Today, a dear friend and I are getting together with our former boss, Gail Angel. I have not seen her in twenty-three years! Gail owned one of the most successful staffing companies in California. Gail also taught me the greatest lesson of my life on the first day I showed up as a new general manager at her firm.
The year 1985 was an absolutely terrifying time in my life. People were dying in droves. None of us knew how AIDS was transmitted. Before it became a world disease, it was a “gay” disease.
By the grace of God, my partner and I were healthy. Both of us were at a community event where the physician who identified HIV, Michael Gottlieb, announced to hundreds of leaders that this new disease killed all of its victims in weeks rather than years. We turned and looked at the audience. Many of the men were gaunt and covered with sores.
The hysteria that terrible illness generated in those early days separated the neediest among us from the rest of the pack. As a result, many people died in isolation from their families and, in some cases, their closest friends.
Economic shunning ran rampant in the business world. Many employers were pressured by their insurance companies to get rid of employees with the dreaded disease. Somehow, I guess they justified the economic opportunity with the morals of the time.
On my first day at Gail’s company, she took me to meet several leaders within the agency. One of those leaders was Vicki Johnson, a gorgeous black woman who ran the downtown office. I had already heard that one of her consultants had just returned from the hospital in a desperate struggle with pneumonia. He was a charming young man named Jonathan.
Vicki proudly introduced me to everyone in her operation. We came to Jonathan’s office. He could barely stand up, but he did, and he warmly shook my hand.
“We are so happy you have join the company,” he beamed.
A moment later, I turned to Vicki and excused myself for a quick visit to the bathroom.
As I was vigorously scrubbing and washing my hands, Johnathan walked in the door.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
I smiled and fled the bathroom.
It hadn’t been but a few minutes when the other two owners joined us in Vicki’s office.
They were there to welcome Johnathan back from the hospital. I watched the four women embrace and kiss the one individual in the building who most needed affection. A few minutes later, I jumped into my car ashamed, sad, and so very moved.
It was a turning point.
Not long after, Jonathan passed away. Those women loved and supported him until the end.
What Am I Going to Tell Gail Today?
When Gail walks in the door, both my friend and I are stunned at how youthful and beautiful she is after 25 years. Today, Gail is in her third career as a celebrated artist with installations in several leading museums and a cadre of fans. But before I can ask any questions, she hugs me and says, “I cannot imagine what it is like to touch so many people’s lives. What is that like for you?”
I tell her that when I open my eyes in the morning, I think of someone whose life has changed and transformed for the better. There are so many today that I prefer to think about them one at a time.
I tell her that finding that unique gift in myself has led to an unexpected and grace-filled life. I tell her that she had also done that for me.
I have never before recounted the impact of that day in 1985, and as I share the memories with her, Gail’s eyes fill up. She remembers Jonathan as if it were yesterday.
Even now, I don’t know if Gail’s behavior with that young man was an act of courage. She always seemed so totally fearless. All that I do know is she did the right thing, and it changed my life.
David Harder is the founder of Inspired Work.