one sink full of dishes for her, or helping out with the laundry. In hindsight, it would have been a futile request. We were guests. Mothers like Dorothy are like that.

To this day when I am asked about examples of purpose-driven people, or great leaders, Dorothy surfaces to the top. Her actions taught me priceless lessons about unconditional love, and about giving until it really hurts, for the care of someone else. Her kindness and gentle spirit showed me that no matter what terrible things might be happening in life, you can still be warm and gracious. And as someone with every right to feel like a victim to be pitied, she demonstrated every single day, what responsibility looked like. Chuck was like that too. I believe I know where he got it from.

There are life lessons and business lessons ready to be learned from Dorothy and others like her. And one of those is the impact of a deep, deep sense of caring – about someone or something. Because with that caring comes that inexplicable, and unstoppable force called love, which enables people to accomplish some extraordinary things.

In our politically correct world, love is a word you have to use carefully in the workplace. But, if you have ever positively loved a job, or a team of colleagues, you will not shy away from it. In fact, the late General John Stanford, a revered leader in both his military and civilian endeavors, was quoted in the book The Leadership Challenge as saying “the secret to success in life is to stay in love.” There is a wonderful paragraph where is describes this belief in rich detail. If an Army General is comfortable with the word love, then perhaps you should be too.

Without lifting a single barbell in the last 45 years of his life, Chuck was one of the strongest, toughest people I have ever known. However, in my mind, his greatest attribute may have been his acceptance. He accepted who he was, the life he could live, and most importantly, he accepted the endless help of those who loved him. It is not easy for many to accept help, especially in the workplace, where that acceptance is too often seen as a sign of weakness, vulnerability or ineptitude. However, be aware there are likely many people around you at work – colleagues, direct reports, even bosses, who have a genuine desire to help you become better. Hopefully, you will be like Chuck, and accept that help and support for the gifts they are. And if you are like Dorothy, you will be more selfless in your willingness to reach out to others, in order to help them become great.

So thank you, Chuck and Dorothy, for reminding us what can ultimately be accomplished with enough caring and love. Hopefully we will never forget the lessons. And may you continue to feel the love of so many people, inside and outside of your family, whom you both have deeply touched.


  1. Steve-

    Very moving tribute and memory of two wonderful human beings! Dorothy is THE role-model we all look for in our lives. She exemplifies that leadership is an act of love – unconditional love. To not only speak it but to live it is rare. This is reminder to try harder to live into compassion and love others to lead!

    Carrpe Diem!


    • Steve Costs says:

      Dave, well said. In the often antagonistic worlds of business and political leadership, your reminder is frequently forgotten.

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